Founding Fathers Friday: Abraham Clark and John Hart
by Derrick G. Jeter
He was an average man with an average name—Abraham Clark. The son, and only child, of a New Jersey farmer, Clark spent very little time in the schoolroom. According to one early biography, “his education might be termed miscellaneous.” But this didn’t prevent him from gaining some knowledge of surveying and law as he grew up.
Clark probably never formally studied the law, and certainly never presented himself before the bar, but he became know as the “Poor Man’s Counselor” for his legal advice to folks who couldn’t afford a fancy lawyer. He settled land disputes, wrote wills, drew up mortgages and real estate deeds, and a thousand other minor legal papers.
Because Clark was for the poor guy—he, himself was a poor guy—all the poor guys in New Jersey saw to it that he held public offices, like serving as sheriff of Essex county. By the time things were heating up with Great Britain in 1774, Clark came out as a firm patriot and served on the New Jersey committee of safety and attended various rebel conventions. And for a regular guy with no formal legal or philosophical training, Clark was selected to give his two cents on the New Jersey constitution.
After helping draft the constitution, Clark was picked to represent the colony in Philadelphia at the Continental Convention in 1776. Arriving in June, Clark and his fellow delegates voted for and signed the Declaration of Independence. When he put his name to the document, Clark knew the danger he and his fellow patriots were taking. Writing to his friend, Colonel Elias Drayton, Clark confessed, “As to my title, I know not yet whether it will be honorable or dishonorable; the issue of the war must settle it. Perhaps our Congress will be exalted on a high gallows. . . . I assure you, Sir, I see, I feel, the danger we are in.”
And danger it was. Clark himself never faced a direct threat, but his sons were another matter. Two sons, Thomas and Aaron, were captured during the war. Aaron was thrown into a New York dungeon called the Sugar House. Conditions were so bad for the young Clark that other prisoners pushed moldy bread through the keyhole of his cell to provide some nourishment for him. Thomas was shipped off to the notorious prison ship Jersey—a dysentery and small pox filled hell-hole. A floating morgue, where scores of dead bodies were thrown overboard every day to make room for more prisons. Some reports say Thomas survived and was released from the Jersey, while another brother, Andrew, may have died on board.
At war’s end, Clark returned to New Jersey and served in the state legislature. He attended the Annapolis Convention of 1786, in which five of the thirteen states addressed grievances that had arisen over the cumbersome Articles of Confederation. He wasn’t able to attend the Constitutional Convention the following summer, but he opposed what he saw coming out of Philadelphia until a Bill of Rights was added to the new constitution.
From 1791 Clark was elected to the U.S. House of Representative and served there until his death in 1794.
“Honest John” Hart was an unlikely man of legend, but legend surrounds this man of New Jersey. Like his compatriot Clark, Hart was the son of a farmer and a man of limited schooling. He did have one thing going for him, however, his father was a local hero who had fought in the French and Indian War (known as the Sevens Year War in Europe) as part of the “Jersey Blues.” Despite his “miscellaneous” education, Hart became a popular man in New Jersey.
Hart served in various post in the royal assemblies and congresses, and even as a judge. (The value of a legal education wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be in those days, I guess.) Benjamin Rush—the man who made a hobby out of criticizing, and sometimes praising, his fellow patriots in print—said of Hart: “A plain, honest, well meaning Jersey farmer, with but little education, but with good sense and virtue enough to pursue the true interests of his country.”
As the oldest of the New Jersey signers (he was sixty-five in July 1776), Hart had been pursuing the true interests of his country long before the others joined the merry band of patriots. In 1765, Hart traveled to New York to attend the secret Stamp Act Congress, which protested the Crown’s new tax—at lease nine of the thirteen colonies attended. This put Hart at odds with the more cultured class in New Jersey. The educated elites had always sided with the king on issues of taxation. In fact, it was the elites who represented New Jersey in the First and Second Continental Congresses, which accounts for some of the reason why there was such slow movement toward independence. But by the time 1776 came around, the good folks in the New Jersey assembly had had enough of the cultured elites—they sent five fresh faces to represent them in Philadelphia: Abraham Clark, John Witherspoon, Richard Stockton, Francis Hopkinson, and of course, “Honest John.” All five voted in favor of independence on July 2 and all five signed their names to the “engrossed” document on August 2, 1776.
Hart returned to New Jersey after declaring independence where he was promptly elected as the first speaker of the new general assembly.
You’d think 1776 was a particularly good year for John Hart, but it wasn’t. A few months after signing his name to the Declaration, in October, Deborah Scudder Hart, his wife of thirty-six years died. In December, still grieving his beloved’s death, Hart and his thirteen children had to flee when the British drew near to their home. He sent the youngest children away to neighbors and made his escape to the nearby Sourland Mountain. Legend says Hart lived in caves, dog houses, and in the open fields for a year, hunted, as one historian put, “like a noxious beast.” All the while British troops looted his house, plundered his land, and slaughtered his livestock. He probably did seek shelter in a cave in the mountains during that December of ’76, but certainly not for a year. His time on the lamb probably lasted for a month. Yet, for a man in his mid-sixties, under emotional stress, evading British troops, and in the midst of a New Jersey winter, this was no picnic in the park.
Legend says that Hart’s home and lands were completely destroyed. This is untrue. By 1778—one and a half years after his adventure on the Sourland Mountain—Hart hosted General George Washington at his home, allowing 12,000 troops to camp in his fields.
Hart continued to serve in the New Jersey assemble and was reelected speaker. At his death, legends continued to swirl. Some said he died of exhaustion, a result of his tireless efforts for the cause of liberty. Others said he died of a broken heart, that he just couldn’t get over the loss of his beloved Deborah. And still others said he died of a crushed spirit, unable to recover the loss he suffered at the hands of the British. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Hart’s death was nothing so romantic or dramatic. He died from a bout of “gravel”—common kidney stones. He’s buried in Hopewell churchyard and lies under a marker with the wrong death date, 1780. He actually died in 1779, but such is the life and death of legends—it’s easy to confuse fact and fiction.