Did you know… Abraham Clark?

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Continuing series on the Signers of the Declaration of Independence

Abraham Clark

Abraham Clark ( February 15, 1726 – September 15, 1794 ) was born to a farming family in Elizabethtown, New Jersey. His forbears on the maternal side came from Holland, and were founders of Elizabethtown. On the paternal side, he came from English stock through Barbados. He received only a rudimentary education but loved to read. He had a facility for retaining facts and doing mathematics. As he grew older, he helped out other farmers free of charge in land disputes and other legal difficulties. Though never admitted to the bar, he acquired a reputation for incisive comments and legal knowledge concerning property. He apprenticed with a surveyor and lacking the physical constitution for farming, this became his principle source of income. Oddly for the times, he was an only child of Thomas Clark, who was also the local magistrate, and Hannah Winans Clark.

Abraham attracted the respect and admiration of the community, by his punctuality, his integrity, and perseverance. Ever a champion of the underdog, he worked tirelessly for others, often without any gain for himself. A nearby farming family, the Hatfields, had a daughter two years Abraham’s junior. Abraham and Sarah became friendly through the church, and married in 1749, going on to have ten children. It is said that Sarah was an intrepid and resourceful woman whose industry allowed her husband the opportunity for decades of public service.

Abraham became sheriff of Essex County, and in 1775, a member of the provincial congress.

Abraham was vocal in the community about his opposition to British tariffs and high handed authority. When New Jersey decided to replace their delegates to the Continental Congress with those minded toward independence, Abraham’s name came forward. He arrived in Philadelphia with John Hart, Francis Hopkinson, Richard Stockton, and John Witherspoon only a few days before the fateful vote for independence, and cast his vote with the new nation, signing on August 2. He served in the Continental Congress throughout the War, disregarding his own safety and the proximity of British soldiers.

Woodcut of prisoners on the New Jersey (Library of Congress)

Two of Abraham’s sons, fighting in the Continental Army, were taken prisoner. Though his sons were beaten and tortured, he never mentioned their condition in Congress, until finally they were transferred to the notorious prison ship New Jersey, where mortality rates were very high. His son was barely surviving after the beatings and living on food that could fit through a keyhole. His fellow congressmen petitioned the British command, and his sons’ circumstances were moderated somewhat. They survived the war.

In 1783 the conclusion of the war, Abraham returned home to his farm and family. The following year he accepted a three-year term in the New Jersey state assembly, but his health began to decline, such that when the Constitutional Convention took place, he was unable to attend. He sent word of his opposition to the Constitution unless James Madison’s Bill of Rights was included.

In 1794, Abraham Clark retired from public life. After a long day of work on the farm, he suffered sunstroke on September 15, and died within a few hours, at the age of 68, and was buried there in the Presbyterian Cemetery.

Abraham Clark Quotes

 Our Congress Resolved to Declare the United Colonies Free and Independent States. A Declaration for this purpose, I expect, will this day pass Congress, it is nearly gone through, after which it will be Proclaimed with all the State & Solemnity Circumstances will admit. 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.

Letter to Elias Dayton, the Colonel of a battalion of Jersey troops

Our Declaration of Independence I dare say you have seen. A few weeks will probably determine our fate. Perfect freedom, or Absolute Slavery. To some of us freedom or a halter. Our fates are in the hands of An Almighty God, to whom I can with pleasure confide my own; he can save us, or destroy us; his Councils are fixed and cannot be disappointed, and all his designs will be Accomplished.

Letter dated July 14, 1776