Clement Clarke Moore, the Scholar

By Brad Dison

For decades following Clement Clarke Moore’s death, hundreds of people, including a large number of eager and willing children, gathered at his grave. Do you remember Clement Clarke Moore?

Clement was the only child of heiress Charity Clarke and Dr. Benjamin Moore, a bishop, doctor of sacred theology, and President of Columbia College in New York City. He was born on his parents’ Chelsea estate on the island of Manhattan. Education was important in the Moore household. As was common in the late 1700s, Clement was home-schooled. Being the president of Columbia College, Dr. Moore was able to provide Clement with a most impressive education. In 1798, Clement earned his bachelor’s degree from Columbia College. Three years later, he earned his master’s degree from the same college. In 1829, he earned his doctoral degree. Clement was an overachiever.

Clement wrote several books which included a two-volume A Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, a historical biography entitled George Castriot, Surnamed Scanderbeg, King of Albania, and a translation of the French A Complete Treatise on Merinos and Other Sheep. In 1804, Clement wrote a scathing political pamphlet against our third president, Thomas Jefferson, entitled Observations Upon Certain Passages in Mr. Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, Which Appear to Have a Tendency to Subvert Religion and Establish a False Philosophy. Clement wanted to preserve his reputation as a scholar.

Clement became wealthy when he subdivided the Chelsea estate, land he inherited from his mother. The Chelsea estate eventually evolved into the neighborhood of Chelsea, Manhattan, New York.

In 1821, Clement began teaching at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church, in New York City. There, he taught Oriental and Greek Literature, and Divinity and Biblical Learning. In addition to teaching, Clement published articles and books on a wide range of subjects including religion, politics, language, and poetry.

Clement, however, is not remembered for his many scholarly contributions to religion, politics, ancient languages, Oriental literature, and Greek literature, as he wished. Clement probably would not be remembered at all had he not scribbled down a poem he created to entertain his children. It was his children who finally persuaded him to publish the poem. His children were happy when, on December 23, 1823, the Sentinel, a small newspaper from Troy, New York, published the poem. Careful to protect his reputation as a serious scholar, Clement published the poem anonymously. He was nervous and hoped no one would link the poem to him, but he had little to be concerned about.

It was a sensation. Today, we would say it went viral. For decades, newspapers around the world published the uncredited poem. People had heated debates and tried, in vain, to learn the identity of the author. They wanted more poems like it. Was this the work of some crafty newspaper man trying to increase circulation? A well-known fictional author? “Who could it be?” they wondered. Many people claimed to be the author but no one could provide evidence to back up their claims.

In 1844, two decades after its first publication, Clement finally, but quietly, claimed authorship of the now-famous poem by including it in his book entitled Poems. There was no fanfare for this specific poem. There were no press releases, no front-page headlines, no fuss at all. It was simply included among the other poems in his collection. Clement is not remembered for any of his lengthy articles and books on subjects that were serious in nature. No! Clement is remembered for a poem of just 540 words which most of us can readily recite.

Following his death in 1863, hundreds of people gathered at his grave each Christmas day for decades and sang Christmas carols, placed wreaths on his grave, and eagerly recited Clark’s poem. Some people have claimed that this is the only poem children willingly commit to memory. It began, “T’was the Night Before Christmas.”

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