Richard Henry Clarke (1843-1906) served in the American Civil War, practiced law, and represented Alabama’s First Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1889 to 1897. While in Congress, he was an early supporter of Rural Free Delivery, which brought mail service to rural parts of the nation, and championed many improvements to Alabama’s rivers and harbors. He mounted an unsuccessful campaign for governor of Alabama in 1896 and served in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1900 to 1901.
Clarke was born in Dayton, Marengo County, on February 9, 1843, to William E. and Rebecca Raincock Clarke, both of Virginia. William E. Clarke was a veteran of the War of 1812, an attorney, and a member of Alabama’s 1861 Secession Convention who voted in favor of the ordinance. Richard Henry Clarke was the second of 11 children. He was educated in Marengo County schools and attended Green Springs Academy, a Hale County school for boys established by Henry Tutwiler, father of Alabama educator and prison reformer Julia S. Tutwiler. Clarke graduated from the University of Alabama with a bachelor of arts degree in July 1861. In October, he married Mary Kate Burke of Tuscaloosa; together, they would have four children. After his graduation, Clarke joined the Confederate Army, serving as a second lieutenant in the First Battalion of Alabama Artillery, which was organized and stationed at Fort Morgan. The battalion defended Forts Morgan and Gaines during the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.
Upon his return from the Civil War, Clarke began studying law. In 1867, he was admitted to the Alabama bar and opened a practice in Dayton with his father, later moving to Demopolis. He served as Marengo County solicitor from 1872 to 1876, when he became the solicitor for Seventh Judicial Circuit of Alabama. He served in this position until 1877. Mary Kate Clarke died in 1874, and Clarke married a second time on August 15, 1877, to Helen Gaines Foote, a descendant of the important Lyon and Gaines families of Alabama. Together, they would have two daughters. In 1881, Clarke and his family moved from Demopolis to Mobile, where he opened another law practice.
In the late 1880s, Clarke began a political career as one of the Bourbon Democrats, a faction of conservative Black Belt politicians who gained control of the state in the 1874 election and effectively ended Reconstruction. In 1889, he was elected to the 51st U.S. Congress as a representative of the First District of Alabama, which included Choctaw, Marengo, Clarke, Monroe, Mobile, and Washington counties. He won the seat left vacant by retiring Democrat James Taylor Jones. Clarke would serve four terms. During his tenure, he focused on developing Alabama’s waterways as a member of the Rivers and Harbors Committee. He advocated for improving navigation on the Alabama River and Black Warrior River and in Mobile Bay, including deepening the channel of Mobile Harbor. One of Clarke’s major contributions while in Congress was his 1892 bill to establish mail collection and delivery in rural areas. Later championed by Georgia congressman Tom Watson, this service was enacted by law in 1896 as Rural Free Delivery.
Declining to run for a fifth term in Congress (his seat was won by Democrat George Washington Taylor), Clarke instead entered the 1896 race for Alabama governor. Clarke competed for the Democratic nomination against Joseph F. Johnston, a moderate conservative who ran on a platform of election reform, supported free coinage of silver, and courted the votes of Populist farmers. Clarke was a conservative Democrat and the Bourbon elites’ candidate of choice. He was also a notable defender of the gold standard; in July 1895, he debated free-silver presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska at the Mobile Theatre. With a broader base of appeal and the support of the State Democratic Executive Committee, Johnston easily defeated Clarke in the primary in April 1896 and went on to win the governorship.
After his failed gubernatorial run, Clark served as president of the Alabama State Bar Association. He was elected to one term in the Alabama House of Representatives from 1900 to 1901, during which he was a vocal supporter of creating a state archive. On February 7, 1901, he introduced a bill to establish the Alabama Department of Archives and History. After his legislative term ended, he did not hold office again, though he remained involved in politics. Clarke made regular speaking appearances around the state until his health declined in the summer of 1905. He died of pneumonia on September 26, 1906, in St. Louis, Missouri, while traveling to join his wife and daughters, who were vacationing in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Mobile.
- Going, Allen J. Bourbon Democracy in Alabama, 1874-1890. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1951.