A Founder for the Common Man
If you’ve ever spoken with someone who lives in New Jersey, you may know that many of us introduce ourselves by explaining what exit we’re from off the New Jersey Turnpike or the Garden State Parkway.
It’s a way to identify ourselves and our connection to the state. It’s also a source of humor, especially to those who do NOT reside in New Jersey.
If you happen to be traveling thru New Jersey on the Garden State Parkway and find yourself at Exit 135 – Clark/Westfield, then you are at a place rich in our nation’s history and a crossroads of the American revolution formerly known as the 5th Ward of Rahway.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that in 1864 – amid the Civil War – 357 5th Ward residents declared independence from Rahway and established the town – Clark, New Jersey, named after Abraham Clark, delegate to the Second Continental Congress, one of the 56 men to have signed America’s Declaration of Independence, and my ancestor.
My father’s family – the Brubakers of Somerset County in Pennsylvania, are Clark relations. Before writing this essay, I took some time to journey into his past and found it a rewarding experience. Abraham was a person dedicated to fairness and service and was esteemed by the members of his community. Learning about him enriched me and inspired me to find ways to honor the life of this brave, just, and extraordinary, common man and patriot.
Taking time to reread the Declaration of Independence every once in a while, is time well spent. Many of us lead busy lives and haven’t thought about it or what it means or the dangers the men who signed it were inviting since we were in school. Looking at it again, with the school years so far behind me, was a new and meaningful experience I can highly recommend.
In these unsettling times, this piece of history and its vision for America we all share is the common thread that ties us together as one people and one nation. There is a beautiful quote in Barb Baltrinic’s book: A Founder for All: Abraham Clark, Signer of the Declaration of Independence: “Those who do not know the history of their land will certainly display a lack of commitment in protecting it when time demands.”
Knowing that Abraham Clark and the other signers were not presidents, royalty or celebrities, makes them relatable. These were common citizens who made the decision to protect their land at unimaginable risk when the time demanded. Their legacy is now ours to protect and to do that, we need to know, as a people, from where we came.
Having some relation, even if distant or as a collateral descendant has always been a personal source of pride. It has added some dimension to my family’s lineage.
Taking this journey was a reminder that the study of history is a study of common people who did extraordinary things. The dates are incidental. When we take the time to learn about these Founders, we see that it was many small heroic decisions and acts over a lifetime. One cannot help but be inspired to do one’s best in small ways over the course of a lifetime and to strive to be there if called upon – when times demand.
They say human nature doesn’t change. When you examine the events leading up to the American Revolution, it is not hard to see how a dedicated servant of the Crown, like Abraham Clark, would be compelled to risk all in the name of fairness. His story and his part in the revolution relate strongly to things we speak of in conversation today, about themes that are still relevant to life in this country. The signers were extraordinary people, carrying along with them on their journey to sign the Declaration, a family, a community, a legacy, and a life each put at risk, completely. Captured by the British during the war, as happened to at least one other New Jersey signer, was an unenviable event.
A Journey in Lineage and Profession
Abraham Clark was born on February 15, 1726, and lived in Elizabethtown New Jersey, now “Elizabeth,” located approximately 7 miles from what is now Clark, situated across the river from Staten Island.
He was the only child of Thomas Clark and Hannah Winans, but his ties to New Jersey extend back at least two generations. His paternal grandfather, Richard Clark, emigrated in 1643 from England via Barbados then to Long Island. Richard fought in the Indian Wars and worked as a shipbuilder and planter. It is estimated that he and his wife moved the family to Elizabethtown in 1675 where the family became well established and was known for their service to the community.
Abraham’s mother, Hannah Winans, was also from deeply grounded New Jersey colonial stock. Her parents and great grandparents were among Elizabethtown’s founding families, present at the creation in 1664.
Today, over one hundred and fifty Winans family members are buried in the cemetery adjacent to the First Presbyterian Church, still in operation today. This is the same church where the Clark and the Winans families worshiped during the Revolutionary War period. It is also a site of critical points during the revolution that, no doubt, influenced Abraham Clark’s resolve and dedication to the cause that led him to become one of the signers.
