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.

The Iowa City Standard – which had its start in Bloomington under William Crum – came to Iowa City in 1841, publishing its first edition here just months before the first Legislative session opened in Butler’s Capitol. So, with Iowa City becoming the political center of Iowa, The Standard quickly became the voice of the Whig Party, and with W.P. Clarke’s vast experience in publishing, he grew to become a well-known voice for the party, especially when the political struggles surrounding slavery began to surface across Iowa.

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…

(JP-065) This rare 1845 stamp-less cover & letter was mailed by Judge R.P. Lowe from Bloomington (Muscatine) and was postmarked on December 8, 1845. From the contents of the letter, it appears that Lowe is critiquing W.P. Clarke’s proposed editorial that is being critical of The Iowa Standard’s owners. Records indicate that Clarke resigned as the editor of the newspaper in early 1846, and it’s our guess that he was dissatisfied with the way the newspaper was being run. We also know that the Whig Party, at this time, was beginning to fragment, with many, like Clarke, who left the party, feeling that it was not being vocal enough on the issues of slavery.
Ralph P. Lowe was born (1805) in Warren County, Ohio, settled in Bloomington (Muscatine) in 1838, and was selected as a Whig representative to the Iowa State Constitutional Convention in 1844. Lowe became an Iowa State District Judge in 1852, and, in 1858 – now a Republican – was elected as Iowa’s fourth governor, serving a two-year term. In 1860, Lowe was appointed as a Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court (1860-1867), after which he resumed practicing law in Lee County. In 1874, R.P. Lowe moved to Washington, D.C. – as had W.P. Clarke (1867) – where he died in 1883. Read more about Iowa’s first gubernatorial election in 1846.
Bloomington Iowa – Dec 8th 1845

Dear Sir. I return you your letter to Mr. Curtis having noted and approved its contents. I rejoice to find we agree so well in our views upon the general topics adverted to in your letter. It will test the sincerity of the question heretofore propounded “What can the Whigs of New York do for the Whigs of Iowa”.

If I was to suggest an objection at all to your letter, it would be to the 26 & 27th lines on the second page, which I would either strike out or explain so that an unfavorable inference would not be drawn against you. You speak of your communication with The Standard, how poorly it is supported & the no compensation which you have received &c, &c. May they not conclude that another press in the same hands would share the same fate. In justice to yourself and the object of your letter, this allegation requires, in my opinion, an explanation, as that the press had fallen into dispute before your connection with, was very much in debt, and that the management of the concern was not under your control, but that you (were) only employed to edit for a given period &c, &c. I shall write Corwin & Schenck this week on the same subject.

In very great haste. Yours &c – R.P. Lowe
Iowa – which became a territory in 1838 and a state in 1846 – had outlawed slavery from its very beginning as a territory. Its first Supreme Court case (1839), in fact, decided this in the case of Ralph – a slave working in Dubuque – who was allowed to stay here as a free man. However, even though slavery was not legal in the state this did not mean that all residents of the state were sympathetic to slaves or even African Americans in general. Racism was still a part of the life of people at that time. People were realizing the evils of slavery but it had not yet come to the point in which the country was ready to abolish it altogether.

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.

The Free-Soil Party (1848–54) was formed by disgruntled Democrats and Whigs who were frustrated with their parties’ refusal to take a stand against the issue of slavery. “Conscience” Whigs held a convention in August 1848 at Buffalo, New York, nominating former President Martin Van Buren – a Democrat – to run for the presidency. Though the party only won 10 percent of the votes, it still greatly influenced the election, splitting the Democrat’s vote – allowing Zachary Taylor – the Whig candidate – to win.

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.

