a digital library of Unitarian Universalist biographies, history, books, and media
the digital library of Unitarian Universalism
Home » Biographies » Clark, Grenville (1882-1967)

Clark, Grenville (1882-1967)

Harvard Square Library exists solely on the basis of donations.  If you have benefitted from any of our materials, and/or if making Unitarian Universalist intellectual heritage materials widely available and free is a value to you, please donate whatever you can–every little bit helps: Donate 

gc1 clark_g1He was a tall, strong-framed man, with a rugged face, jutting eyebrows, and a great square jaw. He was the personification of tenacity, but his eyes were known to twinkle and his measured voice often chuckled. New Englander by temperament, aristocrat by birth, Harvardian by education, lawyer by profession, and citizen by vocation, Grenville Clark was perhaps the least-known of the Americans who helped shape the course of the Twentieth Century. “He is that rare thing in America,” his close friend Felix Frankfurter once wrote, “a man of independence, financially and politically, who devotes himself as hard to public affairs as a private citizen as he would were he in public office.” The historian Elting E. Morison summed Clark up as one who “appeared, in critical or confusing times, as a lobby for particular impulses of the national conscience.” His work spanned war and peace, education, politics, and the law, and he well deserved the title “statesman incognito.”

He was born in New York City in 1882, heir to a banking and railroad fortune. Educated at Pomfret and Harvard (where he was Phi Beta Kappa and a Law School graduate, Class of 1906), he married in 1909 the former Fanny Dwight of Boston. He was a member of the ultra-exclusive Porcellian, Somerset, and Knickerbocker Clubs; Clark had impeccable “establishment” credentials. In 1909 he and fellow law school classmates Francis W. Bird and Elihu Root, Jr. set up a small law office in New York at 31 Nassau Street, and within a few years the firm had grown into one of the largest and most prestigious in the country, especially noted for the many bright young lawyers it trained and passed on to positions of prominence.

The Corporation of Harvard University, circa 1945. Front, left to right: Dr. Roger I. Lee, Grenville Clark, President James B. Conant. Rear, left to right: Paul Cabot, Charles A. Coolidge, William L. Marbury, Henry L. Shattuck.

The Corporation of Harvard University, circa 1945. Front, left to right: Dr. Roger I. Lee, Grenville Clark, President James B. Conant. Rear, left to right: Paul Cabot, Charles A. Coolidge, William L. Marbury, Henry L. Shattuck.

In 1931 the Wall Street lawyer was elected to the seven man Corporation that governs Harvard University, thus accentuating his “elitist” image. Nonetheless, Brahmin ties and Wall Street connections did not mold Grenville Clark. Money and bloodlines did not corrupt. There was something about him, an independence of spirit, a dogged curiosity, a supreme indifference to ignorant criticism, that made him a unique member of the “establishment.”

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Clark was the quiet and unobtrusive manner in which he conducted his public activities. He was given the epithet “statesman incognito,” because he was virtually unknown to the general public but known very well to a few thousand persons of large influence in national affairs. This was the way Clark wanted it. Caring nothing for publicity, he took pride in his role as an independent critic, free to suggest solutions whenever the need arose. So concerned was he about preserving this independent status that when he went to Washington for a few months in the autumn of 1941, as a special assistant to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, he refused the nominal “dollar-a-year” salary.

Grenville Clark during WWI, Washington, D.C.

Grenville Clark during WWI, Washington, D.C.

His public services were many and varied. His first important undertaking involved the famous military training camps for business and professional men at Plattsburg, New York. It was Clark and several of his New York friends who first approached General Leonard Wood, after the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, setting in motion a practical campaign to prepare the country for war with Germany. Out of these training camps came the idea of selective service in 1917, as well as some one hundred thousand officers who led the National Army into battle in 1918.

While General Wood stood larger in the public spotlight and aroused popular support for the training camps, it was Clark who directed the movement, always taking care not to antagonize the Democratic Wilson administration and making sure that Wood’s political ambitions would not wreck their efforts.

After the war (in which Clark won the Distinguished Service Medal for his work in the Adjutant General’s office), he returned to his Wall Street law practice. He worked hard at the law during the 1920s, so hard that in 1926 he suffered a breakdown from nervous exhaustion. These problems with his health remained for the rest of his life, forcing him to curtail much of his legal work and devote himself to the more flexible demands of public service.

