Courtesy of the Arkansas History Commission
James Paul Clarke was born in Yazoo City, Mississippi, on August 8, 1854. The future governor was the son of a civil engineer who died in 1861, and was, therefore, raised by his mother. Clarke was educated in public schools and at Professor Tutwilder's Academy in Greenbrier, Alabama. He was admitted to the bar in 1879, one year after his graduation from the University of Virginia Law School.
In 1879, Clarke moved to Arkansas, where he opened a practice in Helena (Phillips County). It was not until 1886 that Clarke entered politics, with his election to two years in the Arkansas House of Representatives. From 1888 through 1892, Clarke served in the state Senate, where he served as president of that body in 1891. Clarke maintained his participation in politics as attorney general of Arkansas from 1892 to 1894.
The state’s Democrats selected Clarke as their nominee at the July 1894 state convention. It is believed that the other potential Democratic candidate, Elias W. Rector, bowed out of consideration with the promise that Clarke would back him for governor in 1896. The Populist party supported David Edward Barker and the Republicans selected Harmon L. Remmel to compete for the office of governor. One of Clarke’s fellow law students once called him “a strong, able, self-willed, determined man.” These characteristics were called forth when Clarke faced a large group of Populist party supporters at a speaking engagement for the three candidates in Conway. Rather than being deterred, Clarke seemed to be even more diligent in his pursuit of the office. After first complimenting Remmel, the Republican, Clarke went on the offensive against his Populist opponent. He called Barker a fraud who pretended to be a farmer, while he was actually a landlord who lived off of the labor of others. Clarke went on to remind his audience that in 1879 Barker had sponsored the so-called Whipping Post Bill that would have instituted flogging as a punishment for minor offenses. Throughout the campaign he emphasized the Democrats' stand on silver and skillfully used race to undermine and divide the opposition.
Clarke served as governor from 1895 to 1896. He sought to consolidate federal and state elections so that they would take place on the same day and perhaps be less wasteful. Though this proposal won the support of the Populist party, it was defeated by the state’s legislature, as they believed consolidated elections would result in the federal government interfering with local elections. Clarke also advocated four-year terms for state and county offices, quadrennial instead of biennial sessions for the general assembly, and a constitutional provision for a tax on franchises. During his tenure in office, he also crusaded to prevent prizefighting in Arkansas, threatening to use the state militia to stop the fight between James Fitzsimmons and James J. Corbett in Hot Springs. The legislature, however, did not pass any of these bills. In addition, many of the proposals Clarke made in his inaugural address fell through.
Declining re-nomination, Clarke sought a Senate position, opposing Senator James K. Jones in 1896. After defeats in the primaries, he withdrew from consideration, and so he moved in 1897 to Little Rock, Arkansas, where he practiced law for five years. In 1902, Clarke sought the Senate position again, with the hope of unseating Jones. Both Clarke and Jones agreed that the legislature should consider the winner of the primary the senator. Clarke won the primary, and though Jones protested the decision, the state’s legislature upheld Clarke’s victory. He served in the Senate from 1903 to his death in 1916.
Known for his "unqualified independence," he broke with his party in its opposition to President Theodore Roosevelt's policy on the Panama Canal. President Roosevelt, in fact, largely attributed the passage of the canal bill to him. Clarke was ardently in favor of Philippine independence. His differences with the Democratic party on some issues and his often volatile behavior did not keep him from being elected president pro tempore of the Senate in 1913 and 1915. He served in the Senate until his death in 1916.
Next: Daniel W. Jones