(JP-066) This very rare February 7, 1849 stamp-less cover & letter was sent by Dr. Wm. Miller from Birmingham in Van Buren County, Iowa, addressed to William Penn Clark in Iowa City. To put the letter in context, the Free Soil Party had influenced the 1848 general elections and the established Whig Party – while electing Zachary Taylor to the presidency – was being pushed hard by those wanting to make the issue of slavery a higher priority for the party. During the 1850’s, the “Slaveocrats” – as Miller calls the Democratic party – continued to voice their strong objections to abolitionists, supporting slavery in the south, while remaining silent about the subject in “free states” like Iowa. The Whigs, on the other hand, were in transition, with the younger voices of the Wide Awakes pushing for a transition that resulted in the birth of the Republican Party. In 1849, Miller is trying to unite the Whig Party with the Free Soil Party, getting it on the right track for the 1852 elections – both in Iowa and nationally – so W.P. Clarke is obviously an important component for pulling in the progressive, anti-slavery movement.
Birmingham – in Van Buren County, Iowa, was platted in 1839 and settlers began moving in by 1840. According to city records … “a man named Berry was the first settler in Birmingham, although Dr. I. N. Norris passed over the land where the city now stands when the plat was all grass-grown. James Steel kept the first hotel here. The man Berry, referred to, was the first blacksmith. The first physician was William Miller and H. C. Clinton was the first lawyer.” From what Miller states in his 1849 letter to W.P. Clarke, he was actively involved in politics and appears to either be a part of The Free Soil Party, or is a Whig with sympathetic views toward the abolitionist’s cause.
Birmingham – Feb 7th AD 1849   

Dear Sir. Your satisfactory letter came to hand on the 5th dated Jan 22. I had written to you before I received yours, in which I acknowledged the receipt of $7 dollars (and) sent your paper enclosed. I have not been needing the money, and as I was unable to labour, it was a satisfaction to me to have an opportunity to assist others. I considered it in God’s service.

You solicit my opinion. 1st – Shall this proposed union be effected. 2nd – if so how can it be done.

We may banter policy, so far as it is honourable, but we have no right to yield a single principle. If we do, our labour is all (lost). Principle is sacred, and in this matter, do not, by an over wrought anxiety for doing good, forget that sacred honour pledged to sustain the rights of man when the Declaration of Independence was framed. If this union can be affected on honourable terms, honourable now, and honourable hereafter, and so as to not injure the effecting a complete Northern Union in fifty-two (1852), for the Democracy of other States is expected and will be needed, then I would have no objections, but would be anxious for it.

This Union should be binding in the State Elections, and upon all state matters on which we have or may agree on principle, but should leave the Free Soil Party free to act in national questions of dispute, for so long as there is a Whig Party North, and they in connection and bound by the Slaveocrats of the South, so long (as) we will differ in choosing president, and in other national reforms, as well as on the subject of Slavery. Slavery of the African race is not the whole matter of dispute between the Freedom and their opposing. In short, friend Clark, stick to the law and to the testimony, for not one jot nor tittle shall fail till all be fulfilled, and if on these terms you can effect a union (so be it) remembering they who are one, not against us, are for us.

2nd – How can this be done? I will suggest one plan but not urging it as the best. Confidentially confirm with the Whig committees or other suitable Whigs or through suitable Whigs, and have them appoint a mass convention. You call one at the same time and place – if we can meet together, they will all be committed before we part, and there, the way will be open for a state nominating Convention when that becomes necessary. The Whigs profess to have no objections to our professed principles, let us try them then by the Buffalo platform. Whigs have told me, they would be willing for a Free Soil Whig, one identified with the Free Soil party, to be the next governor. If a union is made, the Whigs must meet the question of dispute and not advance the cringing policy.

I have engaged in behalf of this cause. I wish to use honourable means for its support and wherever I can say a word or do an act if health permit, I will be on hand. My health was not good, but I would have been at the city had I known the time of your meeting. I was informed by Whigs they would stick to those principles advocated by their members. Let me hear from you soon.
With anxious hope, I remain yours for principle.
Wm Miller

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.

Read more about the ‘Wide Awakes’ and their role in the 1860 Presidential Election.

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.

