Nathan Clifford (August 18,
1803 – July 25, 1881) was an American statesman,
diplomat and jurist.
was born of old Yankee stock in Rumney, New
Hampshire, to farmers, the only son of seven children (His
great-great-grandmother, Ann Smith, wife of Israel Clifford, was
the accuser of Goody Cole.) He attended
the public schools of that town, then the Haverhill Academy in New Hampshire, and finally the New Hampton
Literary Institute (now known as the New Hampton School). After teaching school for a time, he studied
law in the offices of Josiah Quincy
and was admitted to the bar in Maine in 1827,
establishing his first practice in Newfield, Maine.
He served in the Maine
House of Representatives
from 1830 to 1834 and served as
Speaker of that house the last two years. He was then Maine
Attorney General from 1834 until 1838, when he was elected as a
, serving March 4, 1839 through March 3, 1843, and
representing the Second and then the Third District. He was not a
candidate for re-election in 1842.
In 1846, President
James K. Polk
appointed him 20th Attorney General of the
after his predecessor, John Y. Mason
returned to being Naval Secretary
Clifford served in Polk's Cabinet
from October 17, 1846, to
March 17, 1848. Immediately after completing his service with
the Justice Department he became the U.S. Envoy Extraordinary
and Minister Plenipotentiary to Mexico, serving
from March 18, 1848 to September 6, 1849. It was through
Clifford that the Treaty of
Guadalupe Hidalgo was arranged with Mexico, by which California became a part of the United States.
his service in the diplomatic corps, Clifford resumed the practice
of law in Portland,
Nathan Clifford in his elder
In 1858, President James Buchanan
appointed him an Associate
Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
. He was
confirmed by a narrow margin of 26 votes to 23 in the Senate.
were hesitant about placing a pro-slavery Democrat on the Supreme
His specialties were commercial and
maritime law, Mexican land grants, and procedure and practice.
Though he rarely declared any legal philosophy about the Constitution
, Justice Clifford
believed in a sharp dividing line between federal and state
authority. His major constitutional contribution may have been his
dissent in Loan
Association vs. Topeka
(20 Wallace 655) in which he
rejected "natural law
," or any ground
other than clear constitutional provision, as a basis the Court use
to strike down legislative acts. Justice Clifford's opinions were
comprehensive essays on law, and have sometimes been criticized as
overly lengthy and digressive. Justice Clifford wrote the majority
opinion of the Supreme Court in 398 cases.
He served on the Court for 23 years, beginning
in January 28, 1858, and continuing until his death from the
complications of a stroke
Clifford was president of the Electoral Commission
1877 to determine the outcome of the U.S. presidential election,
. Clifford voted for Samuel
(a fellow Democrat), but Rutherford B. Hayes
famously won by a single vote in
the Compromise of 1877
died in Cornish,
Maine in 1881; he was interred in Evergreen
Cemetery, in Portland, Maine.
The Nathan Clifford Elementary School in
Portland is named for him.
Clifford's son William Henry Clifford was a successful lawyer and
an unsuccessful candidate for the Maine State House of
Representatives; his grandson, also named Nathan Clifford, was also
a lawyer and briefly president of the Maine State Senate.
- Clifford, Philip G., Nathan Clifford, Democrat from 1803 to
1881, New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922.
- A Small Gore of Land, Merrill, Gowan et al. 1977
Nathan Clifford Historic Marker