Henry Toole Clark

Written By R. Matthew Poteat

Henry Toole Clark was the second of North Carolina’s three Civil War governors.  As the Speaker of the Senate, he assumed the governorship after the death of Gov. John W. Ellis on July 7, 1861, and he served until the expiration of his term on September 8, 1862.  His term preceded Gov. Zebulon B. Vance administration.  The war dominated Clark’s gubernatorial term, and much of his energies as chief executive involved the mobilization of troops for the Confederate cause.

Clark was born on his family’s plantation at Walnut Creek in Edgecombe County on February 7, 1808.  Family members included Revolutionary War soldiers and statesmen, congressmen, senators, and clergymen.  His father James West Clark served in both houses of North Carolina’s General Assembly (1802-1803, 1811-1814) and was elected as a Democratic-Republican to the Fourteenth Congress (1815-1817).  From 1829 to 1831, he served in President Andrew Jackson’s administration as Chief Clerk of the Navy Department.  Henry T. Clark learned his first political lessons at his father’s knee, and throughout his life he clung to the republican convictions he learned in his youth.

The conservative Clarks were members of that elite planter class that dominated social and political thought in antebellum North Carolina.  They owned thousands of acres of land and scores of slaves.  Their many and varied business interests included slave hire and land rentals in North Carolina, Alabama, and Tennessee.
Clark graduated with honors from the University of North Carolina in 1826 and read law at Raleigh under his uncle, William H. Haywood, a future Democratic U. S. Senator (1843-1846).  He joined the bar in 1833.  Clark occupied a prominent position in the social, economic, and political life of Edgecombe County—a county whose powerful Democratic constituency played an active role in the state’s political dramas of the 1840s and 1850s.  From the late 1830s, he worked in the Democratic Party as a platform writer, local party chairman, and state and national convention delegate.  He served six consecutive two-year terms in the state senate from 1850 and was that body’s presiding officer from 1858 to 1861. 

As a state senator, Clark generally promoted state funded internal improvement projects, though he was suspicious of any extension of government authority.  He considered himself as “belonging” to the “school of States-rights and State-remedies” and he distrusted Henry Clay-Whigs, “northern men,” and the federal government.  As a “strict constructionist,” he was committed to small government, low taxes, and debt avoidance.  He voted against ad valorem taxation of slaves and opposed federal subsidies for public projects.  On national issues he supported the Mexican War and “southern rights” and he considered slaves to be private property protected by the U. S. Constitution.  Thus he supported slavery’s expansion to the territories.  He advocated state-funded colonization of free blacks to Africa.  He thought secession was a legal right held by the states, but he was never a fire-eater.  During the critical decade of the 1850s, he warmed to the thought that separation from the Union would be the only way to protect slavery but took a cautious approach to the winter secession crisis of 1860-1861.  He believed Lincoln’s election an inadequate excuse for leaving the Union and publicly supported secession only after the firing on Fort Sumter. 

As war governor, he was a Confederate nationalist and rigidly enforced such unpopular Confederate policies as conscription.  He believed in a southern slaveholding confederacy—a confederacy of strong states governed by a “virtuous white male democracy” with members of the planter “master class” at its head.  When this vision was shattered at Appomattox, Clark reentered politics and was reelected to the state senate in 1866.  He backed President Andrew Johnson’s lenient Reconstruction plan.  He joined the newly formed Conservative Party made up of Democrats and former Whigs to oppose the Republicans and North Carolina’s 1868 constitution which modernized the state’s antebellum government and granted certain rights to the newly freed slaves.  He resisted “radical” Congressional Reconstruction and as a state senator voted against ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.

In addition to his political activities, Clark spent his last years working on genealogical projects and collecting artifacts and memorabilia from North Carolina’s history.  He was a life-long and devout Episcopalian.  He died at home on April 14, 1874, and is buried in the Calvary Episcopal churchyard at Tarboro.  Contemporaries praised him for his “honesty, high character, and Christian fortitude.”