Economic Vision of Abraham Clark

Emancipation from the “yoke of British oppression,” although a cause for rejoicing, therefore represented to Abraham Clark only a stage in the securing of independence. “Let us not stop here,” he wrote, “or . . . we may awake in fetters, more grievous than the yoke we have shaken off.” 1 The state was in danger of falling into the “power of the merciless.” He summoned the “inhabitants of New Jersey” to face up to their new “crisis.” “Beware,” he addressed them, “lest although we have knocked off the shackles of British tyranny we should suffer ourselves to be duped into as bad a situation by artful interested designing men.” 1

The concept of tyranny had wider dimensions for Clark than for most of his contemporaries. Political oppression . . . could be countered by a judicious balancing of governmental power. Clark espoused the notion of constitutional safeguards for republican government, but he held that tyranny could also rise from economic power. His zeal for rescuing the indebted farmers stemmed from this belief. Impoverishment, he feared, would destroy the independence of the citizenry.  .  . . 1

“His social-political point of view, through life, resembled that of a seventeenth century English ‘Leveller.’” 2 He worried that “individual citizens would lose political freedom to wealthier ones who controlled their economic destiny.” 1

He believed that people cannot be free unless they are economically independent, and he saw participation in government as essential to ensuring that freedom.

1. Abraham Clark and The Quest for Equality in the Revolutionary Era 1774-1794, , by Ruth Bogin, Fairleigh-Dickinson University, 1982

2. Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 1-2, Brearly-Cushing, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY, 1929

Economic Freedom

How can we be free if we live all our lives in debt? These are among the ideas of an American founder on the issue of Economic Equality.

Abraham Clark was one of those among our founders who viewed the Constitution as an “instrument of self-realization, not the guarantor of privilege.” 1

In fact, he “emerged as a champion of individual liberties, an enemy to every form of privilege.  . . . Persons, not property, had priority in his ideological outlook. The purpose of government was to provide for human well-being, and in his view active participation in government by the people themselves constituted the essential barrier against tyranny. ” 2

“Clark was impassioned in the cause of liberty throughout the Revolutionary era. The hallmark of his thought was a democratic commitment that informed not only his political attitudes but his whole value system. At variance with the prevalent Whig outlook, Clark inverted the common appraisal of the social hierarchy. Usefulness and republican virtue reposed, in his vision, among the husbandmen and artisans rather than among the professionals and men of money. Instead of ascribing honor and decency to creditors and vilifying debtors, Clark saw creditors as living idly on the labor of industrious debtors who were caught in their grip.” 3

“The oppression Clark had in mind was economic. He was explicit about the areas in which the power of government should be.  . . . The crucial task Clark posed for the legislature was to design policies that would avoid ‘that inequality of property which is detrimental in a republican government.’ ” 2

He believed that the wealthy will always attempt to “divide and conquer” those without money, and he  “feared that impoverishment, in destroying the independence of individual citizens, would jeopardize the basis for republican government. A society of ‘lords and tenants’ would put some members in the power of others. . . . The survival of liberty therefore required, in Clark’s view, that government protect the economically oppressed.” 2

  1. The First Republicans: Political Philosophy & Public Policy in the Party of Jefferson & Madison, Stuart Gerry Brown, Greenwood Publishing Co., 1954
  2. Abraham Clark & The Quest for Equality in the Revolutionary Era, Ruth Bogin, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982
  3. New Jersey’s True Policy: The Radical Republican Vision of Abraham Clark, Ruth Bogin, William and Mary Quarterly, 1978

The Egalitarian Tradition

America’s egalitarian tradition is, in fact, a way of life for many Americans. Good and decent people operate quietly, without interest in praise or reward, and their belief in fairness is a way of life handed down without fanfare. Many Americans champion individual liberty, and social responsibility. They are rich, poor, middle class, members of varied political persuasions, races and religions.

This quiet dignity infuses the history of our country, as much as the disastrous and destructive actions that receive so much attention.

Abraham Clark represented this in his passion for fairness and his sense that equality was an achievable goal.

Mary Clark

The Legacy of Abraham Clark

Read The Legacy of this unique thinker and personality among our early founders: Abraham Clark, of New Jersey.

Abraham Clark was one of five men from the state of New Jersey to vote for the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. He was born on February 15, 1726, the only child of a local magistrate, Thomas Clark and his wife Hannah, in what was then known as Elizabeth Town, New Jersey. He was a farmer and surveyor, and served in public office for nearly thirty years.

While still a young man, he was appointed clerk of the New Jersey General Assembly. In 1766, he was appointed Sheriff of Essex County. He served in the Provincial Congress and was chosen in June 1776 to represent New Jersey in the Continental Congress. He was 50 years old when he signed the Declaration of Independence, a dangerous and defiant act of treason.

Abraham Clark Biographies

Read biographies of Abraham Clark, signer of the Declaration of Independence, New Jersey, and member of the Annapolis Conference that led to the Constitutional Convention.