History records that Abraham was too frail for farming, but excelled in math and studies. As the only son of a farming family, we can assume much was expected of Abraham as a helper on the farm. With college being expensive, even in those times, it is noteworthy that Abraham’s father supported his natural abilities and hired a tutor to teach him math and surveying rather than expecting him to take up the business of the family farm. This would set Abraham up well for a respected and much-needed profession, and one to which he was well suited.
The Poor Man’s Lawyer
Always a studious person, Abraham later fervently studied law and cases that were naturally related to his work, surveying land, even though he had little formal education.
It was assumed by many that he was never admitted to the New Jersey bar but, through his work as a surveyor, he was naturally involved in legal matters like the preparation of deeds, mortgages, and the drafting of legal papers. In these ways, he became a respected and trusted legal counselor in the community – a role that placed him at the very heart of the highly critical civil disputes developing in his community and across the colonies.
Through his work, Abraham had the opportunity to witness firsthand the misuse of authority and abuse of the poor at the hands of the privileged. He was deeply troubled by how poor people were cheated out of their land because of their inability to read or understand deeds and, by their lack of representation. Clark began to represent his poorer neighbors free of charge, leading his friends and neighbors to call him the “Poor Man’s Counselor” after he began to refuse to accept payment for legal advice.
At the age of 22, Abraham Clark married Sarah Hatfield (or Hetfield). The Hetfield’s were considered a well-to-do and respectable family of Essex County, New Jersey. Together, they had ten children, two of whom (Thomas and Aaron) served as First Lieutenants and Captains during the revolution, both of whom, history tells us, were captured and singled out for torture because their father had signed the Declaration. At one point, the British offered to release them both if Abraham agreed to renounce the document but, nobly, he refused.
It was reported that Sarah was a resourceful, energetic woman with a large family within Elizabeth. As civil tensions began to mount, Clark’s oldest sons were in their teens and able to work the farm. Additionally, Sarah had many family members around her. This strong family support enabled her to manage the home front and remain supportive of Abraham’s involvement in Public Service, a role that kept him away for long periods and largely unpaid.
Always the Quest for Fairness
Through his profession and commitment to community, Abraham was placed in a position to observe and become a part of the budding conflicts that were beginning to take shape as the inevitability of a Revolution began to loom.
Abraham’s role as a public servant began in support of the Crown and he served as a clerk of the New Jersey Colonial Legislature. As British control over the trade and finances of the Colonies intensified, Abraham was called upon to act as High Sheriff of Essex County.
No doubt the proximity of tensions created by British Control were driving forces behind his decisions, at the time, again to pursue fairness, even if that meant risking all and joining forces to work toward independence.
According to various sources, he remained in the Continental Congress through 1778 when his election to the New Jersey Legislative Council brought him home. As one of the state’s three representatives at the aborted Annapolis Convention of 1786 – an early attempt to repair the Articles of Confederation – James Madison recalled Clark as having been the delegate who formally motioned for the Constitutional Convention because New Jersey’s instructions allowed for consideration of non-commercial matters.
More than many of his contemporaries, Clark is regarded by scholars of the period as a man who was a friend to farmers and mechanics because they produced things. In his eyes, this made them virtuous when compared to those in more learned professions like the law, finance, and medicine. He actively encouraged the involvement of his fellow citizens in the affairs of government and was an enthusiastic advocate of the petition to recommend a needed change to elected officials.
Abraham Clark retired from public life in 1794, just before New Jersey’s Constitutional Convention, and died later that year at his home from sunstroke.
Under the pen name, A Fellow Citizen, he wrote several books or pamphlets including: The True Policy of New-Jersey, Defined; or, Our Great Strength led to Exertion, in the Improvement of Agriculture and Manufactures, by Altering the Mode of Taxation, and by the Emission of Money on Loan, in IX Sections in February 1786.
Heather Brubaker Bailey, who now lives in New Jersey, is a descendent of Abraham Clark. Heather graduated from Elizabethtown College and now works as a real estate agent in Morristown, New Jersey.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
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