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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Clarkson, James Sullivan
(May 17, 1842–May 31, 1918)

Clarkson, Coker Fifield

(January 21, 1811–May 7, 1890) and his youngest son,

were influential journalists and politicians. As the longtime editor and publisher of the Iowa State Register (forerunner to the Des Moines Register), James eventually eclipsed his father in both influence and importance. Under his guidance, the Register expanded in size and scope, becoming the voice of the state's Republican Party and the leading newspaper in the state. James's work as editor also propelled him into the powerful circle of politicians and businessmen known as the Des Moines Regency.

    Coker Clarkson was born in Maine, but when he was nine, his family headed west to Franklin County, Indiana. At 18, he left the family farm and pursued his interest in the printing trade by apprenticing at the Lawrenceburg (Ind.) Western Statesman. After two years, Coker was named editor of the paper; the following year he became its sole owner. In 1832 he married Elizabeth Goudie. The couple had four children–Pamela, Frances, Richard, and James–before she died in 1848. The following year, Coker married Elizabeth Colescott.

    In the meantime, he had returned to Franklin County, purchased a newspaper in Brookville, and renamed it the Indiana American. All the while Coker also farmed, but, like many editors at the time, his real interest was politics, and he became active in the Whig Party. He had served as a regional campaign manager for Henry Clay in 1832 and later helped nominate William Henry Harrison for the presidency.

    By 1853 Coker tired of putting out the weekly newspaper and sold it. Soon, he moved his family west to Grundy County, Iowa, where he and his sons established Melrose Farm. There he conducted agricultural experiments, wrote about farming, and became involved with the area's Underground Railroad. He remained active in Whig and then Republican politics and served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1860, where he supported Abraham Lincoln on the third ballot. Three years later he was elected to one term in the Iowa Senate.

    Coker's two sons did not inherit their father's enthusiasm for farming, but they did share his interest in journalism and politics. In 1866 Richard and James Clarkson left the family acreage for jobs as printers at the Iowa State Register in Des Moines. Both advanced at the paper, but James's writing showed greater promise, and he rose rapidly. Soon he was the paper's local editor and was the Des Moines correspondent for the Chicago Tribune. By 1869 the Register 's owners, Frank and Jacob Mills, feared they might lose James to a rival paper, so they promoted him to editor in chief.

    The following year, James, or "Ret"–a nickname he had acquired because he often wrote the editorial abbreviation for "return" on copy he wanted to proofread personally– along with his brother and father made an offer for the Register. The Mills brothers accepted, and in late 1870 the Clarksons took over the paper. Each held one third of the company: Ret handled editorial responsibilities; Richard ran the business operations; and Coker covered agricultural issues.

    Ret quickly used the paper to support the business wing of the Republican Party. His forceful advocacy tied him to the Des Moines Regency, which dominated Iowa's Republican Party during the last third of the 19th century. Because the GOP controlled politics in Iowa, changes to the status quo threatened its position and needed to be co-opted or suppressed altogether.

    Under James Clarkson's editorship, the Register worked to maintain the Regency's position of dominance. While the paper generally supported agricultural interests, it railed against farmer moving into politics and opposed any third-party movements. Less threatening, but still of concern, were reformers calling for temperance legislation. The Register favored prohibition until the 1890s, when GOP leaders concluded that the outright anti-alcohol plank of their platform hurt the party. In addition, there was the controversial matter of woman suffrage. Much like the rest of society, the Register vacillated on the issue but ultimately preferred that women remain in their traditional domestic sphere.

    The Clarksons also improved and modernized the Register. Although the paper continued to focus on politics, it joined other newspapers across the country that sought additional readers by expanding the scope of their content. This began at the Register in 1871, when the Clarksons initiated Coker's weekly column, "Farm, Orchard and Garden," designed to reach the region's many farmer Soon, covering agricultural issues became Coker's only tie to the paper. When he and his sons disagreed over which Republican candidate the Register should endorse in the 1871 U.S. Senate race, he sold his share of the company rather than support William Alli son, Ret and Richard's candidate. Ultimately, in 1872 the Iowa legislature elected Allison to the U.S. Senate, where he continued to serve for more than 25 years.

    Besides expanded agricultural coverage, the Clarksons added other offerings to the paper, including a women's section, book reviews, church news, a criminal calendar, courthouse news, and a gossip column. The greater variety of stories attracted a wider readership, and a larger circulation produced growing revenues. From 1870 to 1890 the Register 's daily circulation more than tripled, rising from approximately 2,000 to 7,200. More readers also meant more advertising income. The Clarksons also expanded the paper from four to eight pages. Newspapers of such size were already common in larger cities by the 1870s. The push for this growth came from the increase in advertising volume. In doubling the paper's size and increasing its advertising space, the Clarkson brothers' Register was following a decade-old trend in the industry.

    James Clarkson's prominence as editor and his links to the Des Moines Regency involved him in several important railroad ventures and led to his rise in the political world. He played an important role in bringing the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad into Des Moines, and he joined with civil engineer Grenville Dodge; businessmen Frederick M. Hubbell and his partner, Jefferson S. Polk; and attorney John Runnells in the creation of a Des Moines-based narrow gauge railroad system. The group would eventually lease their rail network to Jay Gould and the Wabash Railroad. At the same time, Ret was advancing in the Republican Party as well. By the late 1860s he was head of the GOP's State Central Committee, and from 1880 to 1896 he served on the Republican National Committee. He was a delegate to the Republican National Convention six times during his editorship of the paper. His dedication to the party was duly rewarded with several positions, starting in 1868 when he was named postmaster of Des Moines.

    Coker, meanwhile, sold Melrose Farm in 1878 and moved to Des Moines. He became involved in the Grange organization and continued writing his column until his death in 1890. Widely known as "Father Clarkson," he became a widely respected figure in the agricultural community.

    Two years before his father's death, 46year-old Ret sold his portion of the company to his brother Richard and moved to New York. In 1889 he was appointed First Assistant Postmaster General, and he would go on to serve as chairman of the National Republican Executive Committee. Richard, meanwhile, ran the paper for over a decade before selling it in 1902. Ret remained on the East Coast and was named Surveyor of Customs for the Port of New York, a position he would hold until 1910. He died in 1918 in Newark, New Jersey. He was survived by Anna Howell Clarkson, his wife of 50 years, and their three children.

    Throughout their lifetimes, Coker and James "Ret" Clarkson were successful in both the public and private sectors, but they made their mark in journalism, and they had their greatest influence with the Iowa State Register.
Sources The James S. Clarkson Papers are held at the State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines. For secondary sources on the Clarksons, see William Friedricks, Covering Iowa: The History of the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, 1849–1985 (2000); George Mills, Harvey Ingham and Gardner Cowles, Sr.: Things Don't Just Happen (1977); and Leland Sage, "The Clarksons of Indiana and Iowa," Indiana Magazine of History 50 (1954), 429–46.
Contributor: William Friedricks

Cite as: Friedricks, William. "Clarkson, James Sullivan" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 31 July 2014