Champ Clark

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster delivered the last great speech of his distinguished career in defense of the Compromise of 1850. By historical coincidence, a future orator-statesman, Champ Clark, was born on that day in a poor cabin outside of Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

Missouri congressman, House minority leader, Speaker of the House, and unsuccessful Democratic Party presidential candidate, Champ Clark was a political leader during the Progressive Era. Like Daniel Webster, Clark’s oratorical skills furthered his career; like Webster, despite his party leadership, no major legislation bears his name; like Webster, the presidency eluded Clark. Unlike Senator Daniel Webster, Champ Clark’s political arena was the House of Representatives, where he led the Democrats in the 1910 fight to reduce the power of Speaker Joseph Cannon, and, as Speaker, inaugurated a series of democratic reforms.

Champ's Early Career

Clark moved to Missouri in 1875 after graduating with honors from Bethany College in West Virginia (1873) and from the Cincinnati Law School (1875). He taught school in Louisiana, Missouri, for a year before launching his legal career. He practiced law for most of the period 1876 to 1897, usually combining a private practice with a political post. He served as a city attorney for both Louisiana and Bowling Green, before becoming the Assistant County Attorney (1881-84) and the County Attorney for Pike County, Missouri (1884-88). He maintained his Bowling Green law office during his service in the State Legislature (1889) and for his first several terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Champ's Family

He married Genevieve Davis Bennett in 1881. The couple had four children. Champ and Anne Hamilton were both born and died in the 1880’s. Their surviving children were Bennett Champ, born in 1890, and Genevieve, born in 1894. This last child, Genevieve Clark Thompson, recalled in 1970 that her father was a reserved man who was not demonstrably affectionate. But the written word freed the congressman of his inhibitions. “My Sweet Genevieve, My Dear Wife” became the salutation for several hundred letters to his wife of thirty-nine years. After delivering a successful speech at Tammany Hall in 1893, Clark wrote that he had fought hard to succeed for his family. “…You and our dear little boy are always first in my thoughts... I think of those babies every day of my life,” the Speaker wrote in 1913 to a friend, Nim Long, about the deceased Champ and Anne. When he traveled the Chautauqua circuit, Clark sent daily cards and letters to Bennett and Genevieve as they were growing up. “…you know now or will know in the coming years how much I love you,” he wrote to the three year old Bennett. “Kiss Middy for me,” he wrote frequently to his “dear Bab." Clark’s correspondence with Bennett, while the younger man was in France during World War I, provides a poignant insight into the intense love between the two men. And when Genevieve’s only child, Champy, died of pneumonia in 1919, “my father quit living …”

Champ's Political Legacy

re a politically powerful Missouri family well into the twentieth century. Mrs. Clark, a graduate of the University of Missouri and teacher in Louisiana, Missouri, when Clark met her, became engrossed in his political career. She campaigned with Champ and was active in the congressional wives’ club and the women’s suffrage movement. In the 1930s, she encouraged Bennett’s career in the U.S. Senate, where he carried on his father’s political legacy of fiscal conservatism and isolationism. His sister, Genevieve, also campaigned for Bennett. She and her husband, James M. Thomson, publisher and editor of the New Orleans Item, were active in Democratic politics until their retirement in 1960. Treated as part of the family, Clarence Cannon began his career as the Speaker’s clerk and carried Clark’s memory and values throughout his own congressional career, 1923-64.

In his memoirs, Clark tells about his father giving him a copy of William Wirt’s Life of Patrick Henry when he was about ten years old. “…that book determined me to be a lawyer and a congressman before I had even seen a lawyer, a law-book, a court-house, or a Congressman." Although the Speaker can be accused of exaggeration in his childhood remembrance, the evidence is clear that he consciously planned a political career. Born James Beauchamp Clark, he experimented with “Jamie”, “Beauchamp” and “Beau” before settling upon “Champ” while a law student as an eye catching and easily remembered name. He joined the Missouri Democratic Party in 1876 and thereafter worked conscientiously to begin his “life work proper” which to Champ was a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. His goal was “…to achieve a name worthy of a place beside the best of the immortals."

He began his quest at the local level. Clark became a popular civic and religious leader, first in Louisiana and then in Bowling Green. In July, 1876, he was elected a member of the Louisiana Fire Company. He helped organize the Louisiana Lyceum where he enjoyed debating this kind of topic: “Affirmed: That the Whipping Post Should be Re-established as a Punishment for Petty Larceny." He raised a Sunday school class for young men for the Church of the Disciples in Bowling Green and taught it throughout 1889. He was also active in the Masons.

Clark was engaged in Democratic politics steadily from 1876 onward. After holding local and county prosecutor positions, he was elected to a term in the state legislature in 1888. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination to the House in 1890 for Missouri’s Ninth District, but won both the nomination and the election in 1892. He failed re-election in 1894 due to the depression, but was re-elected in 1896 and in each successive election until 1920, when he lost in the post-World War I Republican landslide. Clark’s hold on the Ninth’s congressional seat was due not only to his popularity but to the gerrymandering tactics of the Democratically controlled state legislature.

Champ's Bid for Presidency

As the election of 1912 approached, Clark enjoyed support for the presidential nomination among party regulars from the West, Midwest and South. At the Baltimore convention, he led the voting for twenty-seven ballots, holding a majority on nine. But William Jennings Bryan switched his support to Woodrow Wilson on the fourteenth ballot. In addition, Clark’s florid rhetoric, his partisanship, and his cries for harmony obscured his progressive tendencies from the urban press and from progressive delegates. He was viewed by some as a time server who had never sponsored any important legislation. He failed to gain the required two-thirds majority, and on the forty-sixth ballot, Woodrow Wilson was nominated.

His memoirs reveal that Clark regarded his loss of the presidential nomination as the central event of his career. Historically, however, he is more significant as a congressional leader. As minority leader after 1908, he unified the rural and urban factions of the House Democrats, leading them in their opposition to the Payne-Aldrich tariff (1909) and in the removal of Speaker Joseph Cannon from the Rules Committee (1910). As Speaker after 1911, Clark democratized House procedures at the expense of his own power, for example by permitting a division of debate time between Democrats and Republicans. He also restored the caucus, and actively led the Democratic majority in the achievement of New Freedom legislation after 1913. Declaring that he refused to be “… a rubber stamp Speaker." Clark spoke out in debate, for example, resisting the Selective Service Act, and resisting until 1917 U.S. entry into World War I. Clark’s popularity as Speaker was so great that he was re-elected in 1916 when the Republicans could have elected a Republican Speaker.

Champ Clark was a colorful and significant political leader. He is the only Speaker of the House in Missouri’s history and was a major political leader during the Progressive Era. Further, he is representative of a political type at the turn of the century. Wearing a broad-brimmed slouch hat, a stand up collar, and cutaway coat, Champ Clark defended America’s farmers from industrial “plutocrats.” He was a “ring-tailed roarer” on behalf of America’s past, even as he supported such policies as women’s suffrage, the income tax, and the direct election of senators, which pushed the country into a new future.