As a youngster, friends all described James Paul Clarke as “determined.” He was angry, passionate, and obsessive about ideas. Clarke’s passions would create many enemies in an up-and-down political career.
He was born in Mississippi in 1854. His father died when he was seven, leaving his mother to raise him along. Clarke briefly edited a newspaper in his hometown of Yazoo City before earning a law degree from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville in 1878. In 1879, he moved to Arkansas setting up a law practice in Ozark before settling in Helena.
In 1886, he was elected to the state legislature, followed by election to the state senate in 1888. Clarke rose quickly. He had worked well with other senators, rising to the position of President of the Senate by 1891. In 1892, he became Attorney General. In 1894, he ran for governor.
The 1894 campaign for governor was unusual, and it brought out Clarke’s vicious competitive streak. He won the Democratic nomination and faced Republican and Populist Party opponents in the general election. For five weeks, they went across the state together giving joint speeches to let the public compare them directly. Clarke continually attacked Populist David Barker of Drew County, claiming he was not a farmer but a landlord and that no one had ever seen him actually work his own fields. Clarke, of course, was an attorney from an upper-class plantation family. It was a bitter, racially-charged, divisive election, but Clarke prevailed in the September contest with nearly 60% of the vote.
As governor, Clarke asked for a convention for a new constitution to replace the one ratified only in 1874. He pushed for a number of election reforms for the state. Clarke called for four-year terms for all state and county officeholders instead of two-year terms as well as holding state elections on the same day as federal elections. In the interest of efficiency, he also called for the legislature to meet every four years instead of every two. Each of the proposals were shot down. It would be years more before the state had consolidated elections and four-year terms would not appear for state constitutional offices until the 1980s. The 1874 Constitution is still in use. And legislators now meet for annual sessions instead.
State Rep. Joseph T. Robinson, a future U. S. Senator, proposed a state railroad commission to oversee railroad hauling rates to help farmers, similar to railroad commissions emerging in other states in the late 1800s. Gov. Clarke agreed with the idea and pushed for passage, but the bill failed. Angrily, Clarke charged that railroads had bribed legislators to oppose it. The charge led to a fistfight between the governor and State Rep. William R. Jones. Reportedly, one witness said Clarke spit in his face. Another witness said Clarke pulled a gun on him. Regardless, the feud was soon defused.
In 1896, Clarke ran for the US Senate. Democrats, however, rejected him at their state convention. Humiliated, he left the governorship after one term to practice law in Little Rock for the next few years.
In 1902, Clarke won election to the US Senate, winning re-election in 1908 and 1914. His frustrations often boiled over, and his temper and blistering speeches were often on display. His positions often enraged fellow Democrats, but he became surprisingly effective as a legislator. He helped push through the Seventeenth Amendment, which turned elections of U. S. Senators away from the state legislatures and to the people through a direct vote. He supported the construction of the Panama Canal as well as the 1906 Hepburn Act, which strengthened regulations on railroads and how they charged customers, an important issue for Arkansas farmers.
Clarke, like many others, was uncomfortable with how the United States had gained possession of The Philippines at the end of the Spanish-American War in 1898. America had spent the next four years suppressing an independence movement in a war that left 50,000 dead. He pushed a controversial bill granting independence to The Philippines. The bill failed, but The Philippines would become independent in 1946.
In March 1913, after Democrats regained control of the Senate, fellow Democrats honored him by electing Clarke president pro tempore of the Senate, a position established in the Constitution to preside over the Senate. The position made him third in line to the presidency, the only Arkansan to ever hold the position.
During his time as president pro tempore, Clarke helped guide through the Senate the creation of the Federal Reserve, creating the modern banking system, the Clayton Antitrust Act, which clamped down on monopolies, and the Newlands Labor Act, which required railroads and railroad employees settle labor disputes through federal arbitration. One of Clarke’s last acts in the US Senate was directed to curtail the problem of child labor. He successfully pushed through a bill establishing the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor, designed to monitor their working conditions and safety. While a first step to ending it, child labor would not be banned until 1938.
He died in 1916 after a sudden illness. Arkansas would later honor Clarke by having his statue placed in the Capitol, one of only two allowed per state. Though remembered by few today, Clarke had risen to become one of the most respected of Arkansans.