1726 – 1794
Signer of the Declaration of Independence
I was born in Elizabethtown in 1726, into a farm family, but was unable to do heavy labor. I took up surveying, learned about the principles of law, and offered free advice to friends and neighbors who called me “the poor man’s counsellor.” In 1748, I wed Sarah Hatfield and started a family that eventually included ten children. I was among the first to openly argue that Parliament was reducing our rights and liberties as British citizens. In all my revolutionary activities I acted as a champion of the people’s liberty. In June 1776, I was appointed a delegate to the Continental Congress with the authority to vote for independence and join a confederation of states if I believed New Jersey could still control its internal affairs. While in Congress, two of my sons were captured and imprisoned on the Jersey, the enemy’s deadliest prison ship at New York. The British offered to release them if I recanted my stand for independence, but I refused. When a new Constitution was written in 1787 I had serious reservations about it and fought for the addition of a Bill of Rights. In 1794, I died of sunstroke while watching a bridge being built on my farm.
Learn More About Abraham Clark
I was born in Elizabethtown on February 15, 1726, into a farm family, but as I grew, physical limitations prevented me from doing the heavy labor involved. I did enjoy math and the law and my father encouraged me to pursue them. He was a man of good sense and respectability and instilled strong moral principles in me. After receiving a good basic education, I took up surveying. My surveying jobs often involved settling disputes. I learned what I could about the principles of law and offered free advice to friends and neighbors. They called me “the poor man’s counsellor,” known for correctly understanding legal principles and impartial law, and I was often chosen to help resolve disputes and keep the peace. I served as the clerk for the colonial New Jersey Assembly and as High Sheriff for Essex County, earning great respect in both offices. In 1748, I wed Sarah Hatfield and started a family that eventually included ten children.
I was among the first to openly argue in the 1760s and early 1770s that Parliament was reducing our rights and liberties as British citizens. My arguments were based on my concerns for peace and fairness. I participated in colonial meetings to coolly and firmly oppose the actions of Parliament and encourage sound and reasonable actions. In 1775, I became a member of the Committee of Safety and the Provincial Congress. These were not part of the legal government and I worked to insure they operated by clearly defined and limited procedures. In all my revolutionary activities I acted as a champion of the people’s liberty. Although I came to support independence, it was with the knowledge that tyranny might still develop in a new government and said liberty must not be sacrificed to military necessity. In June 1776, because New Jersey’s delegates to the Continental Congress opposed independence, I along with four other men were appointed to replace them with the authority to vote for independence and join a confederation of states if we believed it would be done in a way to maintain New Jersey’s control of its internal affairs. Excited about the forthcoming declaration, on July 4, 1776 I wrote my friend, Col. Elias Drayton, that I expected the Declaration of Independence would be passed that day and that “it is gone so far that we must now be a free independent State, or a Conquered Country.” When we signed the Declaration on August 2, I put my name at the bottom of the fifth column. This put my home and family in great danger, since the British were landing a large army on Staten Island just across the Arthur Kill from my home in Elizabethtown.
I continued to serve in the Continental Congress for seven years, except for 1779 when I served on the New Jersey Legislative Council. While in Congress, two of my sons were captured and imprisoned on the Jersey, the enemy’s deadliest prison ship at New York, where they were subjected to extreme brutality because their father had signed the Declaration of Independence. My son, Thomas, an artillery captain, was put into solitary confinement and starved. I did not mention their plight to Congress, as I felt no official should use his authority to benefit his family. The British offered to release them if I recanted my stand for independence, but I refused, and my sons were not exchanged until the war’s end, causing me to suffer permanent mental distress.
After the war for independence, I served in the New Jersey General Assembly from 1783 to 1788. A law I supported in 1784 to regulate and reduce the cost of court procedures became known as “Clark’s Law.” I did not approve of the conduct of many lawyers and believed that if this law succeeded, “it will tear off the ruffles from the lawyers’ wrists.” I was a firm supporter of the need for a national Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation and was appointed to attend the convention to revise them in 1787. However, I did not attend. When the new Constitution was made public I had serious reservations about it, but still believed it was much better than the Articles of Confederation. I fought for the addition of a Bill of Rights to relieve some of my fears about the power of the central government. After serving for a year as a commissioner to settle the accounts of New Jersey with the national government, I was again elected to Congress and served until my death. Early in 1794, I proposed that the United States suspend all activities with England until she carried out all the agreements of the Treaty of Paris that had ended the Revolution. This was defeated in the Senate, although it passed in the House. I was 69 years old and died that year of sunstroke while watching a bridge being built on my farm.
Barthelmas, Della Gray. The Signers of the Declaration of Independence: A Biographical and Genealogical Reference. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co., 1997.
Bogin, Ruth. Abraham Clark and the Quest for Equality in the Revolutionary Era, 1774-1794. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.
Fehrenbach, T.R. Greatness to Spare: The Heroic Sacrifices of the Men who Signed the Declaration of Independence. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand, 1968.
Judson, L. Carroll. A Biography of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence and of Washington and Patrick Henry. Philadelphia: J. Dobson, and Thomas Cowperthwait & Co., 1839. Page 61-63
Whitney, David C. Founders of Freedom in America: Lives of the Men who signed the Declaration of Independence and so helped to establish the United States of America. Chicago: J.G. Ferguson, 1964.