On January 15th, 1778, in the midst of an ongoing and tiring war between the American colonists and the British monarchy, Abraham Clark wrote the following:
It is said many good officers are weary of the Service and wish to Resign unless they are placed upon a permanent establishment. That they Are weary & wish for ease I don’t wonder, but…The service in every part is Severe. The Militia in some parts are half their Time out, the Legislatures spend much of their Time & Substance; Congress Set day & Night taking little Rest. Must we all therefore Resign? This is no Time to talk of Ease & retirement, let us first establish our Liberties, our desires of ease will then be Obtained.
Clark knew what he was talking about. He never entered the army or fired a gun at the British army, but nevertheless he upheld liberty before comfort, health, and ease. Fighting for liberty on all scales, he truly deserves to be called a “Founding Father”.
Few people have heard of Abraham Clark, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a great foundation-layer in the cause of freedom. Clark was born on February 15th, 1726, in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. As he was very talented in mathematics at a young age, he used his skill as a surveyor to pay for an education in law. In 1748, when he was twenty-two years old, he met and married Sarah Hatfield, and they had ten children together. He served several times in the Continental Congress as a representative of New Jersey, as well as spending service in his state legislature.
Many of Abraham Clark’s letters surviving today were written to Elias Dayton and James Caldwell. Caldwell was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethtown, and during the Revolutionary War (until his death at the hands of the British), he served as chaplain to the Third New Jersey Battalion, which was commanded by Col. Elias Dayton. Clark and Dayton had both been members of Caldwell’s congregation, and the three were good friends. Abraham Clark had poor health his whole life, so he was unable to fight in the war for independence the way his friends did, but he did much by ‘fighting’ in political and public affairs at home. The letters he sent to Dayton and Caldwell give a glimpse of what life was like as a delegate during the war.
As a delegate for New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress, Clark was an advocate for the Declaration of Independence. This could have been a difficult decision, as the attempted invasion of the Americans into Canada had recently failed, and the delegates had absolutely no way of knowing how the war would turn out. On July 4th, 1776, the day the Declaration went out to the public, Clark wrote to his friend Col. Elias Dayton about this new Declaration of Independence, affirming his belief in Divine Providence no matter what happened.
…Our Congress Resolved to Declare the United Colonies Free and independent States…It is gone so far that we must now be a free independent State, or a Conquered Country… This seems now to be a trying season, but that indulgent Father who hath hitherto Preserved us will I trust Appear for our help, and prevent our being Crushed; if otherwise his Will be done…
I am among a Consistory of Kings as our Enemy says. I assure you Sir, Our Congress is An August Assembly, and can they support the Declaration now on the Anvil, they will be the greatest Assembly on Earth…We are now Sir embarked on a most Tempestuous Sea, Life very uncertain, Seeming dangers Scattered thick Around us, Plots Against the Military, and it is Whispered, Against the Senate. Let us prepare for the Worst. We can Die here but once. May all our Business, all our purposes and pursuits tend to fit us for that important event.
About a month later, on August 6th 1776 – four days after actually signing the Declaration on August 2nd – Clark wrote again to Dayton, again expressing the uncertainty of his position, but holding his firm belief that he was doing the right thing:
As to my title [as a signer of the Declaration], I know not yet whether it will be honourable or dishonourable: the issue of the war must settle it. Perhaps our Congress will be exalted on a high gallows. We were truly brought to the case of the three lepers: If we continued in the state we were in, it was evident we must perish; if we declared Independence, we might be saved,—we could but perish. I assure you, sir, I see—I feel, the danger we are in. I am far from exulting in our imaginary happiness; nothing short of the almighty power of God can save us. It is not in our numbers, our union, our valour, I dare trust. I think an interposing Providence hath been evident in all the events that necessarily led us to what we are—I mean independent States ; but for what purpose, whether to make us a great empire, or to make our ruin more complete, the issue only can determine.
Upholding liberty came with sacrifice. During the Revolutionary War, two of Clark’s sons were taken prisoner by the British and held on the prison ship HMS Jersey, which was infamous for its terrible conditions and inhumane treatment of prisoners. Up to more than a thousand men at a time were forced below deck on a ship meant to carry only four hundred sailors. They had no light or fresh air, and their rations were very small. At one point Thomas Clark, the younger of Clark’s two sons taken prisoner, was confined in a small dungeon on board the ship, the only food he received being pushed through the keyhole of the cell by the other prisoners.
The story goes that the British offered to release Abraham Clark’s two sons from prison if he would renounce his signature on the Declaration of Independence, which he refused to do. However, there are no facts for this story, and while it may very well have happened, it might just be legend.
