James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark
James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark was a prominent Democratic politician from Missouri. Clark served in the U.S. House of Representatives for twenty-six years. He was Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1911 to 1919. In 1912 Clark unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for President, losing to Woodrow Wilson.
James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark was born on March 7, 1850, near Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. He was the third child and only son of John H. and Aletha Beauchamp Clark. Champ’s father unsuccessfully engaged in a number of different professions, including wagon making, dentistry, and teaching.
After Aletha Clark died when Champ was three years old, John Clark left his two surviving children with an elderly, childless couple. Champ’s father later hired him out to a local farmer. It was, Champ recalled, “perhaps the best thing that ever happened to me. It kept me out-of-doors, developed my body, taught me habits of industry, and made me love agriculture.”
Schoolhouse in Anderson County, Kentucky Schoolhouse in Anderson County, Kentucky.
Champ Clark taught school at this rural schoolhouse in Anderson County, Kentucky, as a young man. He later observed, “Breaking up schools and running out teachers was not uncommon in those lawless days, but they did not break up any of mine and they did not run me out. My chief qualification as a teacher was my physical size and strength, which stood me in good stead.”
[Champ Clark and Bennett Champ Clark Papers,1850-1921 (C0666), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
When he was not working, Champ attended school and read as many books as he could. One of the books Champ read was William Wirt’s Life of Patrick Henry. Champ later said the book “made it appear that winning lawsuits and going to Congress were as easy as falling off a log.” He added, “I have not found it so; but that book determined me to be a lawyer and a Congressman before I had ever seen a lawyer, a law book, a court house, or a Congressman.”
In 1867, when he was seventeen, Champ enrolled at Kentucky University (now Transylvania University) in Lexington. Although his family tried to help Clark financially, it was not enough, so he taught school during the summer months to earn money. In a short period of time, Clark was ranked first in his university class.
Old Morrison, Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky
Old Morrison, Transylvania University, Lexington, Kentucky.
Built in 1834, this building existed when Champ Clark was a student. Although he was first in his class, Clark did not graduate after he was expelled for firing his pistol at a classmate during a quarrel.
[Lenoir-Nifong Family Papers, 1813-1955 (C3656), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
Clark’s time at the university came to a premature end after he fired his pistol at one of his roommates in self-defense during a quarrel. He was expelled and returned home. After two years, Clark was invited to return to Kentucky University, but he instead chose to attend Bethany College in Bethany, West Virginia. He graduated first in his class in 1873.
Shortly after graduation, Clark was elected president of Marshall College. At age twenty-three, he was the youngest college president in the history of the United States. Clark used the money from his $1300 yearly salary to enroll at the Cincinnati School of Law. It was during this time that he shortened his name to “Champ” because, according to Clark, there was “one J.B. Clark at every post-office in America.” He graduated at the top of his law class in 1875 and headed to Kansas to seek his fortune.
Coming to Missouri
Champ Clark began his political career in 1877 when he was elected city attorney in Louisiana, Missouri.
[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (C179_96)]
Pike County, Missouri, Courthouse.
Pike County, Missouri, has had six courthouses during its history. This is the fourth courthouse and would have been the one where Champ Clark spent much of his time as a lawyer. It was completed in 1867 and was destroyed by fire in 1915.
[Illustrated Atlas Map of Pike County, Missouri, 1875, p. 13. SHS REF F682.3 P635 1875]
Despite glowing reports of economic opportunity in Kansas, Clark was unable to find employment. He traveled to Missouri and accepted a job as the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in Louisiana, Missouri. Clark resigned after one year and began practicing law. In 1877 he was elected Louisiana city attorney. Clark ran unsuccessfully for the state legislature in 1878, but remained active in Democratic politics.
A Career in Politics
In 1880 Clark was elected city attorney of Bowling Green, Missouri, but soon resigned to serve as Assistant Prosecuting Attorney in Pike County. His skill as a lawyer helped secure his election as the Prosecuting Attorney of Pike County, Missouri. After years of struggling to build a career, Clark was finally gaining ground. He married Genevieve Bennett on December 14, 1881.
