A farmer, surveyor, self-taught lawyer and politician; Abraham Clark was born on February 15, 1726 in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. A delegate to the Continental Congress, Clark’s personal convictions typifies those who dedicated most of their lives to serving the public while never gaining national renown. They also expressed their love for the United States of America by putting quill to parchment to sign their names to the Declaration of Independence.
While Abraham was a child, his father, Thomas, knew his only child’s physique was on the slight side and unable to handle the strenuous efforts required of a farmer in his day. He was also attuned to the fact his son possessed a natural ability for math. To help his son make the most of his special ability, Thomas hired a tutor to lend a hand in educating Abraham in the skill of surveying.
After mastering the skill and working as a surveyor, Clark began to educate himself in the legal field and later opened a law practice. Popular among his friends and neighbors, Clark became known as “the poor man’s councilor” because of his willingness to defend those who were unable to afford a lawyer.
In 1748, Clark married Sarah Hatfield, then entered politics a short time later. Beginning as a Provincial Assembly clerk, he moved on to become High Sheriff of Essex County. In 1775, he was elected to the Provincial Congress and a member of the Committee of Public Safety.
At the dawn of 1776, New Jersey’s delegation to the Continental Congress stood in opposition to the idea of the colonies being independent from Great Britain. Abraham Clark vocally opposed this and stated he felt the colonies should be free. The issue became a hot button at the state convention. Eventually the convention chose to replace those delegates who wanted New Jersey to remain a British colony with delegates who stood in favor of independence.
On June 21, 1776, Clark joined Francis Hopkinson, John Hart, John Witherspoon and Richard Stockton as the new delegates on their way to the Continental Congress. They arrived in Philadelphia on June 28, 1776. In early July, Clark joined the other 55 delegates as he signed his name to the Declaration of Independence. He did so with a firm determination to face whatever consequences arose by his noble action, fortitude and decision which was the hallmark of a free born citizen of America.
Counted among the officers serving in the Continental Army were two of Clark’s sons. He chose to keep this information to himself, even after both sons were captured by the British, then beaten and tortured. It was only after one of his sons, an artillery captain, was incarcerated on a British prison ship that Clark spoke up. The crew of the Jersey was known for being notoriously brutal to the prisoners it held. In Captain Clark’s case, he was thrown into a dungeon and the only food he received was what could be shoved through a keyhole by fellow inmates.
When Congress learned of Captain Clark’s conditions, the appalled members made their case known to the British by retaliating. Showing the same disrespect to a British officer who the American patriots captured, word soon reached British ears and Captain Clark’s conditions rapidly improved.
Abraham Clark’s service in the Continental Congress continued into 1778. That year, he was elected to the New Jersey Legislative Council as a representative from Essex County, with two future return elections: 1780-1783 and 1786-1788. Clark later retired prior to the state’s Constitutional Convention in 1794.
In 1787, Clark was elected to the body of members to attend the general convention which framed the Constitution. The original text of the document made Clark uncomfortable and created serious objections for him. These were removed, however, once the subsequent amendments (Bill of Rights) were added. Enemies of Clark’s used his objections to derail a large portion of his popularity and force him into the minority during New Jersey’s elections. His popularity was later restored and he was sent to the second congress where he held the appointment until just prior to his death.
In June 1794, Congress adjourned and Clark retired from public office. Unfortunately, his opportunity to enjoy the fruit of his labors in retirement was very short-lived. Abraham Clark suffered sunstroke and died a few hours later on September 15, 1794 at the age of 69. He is buried at the Rahway Cemetery in Rahway, New Jersey. The inscription on his tombstone reads:
Firm and decided as a patriot, zealous and faithful as a friend to the public, he loved his country, and adhered to her cause in the darkest hours of her struggles against oppression.
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