What is fact, though, is how Clark refused to use his position as a public official to specially help his sons. A champion of the people’s liberties, he mentioned nothing of his private affairs to Congress, and it was only when other members found out about the treatment of Clark’s son that Congress threatened the British with retaliatory measures and Thomas was released from his cell. He and his brother remained on the prison ship, however, until the general exchange of prisoners, and Thomas Clark died young because of the long-term damage to his health.
Abraham Clark did not only sign the Declaration of Independence; he was a delegate to Congress when the Articles of Confederation were being written and as they were being put into place as the form of government. As the Articles were being written, he expressed his concerns about the form of government in a letter to James Caldwell in August of 1776:
Our Congress have now under Consideration a Confederation of the States. Two Articles give great trouble, the one for fixing the Quotas of the States towards the Public expence-and the other whether Each state shall have a Single Vote or in proportion to the Sums they raise or the num[be]r of Inhabitants they contain. I assure you the difficulties attending these Points at Times appear very Alarming. Nothing but Present danger will ever make us all Agree, and I sometimes even fear that will be insufficient.
As time progressed, Clark saw more weaknesses that arose from the Confederation, and seemed to see the need for a stronger central government. He could see that the states had too much power to disrupt the course of how the government should ideally flow, and that something needed to change:
Congress is now Represented by only Nine states, the jealousies that will arise on an Application for a grant will influence most of the states to Oppose it on every political principle-seven States are Necessary to concur in every question of the smallest moment-in all wherein there is any Appropriation Nine states must concur; What chance have we then in the present Case?-none that I can see but the loss of what we have an indubitable Right to, and which we have in our power to hold the peaceble possession of.
It is evident that Clark felt that the Articles of Confederation were too weak, but he had some concerns about the new Constitution also, specifically worried that there was no Bill of Rights. In spite of this, he felt like it was the best option at the time. In a letter to the public in 1789, he defended himself against his political enemies who called him an antifederalist (to prevent him from being elected to the new federal Congress), writing the following:
One of their insinuations is that I am antifoederal, and an enemy to the new government… That I used every means in my power in the different stations I filled, to obtain an efficient government, is well known and cannot be denied. When the plan of the new government appeared, I found it not such as I had wished and expected; I perceived, as I supposed, some parts of it bearing too hard upon the liberties of the people, and giving some unnecessary powers to those who were to administer it…Notwithstanding my dislike to some parts, considering the situation the United States was in, and the provision made in the Constitution for amendments, I cheerfully gave my assistance to send it to the states for their consideration…notwithstanding its imperfections; presuming at the same time, that the new Congress would endeavor to amend it as soon as other important business for putting the government into operation would admit.
It’s impressive that Clark knew that tyranny could arise from the new American government just as it had from the British. Despite his poor health, he was constantly looking out for ways tyranny could possibly sneak in. He saw the patterns of the past and tried to prevent them in the future. In 1794 he retired from public service and passed away that September from a sunstroke. Upholding the cause of liberty, he had devoted his life to doing the things he believed to be right. The following words are inscribed on his tombstone:
Firm and determined 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
Perhaps in his darkest hour, Abraham Clark would ask the question again: “Must we therefore all Resign?” He, at least — did not.
- Gawalt, Gerard W., et al. Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789. Edited by Paul Hubert Smith and Gerard W. Gawalt, vol. 8, Library of Congress, 1976. American Memory, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg008518)). Accessed 9 December 2021.
- Clark, Abraham. “Abraham Clark to Elias Dayton, July 4th 1776.” New Jersey State Library, https://www.njstatelib.org/wp-content/uploads/slic_files/imported/NJ_Information/Digital_Collections/NJInTheAmericanRevolution1763-1783/7.7.pdf. Accessed 9 December 2021.
- Clark, Abraham, and Peter Force. “Correspondence, Proceedings, etc., August 1776.” American Archives, Fifth Series, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/590be125ff7c502a07752a5b/t/5ded90a49778c378d7d3a3df/1575850150074/Clark%2C+Abraham%2C+August+6%2C+1776+Letter+to+Elias+Dayton.pdf.
- “Abraham Clark to John Mehelm.” Smith, Paul Hubert. Letters of Delegates to Congress, March 1, 1781 – August 31, 1781. vol. 18, Library of Congress, 1976, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg018263)). Accessed 9 December 2021.
“Abraham Clark to the Public.” Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789: March 1, 1788-July 25, 1789 With Supplement, 1774-87 (Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789), by Paul Hubert Smith and Ronald M. Gephart, edited by Gerard W. Gawalt and Paul Hubert Smith, Library of Congress, 1998, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/hlaw:@field(DOCID+@lit(dg025356)).