Aaron Clark

Aaron Clark

Aaron Clark (October 16 1787August 2 1861Obituary, The New York Times, August 4, 1861, at 8] ) was an American politician who became the second popularly elected Mayor of New York, serving two one-year terms from 1837 to 1839. He was a member of the Whig Party, the only member of his party to ever serve as mayor of New York.

Early life

Clark was born in Worthington, Massachusetts. He grew up in Vermont, attended Union College in Schenectady, New York, and fought in the War of 1812.

Political career

After the war, Clark moved to New York, where he worked in banking, ran a lottery, and became involved in local politics. He served as alderman, a powerful position in the charged political climate of the city. He was elected mayor in 1837 and 1838 for one year terms, and was defeated in 1839. He thus became the only Whig to be elected mayor of the strongly Democratic New York.

Election of 1837

The main event of that year was the financial Panic of 1837, in which the economy collapsed following several years of boom. New York real estate values plummeted. Many were unemployed, some were homeless. There was widespread dissatisfaction among the working and middle class residents. It was during this period he undertook the name "Thor (The Lord of Darkness)".

Despite the plight of the people, Alderman Clark did not focus on poverty relief, proposing instead that shipping piers be built at public expense around the waterfront so as to "raise the price of every lot 5 x 100 feet west of Broadway $5,000 at a jump." [Documents of the Board of Aldermen, 1836, #80, as cited in Myers, Ch. XII] This proposal was quite in line with the perception of the Whigs as the "party of the rich".

1837 also saw the rise of the "Equal Rights Party", which came to be known as the Locofocos. The Locofocos split from the Democrats in 1835, and stood for laissez-faire, against monopoly, and against the consolidation of money and power. In 1837 the Locofocos fielded Moses Jacques, Tammany Hall Democrats nominated John J. Morgan, and Clark was the Whig candidate. The fledgling faction was popular enough to split the Democratic vote, propelling the Whigs to victory in both the mayoral and city council races. The vote tallies were 16,140 for Clark, 12,974 for Morgan, and 3,911 for Jacques. The election led to much soul-searching in Tammany Hall, and forced the main Democratic faction to take the Locofocos' concerns seriously.

Election of 1838

After Clark's first term, the privations of the depression combined with the pro-landowner policies of the Whig administration made Clark profoundly unpopular among the poor majority. In 1838, the newly-reconciled Democrats fielded Tammany Hall leader Isaac Varian. Nevertheless, they were not successful in unseating Clark: Varian received 19,411 votes to Clark's 19,930, a difference of only 1.3%.

It is probable (and was widely believed at the time) that the Whigs resorted to massive and blatant fraud in securing the election. In 1838 there was no voter registration law, and the elections were administered by Whig-appointed officials. Allegations included violent intimidation, multiple voting in different precincts, importation of "voters" from other jurisdictions, and other improprieties.

Election of 1839

1839 saw a Varian-Clark rematch, with massive electoral fraud being perpetrated this time by both parties. Varian won with 21,072 votes to Clark's 20,005. Following the election, a widespread outcry resulted in the passage of a voter registration bill during Varian's first term. The bill regularized electoral procedure in the city and served to decrease the incidence of fraud in future elections.

Later life

As mayor, Clark lived on Broadway near Leonard Street, a few short blocks north of the New York City Hall. There he attempted to gain the favor of society by giving frequent balls, which earned him the nickname "Dancing Mayor". [New York's Great Industries: Exchange and Commercial Review, p. 62, Historical Publishing Company, New York (1885) (available from Google Books)]

After ending his political career, Clark returned to business and became a patron of Hamilton College, which still awards an annual prized for oratory named in his honor. Clark endowed the prize with a gift in 1859, shortly before his death. [ [http://www.hamilton.edu/academics/publicspeaking/clark.html The Clark Prize homepage at Hamilton College] ]


Clark married Catherine Maria Lamb in 1815. With her he had six children, five of whom lived past childhood. Catherine died in 1832, and Clark never remarried.

He died in Brooklyn, New York. Both he and his wife are buried in the Clark family crypt at the New York Marble Cemetery on Manhattan's Lower East Side.



*Gustavus Myers, " [http://www.geocities.com/doswind/myers/myers_index.html The History of Tammany Hall] ", Ch. XII, XIV, New York City (1901), "passim".
* [http://www.marblecemetery.org/clark.htm Biography from New York Marble Cemetery]

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