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ANB - Bio of the Day
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American National Biography Online
[ illustration ]
Jeremiah Clemens. Daguerreotype from
the studio of Mathew B. Brady.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-109966).
Clemens, Jeremiah (28 Dec. 1814-21 May 1865), politician and
novelist, was born in Huntsville, Alabama, the son of James Clemens,
a merchant. His mother's maiden name was Mills, but her first
name is unknown. Clemens spent the formative years of his life
in the northern Alabama upcountry town of Huntsville with his
affluent family. He entered La Grange College in 1830, but in
1831 he moved to the newly opened University of Alabama, graduating
in 1833. He also spent a year studying law at Transylvania University
in Lexington, Kentucky. In 1834 he married Mary Read; they had one child.
After practicing law in Huntsville for several years, Clemens
entered the Alabama House of Representatives in 1839. Capitalizing
on the anxieties of his upcountry constituents about the machinations
of commercial interests, he began a crusade against fraud and
irregularities in the Bank of the State of Alabama. He charged
several senior legislators with financial misconduct for receiving
money from the state bank. Clemens launched a high-profile investigation
of corrupt activities among the banks and legislators, but he
soon abandoned the issue.
In 1842 Clemens left the house to form a company of volunteers
to help Texas in its war with Mexico. After five months of fighting,
Clemens and Texas leader Sam Houston had a falling out over the
volunteers' usefulness. Houston felt the Alabamians were undisciplined
and that scarce resources should be reserved for more disciplined
Texas militia. Clemens and his men went home, and the Alabama
troops were not paid until 1851. After a brief return to the
legislature, Clemens in 1846 joined the army for the Mexican
War. He rose to the rank of colonel under the command of Winfield
Scott and was discharged in 1848.
In 1848 Clemens was chosen for the U.S. Senate in a controversial
legislative session that produced charges that Clemens, a Democrat,
had given assurances he would back Whig president Zachary Taylor.
Clemens received virtually unanimous Whig support and entered
the Senate as a "Taylor Democrat" pledged to support the president,
who lacked the backing of either of the political parties. Despite
his denials that he had made a secret pledge to the Whigs, a
cloud of suspicion remained in Alabama over the so-called "Clemens
sellout." He entered the Senate at the age of thirty-five, the
youngest man to do so to that time.
During the early part of 1850, Clemens devoted himself to slavery
and southern rights. He vocally opposed the admission of California
to the Union as a free state, arguing that such a move would
be tantamount to adopting the Wilmot Proviso, a measure restricting
slavery in the land acquired by the United States after the Mexican
War. Early in 1850 he denounced both abolitionists and southern
"submissionists" while opposing the Compromise of 1850. Yet he
was absent for many key votes, and when proslavery extremists
in Alabama talked of secession in 1851 and 1852, Clemens kept
his distance. He reversed his position, moving to an openly pro-Union
stance. His shift from southern radical to cautious Unionist
left him virtually without allies, and he became certain the
legislature would not reelect him to his seat. In 1851 and 1852
he devoted himself to convincing the people of Alabama to accept
the compromise and to reject the doctrine of the right of secession.
He was a rare southern politician in denying the right to secede,
but he argued that the South should not disguise threats of revolution
with the language of constitutional legality.
By 1852 Clemens was seen as more Whig than Democrat in Alabama,
in spite of his formal party affiliation, and Democrats refused
to elect him to another term in the Senate. C. C. Clay, Jr.,
a leading Democrat, expressed the sentiment of many when he charged
Clemens with inconsistency, calling him "a man who had betrayed
his party." In 1856 Clemens formally broke with the Democrats,
joining the short-lived Know Nothing party, a nativist organization
that had limited appeal in a state with few immigrants.
Following the collapse of the Know Nothings, Clemens temporarily
left politics and began publishing historical fiction. He wrote
Bernard Lile (1856) and Mustang Gray (1858), both of which were
dramatic stories that drew on his experience of the Southwest
in the Texas Revolution and Mexican War. He spent 1858 in Tennessee
editing a newspaper, the Eagle and Enquirer. In 1859 he published
The Rivals, a tale of the American Revolution that depicted the
young Aaron Burr as a heroic figure victimized by the plotting
of a malevolent Alexander Hamilton. Although Clemens showed some
facility with action scenes, the dialogue in the novels is wooden
and pretentious, and the characters are not well developed. The
novels have never been reprinted and have received little critical attention.
Clemens reentered politics in the secession crisis. He led the
Unionist forces in North Alabama and was elected to the state's
secession convention. In a dramatic speech he declared disunion
to be "wrong" and "treason." He nevertheless signed the ordinance
of secession and wrote a crucial letter declaring "every [convention]
member from North Alabama stands pledged to abide by the action
of the Convention." His endorsement dampened opposition to the
Confederacy in North Alabama in 1861. That same year he was appointed
major general of Alabama.
Failing to receive a powerful Confederate military commission
that he believed was due him because of his military experience,
Clemens led Alabama Unionists in opposition to the Confederacy
by 1862, earning the title of "archtraitor" among Confederates
in his home state. He traveled between Huntsville and Philadelphia
until his death, producing anti-Confederate political documents
and writing a Unionist novel, Tobias Wilson: A Tale of the Great
Rebellion (1865). He died in Huntsville.
Clemens had a deep distrust of centralized authority that was
characteristic of Alabama's political culture in the mid-nineteenth
century. Hostility to central power linked his opposition to
the bank and his resistance to supposed abolitionist attempts
to control the government in 1850. Distaste for strong central
power also lay behind his anger at both northern Republicans
and the planter class and served as the consistent thread linking
his actions throughout the war. His fiction reveals a theme consistent
with his political career, a dislike for the conspiratorial machinations
of authority. Nevertheless, while Clemens justified each move
in his inconsistent public career within the framework of his
republican political principles, the vast majority of his contemporaries
ascribed his actions to opportunism.
A small file of Clemens's papers is at the Alabama Department
of Archives and History. Vergil Bedsole, "The Life of Jeremiah
Clemens" (master's thesis, Univ. of Alabama, 1934), focuses on
politics. J. Mills Thornton III, Politics and Power in a Slave
Society: Alabama, 1800-1860 (1978), is the best guide to Clemens's
Ala. William R. Smith, History and Debates of the People of Alabama
(1861), documents Clemens's role in the secession crisis; and
William R. Garrett, Reminiscences of Public Men in Alabama for
Thirty Years (1872), provides a useful sketch. Walter Fleming,
Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (1905), remains an excellent
source on the war years.
Back to the top
Wallace Hettle. "Clemens, Jeremiah";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
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