James Clark as a young boy had moved with his parents from Virginia to Kentucky where the family settled in what was to become Clark County. He returned later to Virginia and received his education, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1797. In 1798, at the age of 21, he returned to Winchester and opened an office to practice law.
In 1807 he entered Kentucky politics and was elected to the House of Representatives. He then served for many years as Judge of the Circuit Court of Kentucky. In 1825, he was elected to Congress and after three terms returned and was elected to the upper house of the Kentucky legislature. In 1835, he was chosen speaker of the Senate and as his popularity grew the following year he became the 12th governor of Kentucky.
Until his death in 1839, he rendered outstanding service to the people of the state. His strongest appeal was for education, and the General Assembly responded by passing an act that established the first common schools in every county of the state.