Genevieve Bennett Clark
Genevieve Bennett Clark.
The Clarks were married for almost forty years before his death in 1920.
[Champ Clark and Bennett Champ Clark Papers,1850-1921(C0666), The State Historical Society of Missouri, Manuscript Collection-Columbia]
Champ Clark and Son.
Champ Clark taking his son Joel Bennett “Champ” Clark to visit the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, DC, circa 1893. Bennett Champ, as he was commonly known, became a U.S. Senator from Missouri and later served on the U.S. Court of Appeals.
[The State Historical Society of Missouri Photograph Collection (C321_1)]
The Clarks’s first two children, Champ and Anne, died in infancy. The couple had two surviving children, Joel Bennett and Genevieve.
In 1888 Clark successfully ran for the Missouri state legislature. Emboldened by his success, he sought the Democratic nomination to the U.S. House of Representatives for Missouri’s Ninth District in 1890, but failed. Champ Clark was not one to give up easily.
Bowling Green, Missouri
Two years later Clark was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, only to be defeated in the election of 1894. He was reelected in 1896 and served the next twelve terms—twenty-four years—until 1921.
During his tenure, Clark served twice as minority leader. In 1911 he was elected Speaker of the House due to his reputation as a skillful orator and party loyalist. Although Clark championed the causes of his constituents and the Democratic party, he failed to sponsor any significant legislation during his time in office.
As a politician, he supported agrarian interests over corporate interests, women’s suffrage, the establishment of an income tax, and the direct election of U.S. Senators.
1912 Democratic Presidential Nomination
Honey Shuck Honey Shuck.
The house was named “Honey Shuck” after the seed-pods from the numerous locust trees in the front yard. When Clark was touted as a potential presidential candidate, the St. Louis Republic wondered if Bowling Green, Missouri, would become the new summer White House.
[The State Historical Society of Missouri, Photograph Collection (C323_1)]
When the 1912 Democratic National Convention convened in Baltimore, Clark was nominated for the presidency. In the early rounds of voting, he received a large number of votes, but not the required two-thirds majority needed to secure the nomination. After forty-six rounds of voting, Clark lost the nomination to New Jersey governor Woodrow Wilson, who was elected the twenty-eighth President of the United States. It was a terrible blow to Clark, but he remained loyal to the Democratic party. Clark helped ensure the passage of Wilson’s progressive “New Freedom
New Freedom was Woodrow Wilson's platform for change during the 1912 U.S. presidential election. After being elected, Wilson focused his efforts on tariff, business, and banking reforms. Tariffs are taxes, usually paid on imported goods. The New Freedom reforms established the Federal Trade Commission, which was tasked with investigating unfair and illegal business practices, and the Federal Reserve System, which is the central banking system of the country. Important legislation that was passed included the Federal Farm Loan Act, which supported farmers by helping them to borrow money to make improvements to their farms.
” legislative agenda which remains one of the most ambitious legislative programs in American political history.
Woodrow Wilson, former president of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey, won the 1912 Democratic presidential nomination.
[Courtesy of Library of Congress]
In 1915, during one of Clark’s many return visits to Bowling Green, a mob attempted to break into the county jail to lynch an African-American laborer suspected of killing his white employer. Champ Clark, his son Bennett, and other prominent citizens responded to the sheriff’s call for assistance, but the mob fled by the time help arrived.
After the end of World War I in 1918, voters were disillusioned with Woodrow Wilson and the Democratic Party. During the 1920 presidential election, Republican candidate Warren G. Harding promised a return to “normalcy”
During the 1920 U.S. presidential election, Warren G. Harding promised a return to "normalcy" and won in a landslide. The slogan referred to returning to a pre-World War I mind-set in which America focused on peace and prosperity at home and not on foreign relations.
