As a common man with extraordinary abilities, Champ Clark was living proof of American exceptionalism.
Nowhere else could someone born into such hardship rise to such heights. And though many would climb by their own efforts from similar circumstances to achieve greatness, few could honestly say, as Clark could, that they likewise cleared a path for millions of others.
March 7 marks the 170th anniversary of the Pike County lawyer’s birth, and it’s been 100 years since the publication of his extensive autobiography, “My Quarter-Century of American Politics.”
Clark’s words and actions offer lessons as well as then-and-now similarities, especially in a year that likely will see a fractured election. At the 1912 Democratic National Convention, Missouri U.S. Sen. James A. Reed called his friend “The Lion of Democracy.”
“And so I nominate (for president) this man who has fought a thousand battles for Democracy and not one against her, who has never lowered his flag or asked for quarter, who has never deserted nor taken a furlough, who does not know how to quit a friend or betray a party, whose back the enemy has never seen but whose breast is covered with the scars of many a hard campaign, who leads today and who should continue to lead,” Reed said.
As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, the man placed by the Constitution two tragedies from the White House would neither forget nor forsake the countless people responsible for his ascent. To Clark, kings and queens and the rich and powerful didn’t compare to regular folk, which he always considered himself to be.
Through hard work, determination, a little luck and a lot of statesmanship, Clark would become a profound leader at a critical moment in the nation’s history.
“As far as I am individually concerned, I sprang from the loins of the common people, God bless them, and I am one of them,” he said.
The odds certainly did not favor James Beauchamp Clark.
He was born at the family farm near Lawrenceburg in the heart of Kentucky bourbon country on March 7, 1850. He could not remember his mother, Aletha Jane Beauchamp Clark, who died when he was 3 years old.
Fortunately, Champ had a remarkable father. John Hampton Clark was a New Jersey native who made buggies, did carpentry, ran a singing school and practiced dentistry. Champ idolized him, respecting his knowledge, work ethic, humor and Christian demeanor.
“If I have achieved anything worth mentioning in this life, I owe the most of it to him, for he was constantly dinning into my ears ‘Get an education; take care of your health; develop your physical and mental constitution,’ ” Champ recalled.
Education was a priority and Champ loved to read. It was a habit his father promoted by suggesting the Bible and titles such as “The Life of Patrick Henry.” The elder Clark spent money he could barely afford on books for his son and daughter, Elizabeth, who was two years younger. The oldest Clark child, Peggie, died in infancy.
Clark related to the story of President Andrew Jackson, who also was born in a rural area and lost a parent. In Jackson’s case, it was his father in a logging accident just three weeks before the future leader was born.
“Noble impulses have ever dominated Clark’s character and actions, and a lofty career, dimly outlined, ever loomed in his boyish mind,” wrote biographer William Larkin Webb.
In what was clearly an admiration of history and a respect for leadership, Clark was particularly enamored with a book that featured some of America’s founding documents.
“If I had my way, every boy and girl in America would commit to memory The Declaration of Independence, not only for its political truths, but also for its literary excellence,” he later said. “A man of sensibility cannot read it, even now, without having his blood flow faster.”
At age eight, Clark began working at other farms to earn money. He called the experience “perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me” because it was “the best school for physical training in the world.” It also provided lessons about the value of labor.
One such job wasn’t as rewarding. Clark was beaten regularly and vowed to exact revenge. When a muscular Clark returned to the farm years later, he found his tormentor withered, broken and alone.
“Instead of thrashing him, Clark handed him some money to help him along,” Harvey Middleton wrote in the July 1911 Columbian Magazine. “That was, and is, Champ Clark.”
At 14, Clark clerked briefly at a store before becoming a teacher. “Of course, I was too young, but it was the only way I had to earn money enough to go to college on, and, while I had a rocky road to travel, I hung on,” he recalled.
Many students were remembered with fondness. One of them, Edward A. Glenn of Louisiana, would later assist Clark politically.
Coming of age during the Civil War was an eye-opener. Clark witnessed only one battle, but was acutely aware of the lynchings, thievery and violence that took place in Kentucky. He also found parallels between his home state and Missouri.
“It was easy to be a Union man in Massachusetts,” he explained. “It was hazardous to be anything else. It was easy to be a Confederate in South Carolina. It was not safe to be anything else. But in Kentucky, Missouri, and other border states, it was perilous to be one thing or the other. Indeed, it was dangerous to be neither and sit on the fence.”
For three years, Clark enjoyed his studies at Kentucky University (now Transylvania University) in Lexington, but in October 1870, he was expelled after shooting another student when a verbal quarrel escalated into a fight. Things could have been much worse. Clark’s shooting hand was lifted by a friend at the last moment, causing the bullet to miss the head of his foe by an inch.
Though he later was invited back, Clark taught school for two years before finishing his studies in 1873 at Bethany College in West Virginia. A regent there suggested he apply for the vacant president’s position at Marshall College, a job he held at age 23 for a year before earning a degree at Cincinnati Law School.
The country boy in Clark reveled at life in the busy city, attending the theater and participating in political debates. He might have stayed if not for a business offer from law school classmate Thomas Jefferson Hudson, who had campaigned for passage of the 15th Amendment that granted black men the right to vote.
“He proposed to me that if I would go to Kansas with him he would give me a third of his practice the first two years, and half after that, saying it was worth $2,500 a year and could easily be made worth a great deal more,” Clark recalled, believing it “was an unusually good offer for a young man just admitted to the bar.”
Another classmate, John W. Lynn, convinced Clark that Wichita would be a better location than Hudson’s hometown of Fredonia, but he found it as “dead as a doornail.”
Lacking money to move on, Clark lamented years later that he “perhaps might be there yet” had it not been for the $25 an unidentified man paid him to write a graduation speech. That’s around $570 today.
However, after paying bills and other expenses, Clark arrived in Missouri with just 50 cents in his pocket and a flimsy prospect for a job in the bustling Pike County town of Louisiana. But as the state and nation would soon see, his confidence, character and capability were not diminished.
“I regard the experiences of that year as among the most valuable in my life.”
Next time: A bit of fatherly advice is ignored, much to the benefit of America.
Editor’s note: This is the first story in a three-part series by award-winning journalist, author and public relations professional Brent Engel of Louisiana, Mo.