The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber

THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Clarke, James
(July 5, 1812–July 28, 1850)

–Democratic journalist and third governor of Iowa Territory—was born in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, where his father served as Clerk of County Court. After an apprenticeship with the State Printer in Harrisburg, Clarke took his skills west to St. Louis and the Missouri Republican. The first legislative session of Wisconsin Territory met in Belmont, where Clarke and partner John Russell published the Belmont Gazette Wisconsin Territorial Gazette and Burlington Advertiser. A close political ally of powerful Territorial Governor Henry Dodge, he temporarily left the newspaper when Dodge appointed him Territorial Librarian on August 5, 1837. After Iowa Territory was established in 1838, Clarke remained in Iowa as editor of the Burlington Gazette until he accepted appointment on November 23, 1839, as Territorial Secretary to fellow Democrat, Governor Robert Lucas. The only stated opposition to the appointment focused on Clarke's close personal ties to the Henry Dodge family. Clarke married Dodge's daughter Christiana on September 27, 1840 (they had four children), and brother-in-law Augustus Caesar Dodge was Iowa territorial delegate.

    By 1842 the capital had moved to Iowa City. There Clarke remained active in the highly charged partisan atmosphere of territorial politics. After the Democrats regained control of the White House in 1844, President James K. Polk on November 8, 1845, appointed Clarke to replace Whig John Chambers as territorial governor. (At the time, Clarke was serving as mayor of Burlington, having been elected without opposition in February 1844.) Clarke encouraged legislators to fund navigation improvements, especially on the Des Moines River; to reduce the rapidly growing territorial debt; to open mineral land to preemption; and to call for Mexican War volunteers. Statehood, however, dominated Clarke's brief, 14-month gubernatorial term.

    Democratic Governor Robert Lucas and Whig Governor John Chambers had both encouraged legislative action to seek admission to the Union. Lucas even proposed generous boundaries that extended west to the Missouri and Big Sioux rivers and north to the St. Peter's (Minnesota) River. The boundary issue added fuel to the already highly contentious political environment, as Whigs and majority Democrats battled on the floor of the territorial capitol. In August 1842 voters rejected a call for a constitutional convention. But two years later 63 delegates (including James Clarke, who served on the Credentials, Judicial, and Suffrage and Citizenship committees) met in Iowa City from October 7 to November 1. Generally, Whigs opposed statehood, anticipating an increased tax burden with limited local resources. Democrats countered by forecasting increased federal funds for internal improvements, the ability to elect their own governor, and a rapidly expanding population. The proposed constitution was approved by Congress and signed by President John Tyler but with significantly reduced state boundaries. Iowa voters then rejected the amended document by a small margin.

    Two years later a second constitutional convention convened in the territorial capitol from May 4 to May 19. Clarke, now territorial governor, enthusiastically encouraged the delegates to resubmit the previously proposed constitution with slight modifications, in cluding a compromise on the northern boundary. Congress approved, and President James K. Polk signed the Enabling Act on December 28, 1846, admitting Iowa into the Union. Iowa voters had ratified the new constitution on August 3, and Clarke issued a proclamation calling for election of state officers. Democrat Ansel Briggs was inaugurated as Iowa's first state governor on December 3, nearly a month before statehood was official.

    Clarke immediately returned to Burlington, where he regained ownership of the Gazette and immersed himself in local affairs. He remained an active Mason, having helped organize the first Masonic Lodge in Iowa on November 10, 1840. In addition, Clarke served as vice-chair of the 1848 Democratic National Convention, supporting the candidacy of Lewis Cass. The following year he was president of Burlington's school board.

    A cholera epidemic devastated southeastern Iowa during the summer of 1850 and took the life of Clarke's wife and one of their four children. He died two weeks later. The Iowa legislature honored his service by establishing Clarke County on February 24, 1847, organized on August 4, 1851. Clarke and his family were buried in Burlington's Aspen Grove Cemetery.
Sources include William Salter, "James Clarke: The Third Governor of the Territory of Iowa," Iowa Historical Record 4 (1888), 1– 12; Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., Fragments of the Debates of the Constitutional Conventions of 1844 and 1846 (1900); Benjamin F. Shambaugh, ed., The Constitutions of Iowa (1934); Jack T. Johnson, "James Clarke," Palimpsest 20 (1939), 385–99; and Thomas A. McMillan and David A. Walker, Biographical Directory of American Territorial Governors (1984).
Contributor: David A. Walker

Cite as: Walker, David A. "Clarke, James" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 26 April 2018