Charles Manning Hope Clark was born in Burwood, Sydney, on 3 March 1915, the second son of the Reverend Charles Clark and his wife Catherine née Hope. When he was six the family moved to Phillip Island, Western Port, Victoria, and then in 1924 they settled in Belgrave, near Melbourne. Clark was educated at Belgrave State School and Mont Albert Central School and in 1928 he won a scholarship to Melbourne Grammar School. From 1934 to 1938 he read History and Political Science at the University of Melbourne, graduating with first class honours.
In August 1938 Clark sailed for England to pursue his studies at Balliol College, Oxford. He was accompanied by Hilma Dymphna Lodewyckx, whom he married at Oxford on 31 January 1939. He began a thesis on the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, carrying out research in both England and France. Late in 1939 he took up a teaching post at Blundell’s School at Tiverton, Devon. In July 1940 the Clarks left England to return to Australia and Manning was offered a position at Geelong Grammar School. He continued his work on de Tocqueville and on completing his thesis in 1944 was awarded a Master of Arts degree at Melbourne University.
In May 1944 Clark left Geelong to become a Lecturer in Political Science at Melbourne University. Two years later, at the request of Professor R.M. Crawford, he began to lecture in Australian History, which was to be his passion for the rest of his life. In 1949 he was appointed Professor of History at Canberra University College. In 1960 the College merged with the Australian National University and Clark continued to be Professor and Head of the History Department in the School of General Studies until December 1971. He remained in the Department for a further four years as the first Professor of Australian History. He was a Fellow of both the Australian Academy of the Humanities and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia.
While living in Melbourne in the late 1940s Clark began collecting sources on Australian history which led to his first publication Select documents in Australian history 1788-1850 (1950). The second volume, covering the period 1850-1900, was published in 1955 and Clark then turned to writing his greatest work, A history of Australia. The first volume was published in 1962 and the sixth and final volume appeared in 1987, four years before his death. It was the most ambitious work ever undertaken by an Australian historian. It reached an exceptionally large audience and Clark was both admired and condemned for his highly personal view of history, his concern with grand themes, ideas and conflicts rather than dry facts and figures, and his unique literary style. Other books written by Clark included Sources of Australian history (1957), Meeting Soviet man (1960), A short history of Australia (1963), Disquiet and other stories (1969) and In search of Henry Lawson (1977). In his last years he wrote three volumes of autobiography.
From the 1960s until his death Clark was the most famous historian in Australia and one of the best-known public intellectuals. He accepted numerous invitations to write for newspapers, give lectures and broadcasts, and address academic, literary, cultural and political organisations and societies throughout Australia. He also travelled widely overseas. He spoke about Australian and world history, and also on a great range of political, social and literary themes. His political statements were at times highly provocative and his broad generalisations, dire prophecies and oracular style often infuriated conservatives and made him a controversial figure. Some of his books and lectures provoked intense public debate. He had a huge legion of admirers and in his last years received many honours: honorary doctorates, literary prizes, a Companion of the Order of Australia (1975) and the title Australian of the Year (1981). Geoffrey Serle wrote that ‘as no one else Clark greatly increased public consciousness of Australian history and widened the imaginative horizons of innumerable compatriots’.
Manning Clark died in Canberra on 23 May 1991. He was survived by Dymphna and their six children.