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FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [Jeremiah Clemens]

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  • Amos J Wright
    ________________________________ From: biod-request@www.anb.org [mailto:biod-request@www.anb.org] Sent: Thu 12/28/2006 1:50 AM To: ANB bioday mailing list
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      ANB - Bio of the Day

      From: biod-request@... [mailto:biod-request@...]
      Sent: Thu 12/28/2006 1:50 AM
      To: ANB bioday mailing list
      Subject: 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.  

       Wallace Hettle

         Back to the top

       Wallace Hettle. "Clemens, Jeremiah";
      American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
      Access Date:
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