Beginning in 1830, The Underground Road became an organized system for helping escaped slaves from the southern states reach freedom in the North. When The Fugitive Slave Act of 1950 was enacted, tensions between “free states” and “slave states” increased, but when Kansas & Nebraska Territories (1854) were given the right to choose for themselves whether they would permit or prohibit slavery, Iowa – a free state, and Missouri – a slave state, became a battleground for this important slavery issue.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, John Brown, like many abolitionists, moved to Kansas, taking five of his sons with him. Fervent members of the abolition movement were determined that when the territory was ready to enter the Union as a state, it would do so as a free state. In Iowa City, not only did W.P. Clarke aid the ‘free Kansas’ movement by helping to forward men and arms and by contributing money, but as chairman of the Kansas Central Committee of Iowa, he was instrumental in having The Lane Trail adopted as an important component of The Underground Railroad – which not only helped slaves escape the south, but offered “free state” advocates “hassle-free” access to Kansas & Nebraska – thus avoiding those in Missouri who were terrorizing settlers heading west. In his active involvement, Clarke became associated with many well-known abolitionists such as Brown, James H. Lane, J. B. Grinnell, and others.

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.

Here is a list of those in Johnson County who supported the abolitionist movement.
On February 4, 1859, John Brown left Kansas with twelve former slaves, and on the 24th, reached Iowa City, staying with one of his abolitionist friends – Dr. Jesse Bowen (914 Iowa Avenue), as was his custom. The word soon got out that John Brown was in the vicinity, and attracted by a three thousand dollar reward that had been offered by Missouri authorities, several locals made plans for Brown’s capture. To make the situation even more dire for Brown, the United States marshal was in Davenport with a warrant for his arrest.
A few days earlier, J. B. Grinnell, fearing trouble, had gone on to Chicago to secure a box car so that Brown’s party might be quietly transported there, but the Rock Island Railroad superintendent refused to cooperate, fearing prosecution under the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law. When W.P. Clarke in Iowa City learned of Grinnell’s failure to secure the box car, he immediately undertook the project.
Before departing for Davenport for that purpose, Clarke and Lawson A. Duncan of The Iowa City Republican called on Colonel S. C. Trowbridge, rousing him from bed, persuading him to help Brown and the others escape the city. According to witnesses, Trowbridge left in the middle of the night, outwitting those who had been stationed nearby with the plan to seize Brown the next morning.
That same morning, Clarke took an early train for Davenport where he interviewed Hiram Price, the secretary of the Rock Island. While Price had no authority to assign a box car, he did give Clarke a letter of introduction to the deputy superintendent, who in turn approved Clarke’s request. The next day, Clarke met Brown and his traveling party in West Liberty – just east of Iowa City, where they boarded safely, heading east into Chicago. Apparently, shortly afterward, Clarke apologized to the railroad’s president, in order to save the agent at West Liberty from dismissal.

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.

Read about how the Wide Awake movement greatly impacted those who were appointed as U.S. Senators from Iowa.

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…

1909 – A souvenir postcard of the Centennial Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The postcard text reads, “Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued January 1st 1863. Four millions of slaves were liberated from bondage that had existed from the beginning of the National life. Henceforth a Government without a Master and without a Slave.” Lincoln is depicted in the postcard standing with his right arm raised over a black women slave and her children, while holding the emancipation proclamation rolled in his left hand.
Read my editorial on today’s comparisons between the Wide Awakes Vs. Being Woke.

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.

William Penn Clarke biography, Wilbur H. Siebert Underground Railroad Collection, Ohio History Connection

Ralph P. Lowe, Wikipedia

Justice Ralph P. Lowe (1860-1867), Iowa Judicial Branch, IowaCourts.gov

Ralph Phillips Lowe, Find-A-Grave

Free-Soil Party, (1848–54), Britannica.com

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854, United States Senate

History of Birmingham, The Van Buren County Historical Society, 1971

The Underground Railroad in Iowa, www.arcgis.com

‘Bright Radical Star’: When John Brown came to Iowa, Nicholas Dolan, Little Village Magazine, January 15, 2019

Freedom Trail, Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, February 4, 2015

Iowa Freedom Trail Project: Individuals by County, State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa

Large Practice, Iowa City Republican, October 28, 1874, p 3

William Penn Clarke, Iowa City Republican, March 11, 1884, p 3

Wm. Penn Clarke, Iowa City Republican, February 9, 1903, p 5

William Penn Clarke Dead, The Iowa Citizen, February 9, 1903, p 1

William Penn Clarke, Find-A-Grave

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