The New Jersey delegation to the Continental Congress suffered more than most. Richard Stockton was taken as a prisoner of war, and died as a result of his inhumane treatment. John Hart had his farm temporarily seized, and his wife died, probably as a result of the stress of having her home taken. John Witherspoon’s beloved Princeton was practically burned to the ground and it would take him the rest of his life to rebuild it.
Abraham Clark was no exception to this general pattern of abuse, hardship and suffering. A successful surveyor and self-taught lawyer, Clark was elected to the Continental Congress in 1776. When he put his name on the Declaration, like the other signers, Clark knew that he was placing a target on his chest. Though he was prepared to suffer personally for the cause, he could not have been truly prepared for what would follow.
You see, Abraham Clark and his wife had ten children, several of whom had died before Clark signed the Declaration. But two of his sons who had lived beyond childhood were officers in the Continental Army during the Revolution. Like their father, they were deeply devoted to the cause of independence. Abraham Clark must have been proud of their zeal. But like any father, deep down inside he must have been more worried about their safety than in any hope that they would win glory on the battlefield in the war of independence. And with several of their children having already died, the safety of the Clark sons must have been constantly at the forefront of the thoughts of Abraham and Sarah Clark.
Unfortunately, Abraham and Sarah’s nightmare scenario came true. As the British and Hessian troops stormed through New Jersey, both of the Clark sons were captured and held by the British as prisoners on the notoriously brutal and disease-ridden floating prison, the Jersey. Conditions for his sons were horrible and unquestionably life-threatening. One of the sons was even confined in a dungeon and fed through a keyhole.
Was the inhumane treatment meted out to Clark’s sons because of their “rebellious” father?
In light of the way that Richard Stockton and John Hart were hunted down, and considering what we know of the ruthless behavior of the British troops and the Hessians mercenaries in New Jersey, it would be unreasonable to think anything otherwise.
What is a father to do in such a situation? A natural response would have been for Clark to criticize or even betray the Patriot cause. Surely, he must have thought, a betrayal of the cause by a signer of the Declaration would immediately end the unjust suffering of his sons.
Yet Abraham Clark did nothing of the sort. His steely resolve held firm and he never spoke out against the Revolution, or backed down on his commitment to the cause – even though the personal anguish that it must have cost him must have been excruciating.
Finally, Congress intervened on his behalf and the treatment of his sons was improved.
But the inability of the British to break Abraham Clark was a silent testimony to any other signers – not to mention common citizens – that the cause of independence must advance, no matter the cost.
After independence was secured, Clark served in the New Jersey legislature and eventually in the U.S. House of Representatives. He died in 1794, and his grave marker reads as follows:
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