. Harding proved extremely popular with the American public. He easily defeated Democratic candidate James M. Cox for the presidency.
Harding’s victory was part of a Republican landslide that swept Democrats at all levels out of office, including Champ Clark. Clark was defeated in his bid for reelection by Republican newcomer Theodore W. Hukriede.
Although his political defeat was a great blow to Clark, an even greater loss occurred a year later when his grandson Champ Clark Thompson died of pneumonia
Pneumonia is an illness that affects an individual's lungs. It is caused by bacterial or viral infections that inflame the air sacs in the lungs and make it difficult to breathe. An individual suffering from pneumonia may have a cough, fever, breathing difficulties, and chest pain. Pneumonia can affect people of all ages and can lead to death if it is left untreated.
. After the boy’s death, Genevieve Clark Thompson sadly observed, “My father quit living.”
Champ Clark remains the only Speaker of the House from Missouri and one of the most distinguished politicians in Missouri’s history.
[My Quarter Century in American Politics, by Champ Clark, 1920, frontispiece. SHS REF F508.1 C547c]
Champ Clark died on March 2, 1921, just five days before his seventy-first birthday. His funeral was held in the hall of the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C. He is buried in the Bowling Green City Cemetery in Bowling Green, Missouri.
Champ Clark remains the only Speaker of the House from Missouri and one of the most distinguished politicians in Missouri’s history.
References and Resources
For more information about Champ Clark's life and career, see the following resources:
The following is a selected list of books, articles, and manuscripts about Champ Clark in the research centers of The State Historical Society of Missouri. The Society’s call numbers follow the citations in brackets. All links will open in a new tab.
- “Account of How He Received His First Ten Dollars.” Jefferson City Democrat Tribune. January 25, 1918, p. 4.
- “Elected Speaker of United States House of Representatives.” Jefferson City Democrat Tribune. April 5, 1911, p. 1.
- “Funeral Services in House Chamber for Champ Clark.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch. March 3, 1921, p. 2.
- “Not Beverly or Oyster Bay, But Bowling Green, Missouri: Will This Little ‘Show Me’ State City, Hardly More Than a Village, Become Uncle Sam’s Summer Capital?” St. Louis Republic. May 26, 1912.
- Allen, Betty Jane. “Mr. Speaker.” Missouri Life. v. 5, no. 6. (January-February 1978), pp. 42-47. [F586 M6912 v. 5 (1977-78)]
- Christensen, Lawrence O., William E. Foley, Gary R. Kremer, and Kenneth H. Winn, eds. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999. pp. 186-188. [REF F508 D561]
- Clark, Champ. My Quarter Century of American Politics. New York: Harper, 1920. [REF F508.1 C547c v.1-2]
- Morrison, Geoffrey F. “America’s Ring-Tailed Roarer: Speaker of the House Champ Clark.” Gateway Heritage. v. 10, no. 4 (Spring 1990), pp. 56-63. [REF F550 M69gh v.10-11 (1989-91)]
- _____. A Political Biography of Champ Clark. Ph.D. Dissertation, St. Louis University, 1972. [REF F508.1C547m 1986]
- U.S. Congress. Champ Clark (Late a Representative from Missouri) Memorial Addresses Delivered in the House of Representatives of the United States. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922. [REF F508.1 C547u]
- Webb, W.L. Champ Clark. New York: Neale Publishing Co., 1912. [REF F508.1 C547w]
- Clark, Champ (1850-1921) and Bennett Champ (1890-1954), Papers, 1853-1973 (C0666)
Political and personal papers of James Beauchamp “Champ” Clark, a Democratic U.S. congressman from Missouri, 1893-1895 and 1897-1921, and his son Bennett Champ Clark, a Democratic U.S. senator from Missouri, 1933-1945. Also includes materials of other family members. Collection contains correspondence, financial and legal documents, journals, photographs, speeches and writings, and clippings and scrapbooks.
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