This decision to concentrate on public work crystallized in 1931 when Clark joined the Harvard Corporation. That same year he and Archibald Roosevelt organized the National Economy League, which for the next several years worked toward balancing the federal budget. Since many officers of the National Economy League were former Plattsburgers who supported the principle of a citizen’s military obligation in wartime, it was interesting that they focused their economic demands on what they believed were overgenerous veterans’ compensations, which at that time totalled more than a billion dollars, almost half the federal budget. As a director of the National Economy League, Clark obtained the ear of his old friend and Harvard contemporary, President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt, and drafted what later became the Economy Act of 1933, one of the first measures of the so-called “Hundred Days.”

Clark was a watchful critic of the public scene during the 1930s. He supported the New Deal and voted for FDR in both 1932 and 1936. Indeed, there is a symbolic photograph of Clark and Roosevelt at the Harvard tercentenary celebration in 1936, both men in formal attire, sitting in the rain, apart from the rest of the crowd.

"Ceremony in the rain." Harvard Tercentenary celebration, September 19, 1936. Franklin D. Roosevelt & Grenville Clark.

“Ceremony in the rain.” Harvard Tercentenary celebration, September 19, 1936. Franklin D. Roosevelt & Grenville Clark.

Clark may well have been the only member of the Harvard Corporation to have voted for Roosevelt in 1936. They broke, however, over the court-packing plan in 1937, when Clark and Charles C. Burlingham organized a national committee of lawyers, all of whom had voted for Roosevelt in 1936, that opposed any attempt to alter the Supreme Court. Clark later expressed doubt that his lobbying attempts had “changed any votes,” but certainly support from his committee gave moral solidarity to many wavering Senators and Congressmen.

The 1930s also saw Clark take a deep and abiding interest in civil rights, particularly those treated by the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He became concerned, as a member of the Harvard Corporation, when a controversy arose over “teacher oaths” in Massachusetts. He became Harvard’s spokesman on matters of academic freedom, a role in which he served throughout his tenure on the Corporation.

Expanding this interest, Clark went to the conservative leadership of the American Bar Association in 1938 and persuaded President Frank Hogan to create an ABA Committee of the Bill of Rights. Clark served as chairman of this committee for the next two years, and he was responsible for its intervention in two landmark cases: Hague vs. CIO and Minersville School District vs. Gobitis. It was Clark’s belief during these years that civil rights had become identified too readily with “radicals” and “liberals,” and that “conservatives” had just as much reason as anyone to give staunch support to the Bill of Rights. In later years, one should note, Clark stopped referring to himself as a “conservative,” precisely because of lax attitudes toward civil rights on the part of others of “conservative” stamp.

The coming of World War II prompted Clark to bring about a full-scale revival of the Plattsburg movement. Gathering together his aging associates of the previous war, Clark formed, in the spring of 1940, a National Emergency Committee of the Military Training Camps Association, and in the next three months he proceeded to write, publicize, and accomplish the passage of the Selective Training and Service Act of September 1940. It was the first peacetime draft in American History. In characteristic fashion, Clark facilitated his campaign for conscription by persuading Felix Frankfurter, who in turn persuaded President Roosevelt, to appoint Henry L. Stimson as Secretary of War. Stimson, an old Plattsburger himself, followed Clark’s advice implicitly throughout that summer of 1940, and in the next five years he became the one “man in government” whom Clark could count on for advice and action.

The war years saw Clark actively involved in several efforts to “Beat Hitler” quickly, the emergency training of officers, extension of selective service, and a national service law which would apply to civilians at home, as well as soliders. This last objective Clark did not achieve. Nonetheless, his contribution to the war effort was as great as that of any private citizen, and, characteristically, it went unrecognized by the general public.

Grenville Clark in Dublin, New Hampshire, circa 1937.

Grenville Clark in Dublin, New Hampshire,
circa 1937.

World War II was also a time when Clark thought about peace. Indeed, as soon as the German Wehrmacht crunched into Poland in September 1939, Clark began to theorize about ways and means of organizing a world at peace under law. His initial effort was a pamphlet entitled A Federation of Free Peoples, and he put the matter aside as the campaign for American intervention picked up steam in 1940 and 1941. He came back to the question of the “peace” in 1944 when Secretary Stimson told him to “go home and prevent World War III.”

