Abraham Clark’s great-grandfather, Richard Clark, emigrated from England to Barbados in 1634, moving to Southampton, Long Island in the 1650s, and later took part in the Indian War. For many years, Richard was a shipbuilder and planter. Later he moved his wife and children to Elizabethtown, New Jersey, where the Clarks became deeply immersed in public service.
Abraham’s father and mother were Thomas Clark and Hannah Winans, whose family immigrated from Holland and were part of the founding of Elizabethtown. From Signers of the Declaration of Independence: Short Biographies, we learn, “Abraham Clark was born into the life of a farmer at what is now Elizabeth, New Jersey. His father saw an aptitude for mathematics and felt that he was too frail for the farm life and so young Abraham was tutored in mathematics and surveying. He continued his own study of the Law while working as a surveyor. He later practiced as an attorney and in this role is said to have been quite popular because of his habit of serving poor farmers in the community in cases dealing with title disputes. In succeeding years he served as the clerk of the Provincial Assembly, High Sheriff of Essex (now divided into Essex and Union) County. Elected to the Provincial Congress in 1775, he then represented New Jersey at the Second Continental Congress in 1776, where he signed the Declaration of Independence. He served in the congress through the Revolutionary War as a member of the committee of Public Safety. He retired and was unable to attend the Federal Constitutional Convention in 1787, however he is said to have been active in community politics until his death in 1794. Clark Township, New Jersey, is named in his honor.”
Abraham and his wife had ten children. The two oldest served with the Revolutionary forces and took part in the Battles of Trenton and Princeton.
From The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, we find, ” Clark was one of only twelve men including Alexander Hamilton, John Dickinson, Edmund Randolph, and James Madison Jr., who attended the Annapolis Convention of 1786 to discuss remedies to the federal government. As early as August 1, 1776 Clark was concerned about the debates underway surrounding the country’s first constitution when he penned the following remarks to Rev. Caldwell:
“. . . 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 the Present danger will ever make us all Agree, and I sometimes even fear that will be insufficient.”
The New Jersey legislature passed “Clark’s Law,” which was “An Act for Regulating and Shortening the Proceeding of the Courts of Law” in 1784. Later, Clark put forth another bill to prevent the Importation of Slaves and “to authorize the Manumission of them under certain Restrictions and to prevent the Abuse of Slaves.” Clark did own three slaves, and they were not freed until after his death. In 1794, Clark supported legislation to suspend all relations with with England until the Treaty of Paris was upheld. The bill passed the House, but was defeated in the Senate by a tie-break cast by John Adams. (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)
“According to Fradin “Abraham Clark may have been the signer who was closest to being a typical citizen.” As seen above he hated pretense and elitism and never wore a wig or the ruffles of high social standing. Clark was very popular among the poor in New Jersey. Contemporaries commented that Clark was ‘limited in his circumstances, moderate in his desires, and unambitious of wealth’ and ‘very temperate’ as noted by Hatfield. According to historian, Edward C. Quinn, Clark ‘. . . regarded honesty, thrift, and independence as cardinal public virtues.’ He loved to study and imbued a generous character. Clark was particularly admired for his punctuality, integrity and perseverance.
“Clark described himself as a Whig, and demonstrated throughout his life and in public service to be a champion of the people’s liberties. Bogin stated ‘One difference between Clark and many other Whigs [was he understood] . . . tyranny might arise from the new American centers of power as well as from the British . . . . Clark ‘did not believe men in public office should use their positions to confer favors on members of their personal families’ according to Quinn. When his two sons were prisoners of war on the Jersey he refused to reveal the issue to Congressional delegates. Only when members found out about the treatment of Thomas Clark in the Jersey dungeon did intervention occur. When Congress threatened retaliatory measures on a British officer Clark’s son was released from the dungeon, but neither son escaped the Jersey until the general exchange of prisoners. The British offered to release Clark’s sons if he defected to the Tory side, but he refused.” (The Society of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence)