Clements was born in January 1831 in Washington, D.C., and was the son of Eliza B. Clements (whose maiden name may have been Banks) and John Thomas Clements, a carpenter originally from Maryland. Little is known about his early life and education, but by 1850 he was a machinist living in Baltimore. By 1860 Clements had moved to the city of Norfolk, where he continued working as a machinist, and on August 15 of that year he married Margaret Catherine Jarvis. They had at least seven sons and five daughters, but six of their children did not live to adulthood. Clements remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War and may have been the same James Clements who served with the 2nd Dragoons of the regular army or the 1st Battalion, District of Columbia militia.
Political Career and Convention of 1867–1868
In the years immediately after the war Clements became a moderate Republican and attended party meetings in Portsmouth, where he then resided. He became friends with James Dennis Brady, another Republican who later served in the United States House of Representatives. In federally mandated elections held on October 22, 1867, to select delegates for a convention called to draft a new constitution for Virginia, the support of African Americans, eligible to vote for the first time, helped Clements and two others win election to represent Norfolk County and Portsmouth. He chaired the Committee on Taxation and Finance and was ranking member on both the Committee on the Elective Franchise and Qualifications for Office and the Committee on Printing. Clements presided over the convention several times and spoke often on such issues as the language in the constitution’s preamble and the Bill of Rights, adherence to procedural rules, and close examination of printing costs. He favored uniform taxation of property and called for limiting business license taxes imposed by the General Assembly.
A self-proclaimed Radical, and characterized as such by Brigadier General John McAllister Schofield, commander of the Virginia military district, Clements voted with reformers on most issues, including universal manhood suffrage, expansion of public schools, and democratizing state government. His moderate beliefs emerged, however, as he voted with Conservatives in defeating measures calling for the integration of public schools and disfranchising whites who had voted for secessionist delegates to the Convention of 1861. On April 17, 1868, he joined the majority in approving the constitution, which voters ratified in July 1869.
Republicans expected that the federal government would authorize statewide elections. In May 1868 they met in Richmond and elected Clements president of the state nominating convention. Republicans chose Henry Horatio Wells, whom Schofield had appointed provisional governor of Virginia the previous month, and Clements as candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. For political reasons relating to that year’s presidential race and the pending adoption of the new constitution, however, Congress did not allow Virginia to hold elections that year.
In March 1869 Republicans gathered in Petersburg, once again to select candidates for statewide office. This time the moderate Clements battled the increasingly radical Wells for the party’s gubernatorial nomination. Amid political maneuvering, fistfights, and accusations of bribery, Wells became the candidate for governor, but the convention split the party, and he was defeated in the general election by a moderate Republican, Gilbert Carlton Walker. Despite Clements’s loss, his party affiliation and political contacts secured his appointment on April 8, 1869, as postmaster of Portsmouth, although he also continued to work as a machinist. Reappointed four years later, he served until February 1876. The following year Clements began working as a United States pension agent. In this capacity he traveled to such cities as Baltimore, Boston, Knoxville, Vicksburg, and New Orleans, where in January 1882 he wrote his will.
From late in the 1870s to the mid-1880s Clements regularly corresponded with William Mahone, leader of the Readjusters and a U.S. senator. The two men had met in October 1868, and during the 1869 gubernatorial contest Richmond newspapers had reported that Mahone supported Clements in his fight with Wells. In an effort to curry favor, Clements wrote to Mahone on subjects relating to state politics, especially in southeastern Virginia, and of Clements’s efforts to help Republicans and Readjusters in Portsmouth and Norfolk County elections.
Clements eventually grew weary of the travel demanded of a pension agent, and in March 1881 he sought Mahone’s endorsement for reappointment as postmaster in Portsmouth. Denied that post, Clements by July 1883 had been appointed a clerk in the division of special examinations of the federal pension office, and four years later he became a clerk in the principal examiner’s office. He was reappointed for another two years in July 1899. These jobs required him to move to Washington, D.C., but he maintained a residence in Portsmouth, where he owned four town lots, two with buildings having a combined value of more than $4,000. James H. Clements died at his residence in Washington, D.C., on August 16, 1900, and was buried three days later in Oak Grove Cemetery, in Portsmouth.