The result was Clark’s most important public undertaking, namely, the quest for world government. It began with detailed criticism of the United Nations Organization as outlined at the Dunbarton Oaks and San Francisco Conferences. Then came the Dublin Conference of October 1945, organized and hosted by Clark and former Justice Owen Roberts. For the next several years the retired Wall Street lawyer served as an elder statesman and unofficial leader of the United World Federalists. He wrote books and gave speeches. His collaboration with Harvard Professor Louis B. Sohn began during this period, an association that culminated in 1958 in the magisterial treatise World Peace through World Law.

Clark was during these years no ivory tower visionary with propositions for millennia and timetables for salvation. He still sought to influence those former friends and associates close to the seats of power in Washington. Thus did he cultivate the friendship of individuals such as Adlai Stevenson, John J. McCloy, Joseph S. Clark, Ralph Flanders, John Foster Dulles, Averell Harriman, Fredrick Eaton, and Dean Acheson during the years after 1945. Unsuccessful in reversing the momentum of the Cold War, Clark nonetheless enjoyed moderate influence and sometimes added his weight to important decisions. His phone calls to John McCloy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and his contacts with the Vatican which led to Pope Paul’s visit to the United States in 1965 are two cases in point. Indeed, scholars researching Clark’s role as an elder statesman will probably see a dualism: on the one hand, a theorist pointing the way toward disarmament and a world under law; on the other hand, a realistic critic, well aware that government and institutions bend only slowly, trying mightily to influence politics in a practical way.

Civil rights also occupied Clark’s time and energies after 1945. His role as spokesman for academic freedom resulted in 1949 in perhaps his greatest service to Harvard when President Conant called upon him to explain to Frank B. Ober, a wealthy alumnus, why Harvard could not discharge professors who held unpopular political views. Clark was an outspoken critic of Senator McCarthy in the 1950s, and he became involved in the celebrated case of Dr. Willard Uphaus, a Christian pacifist who was jailed for contempt of court when he refused to “name names” to the Attorney General of New Hampshire. Clark’s efforts were responsible for obtaining Uphaus’ release in 1960.

Nor did Clark confine himself to free speech. So distressed was he by the plight of Negroes in the South, and perhaps a bit guilty about his own previous lack of involvement, Clark personally raised some $80,000 in bail money for defendants in the Montgomery and Birmingham “freedom ride” cases in the early 1960s. This effort led to the so-called “Clark Plan” for guaranteeing legal expenses for defendants in civil rights cases, as well as a personal bequest of $500,000 from Clark and his wife to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Negro rights were a cause that Clark came to late in life, but characteristically he devoted full energy to it.

Grenville Clark and Fanny Dwight Clark. "Just Married."

Grenville Clark and Fanny Dwight Clark. “Just Married.”

Clark’s last years were difficult. His beloved wife, Fanny, died very painfully after more than fifty years of a happy marriage. His own health, never robust, deteriorated. The world situation, for a time bright and hopeful in response to the vigor and rhetoric of President Kennedy, became dominated by Vietnam, missile crises, and overwhelming armament burdens. At home, the cause of civil rights made headway too slowly. Yet Clark was a congenital optimist. He simply could not believe that mankind would be so stupid as to blow itself up. He believed in the ability of men to educate themselves to practical necessities. His favorite quotation was from Abraham Lincoln: “The people will save the government if the government itself will do its part only indifferently well.”

So he continued to work. He tried personally to visit The People’s Republic of China, and very nearly made it with the help of Edgar Snow. When the Missile Crisis in 1962 failed to galvanize the United States and the Soviet Union toward real and lasting disarmament, he thought in terms of long-range education. The World Law Fund, which he endowed with some $750,000, would begin this process of long-range education. And he continued to hope; perhaps his example as a private citizen seeking to effect change for national and international welfare would stimulate others. Several times his friends nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. He did not win, but he deserved the award.

He died in January 1967 at age eighty-four.

— By J. Garry Clifford, courtesy of Dartmouth College Library

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Cousins, Norman and J. Garry Clifford, eds. Memoirs of a Man by Grenville Clark (collected by Mary Clark). New York: Norton, 1975.

Dunne, Gerald T. Grenville Clark: Public Citizen. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1986.