Recalling pleasant things and taking the time to dwell on them.
William Penn Clarke – Iowa City’s Abolitionist.
William Penn Clarke came to Iowa City in 1843, and over the next 25 years, became one of the city’s best-known lawyers and one of Iowa’s most prolific abolitionists – a major contributor to the cause to end slavery.
William Penn Clarke was born In Baltimore, Maryland on October 1, 1817, and after learning the printing business at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, William worked his trade in Pittsburgh, publishing The Daily News in partnership in Cincinnati, and for a short time, was the editor of The Gazette in Logan, Ohlo. As we’ve discussed on other posts, being a newspaper editor in the 19th century was one of the more influential political positions a businessman could have.
In 1843, as Clarke settled into Iowa City, he immediately involved himself with local politics, publishing several articles in The Iowa Standard, and eventually serving two short spans as the newspaper’s editor – in 1845, before it became The Iowa Republican (1848), and again in 1856.
Below is a rare postal cover & letter in our collection that was written to W.P. Clarke in December of 1845 by Ralph Phillips (R.P.) Lowe – the Republican state judge from Bloomington (Muscatine) who – in 1858 – became the fourth governor of Iowa…
In truth, whether it be the Democrat or the Whig Party, in the two decades leading up to the Civil War, both entities had many internal struggles when it came to the subject of slavery. While Iowa was, technically, a “free state”, there were still many old-school Democrats who fully supported the practice of holding slaves, while there was also a more moderate group who simply believed it best, politically, to ignore the subject. Over in the Whig party, there were those old-timers who tended to agree with the moderate Democrats, staying relatively silent. But like today, there was a younger generation across both parties who couldn’t stay silent, taking a very courageous view – calling for the immediate abolishment of slavery. In the late 1840’s, this group of dissidents formed their own organization – The Free Soil Party.
In February 1849, Dr. William Miller of Birmingham – in Van Buren County, Iowa – wrote a letter of encouragement to William Penn Clarke in Iowa City – who, by this time, was gaining a certain level of notoriety across Iowa due to his strong abolitionist viewpoint.
By the mid-to-late 1850’s, this grass-roots abolitionist movement, made up primarily of disgruntled Whigs and Democrats, called themselves the “Wide-Awakes”, and it was this movement that helped create the Republican Party – which ended up nominating Abraham Lincoln for President in 1860.
A Wide Awakes parade in Lower Manhattan (above), one of a series of political rallies held in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Boston during the first week of October 1860. Read more here.
William Penn Clarke was one of these radical thinkers in Iowa City, putting his legal career – which started in 1846 – on the line as he joined with others who were unashamed abolitionists, and in Clarke’s case, becoming actively involved with The Underground Railroad – which had a strong network across Iowa. As one biographer states…
There’s probably no more ardent Free Soil advocate in Iowa in the period before the Civil War than William Penn Clarke.
Between 1854 and 1859, John Brown and his sons would often travel through Iowa, transporting, not only freed slaves, but also armed men, weapons, and ammunition into Kansas, preparing for what he perceived would be a state-wide civil war over the slavery issue. On his trips, he had numerous spots (see map below) across the state that he knew to be “safe houses” on The Lane Trail of The Underground Railroad.
As it turned out, this was John Brown’s last trip through Iowa, as he went onward from Chicago, armed and ready to trigger a powder keg. See the details below…
In 1856, Clarke was elected to the Iowa Constitution Convention (1857), where he served as the chairman, playing a major role in the re-writing of the Iowa Constitution – which still stands today. Interestingly, Clarke was strongly opposed to the decision to move the Iowa capital from Iowa City to Des Moines, which became part of the 1857 Constitution. One biographer states…
On the first Monday In August, 1856, an election was held in which the people of Iowa voted in favor of a Constitutional Convention. Governor James W. Grimes issued a proclamation ordering an election to be held early in November of that year. Shortly before the election Clarke, became the Republican candidate for delegate to represent the Twentieth District, which was composed of Iowa and Johnson counties. He was one of twenty-one Republican delegates, with the Democrats electing fifteen. Clarke was the outstanding figure In the convention, performing more committee work than any other delegate, and is considered one of the most prominent and active of the “fathers” of the Iowa Constitution.
Of course, Clarke remained active politically in Iowa City, and as we mentioned earlier, served a short second term as the editor of The Iowa Republican (1856). It was also in 1856 when Clarke was part of the Iowa delegation sent to the Pittsburgh National Convention at which the Republican Party was organized. He then went on to represent Iowa at the party’s 1860 national convention in Chicago – where a young man named Abraham Lincoln was nominated for President.
Once the Civil War broke out, Clarke served as an army paymaster, after which he returned to Iowa City briefly before moving to Washington, D.C., where he practiced law and served as the chief clerk for the U.S. Dept. of the Interior. Several articles in The Iowa Republican (1874 & 1884) told Iowa Citians about the new-found success of their old friend…
There are so many other accomplishments to mention when speaking of William Penn Clarke and his influence in Iowa City. Between 1855 and 1860, he served as the court reporter for the Iowa Supreme Court, and, of course, he played a huge role in the early 1850’s, working alongside his political opposites – men like LeGrand Byington, a Democrat – to make sure the M&M Railroad came into Iowa City in 1856. Clarke’s obituary from The Iowa City Republican (1903) tells us much more…
William Penn Clarke died, at age 85, on February 7, 1903, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Sadly, we can’t find any records on Clarke’s wife, who apparently died a few years earlier and is buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.
Godspeed, Mr. Clarke, Godspeed!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.