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Nathan Clifford

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Title: Nathan Clifford  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
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Subject: Noah Haynes Swayne, David Davis (Supreme Court justice), Robert Cooper Grier, James Moore Wayne, John Catron
Collection: 1803 Births, 1881 Deaths, 19Th-Century American Diplomats, Ambassadors of the United States to Mexico, American Congregationalists, American Unitarians, Burials at Evergreen Cemetery (Portland, Maine), Democratic Party Members of the United States House of Representatives, Maine Attorneys General, Maine Democrats, Maine Lawyers, Mayors of Portland, Maine, Members of the United States House of Representatives from Maine, People from Grafton County, New Hampshire, People from York County, Maine, Polk Administration Cabinet Members, Speakers of the Maine House of Representatives, United States Attorneys General, United States Federal Judges Appointed by James Buchanan, United States Supreme Court Justices
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Nathan Clifford

Nathan Clifford
19th United States Attorney General
In office
October 17, 1846 – March 17, 1848
President James K. Polk
Preceded by John Y. Mason
Succeeded by Isaac Toucey
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
In office
January 12, 1858[1] – July 25, 1881
Nominated by James Buchanan
Preceded by Benjamin Robbins Curtis
Succeeded by Horace Gray
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 1st district
In office
March 4, 1839 – March 3, 1843
Preceded by John Fairfield
Succeeded by Joshua Herrick
Personal details
Born (1803-08-18)August 18, 1803
Rumney, New Hampshire
Died July 25, 1881(1881-07-25) (aged 77)
Cornish, Maine
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) Hannah Ayer Clifford
Profession Lawyer, Politician, Teacher, Judge
Religion Congregationalist; later Unitarian
For his grandson, the Maine Senate President, please see Nathan Clifford (Senator).

Nathan Clifford (August 18, 1803 – July 25, 1881) was an American statesman, diplomat and jurist, whose career culminated in a lengthy period of service as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.


  • Early life and education, and career 1
  • Legislative and executive branch service 2
  • Judicial service and later life 3
  • Further reading 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6

Early life and education, and career

Clifford 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 an accuser of Goody Cole in 1672, at the age of 10.) He attended the public schools of that town, then the Haverhill Academy in New Hampshire, and finally the New Hampton Literary Institute[2] (now known as the New Hampton School). After teaching school for a time, he studied law in the offices of Josiah Quincy III 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 entered national politics.

Legislative and executive branch service

Clifford was elected as a Democrat to the 26th and 27th Congresses, 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 United States 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.

Following his service in the diplomatic corps, Clifford resumed the practice of law in Portland, Maine.

Judicial service and later life

Nathan Clifford in his elder years.

On December 9, 1857, President James Buchanan nominated Clifford to be an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of Benjamin R. Curtis. Clifford was confirmed on January 12, 1858, by a narrow margin of 26 votes to 23 in the United States Senate. Senators were hesitant about placing a pro-slavery Democrat on the Supreme Court. 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 for the Court to 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.[3] He served on the Court for 23 years, beginning on January 28, 1858, and continuing until his death from the complications of a stroke.

Clifford was president of the Electoral Commission convened in 1877 to determine the outcome of the 1876 presidential election. Clifford voted for Samuel Tilden (a fellow Democrat), but Rutherford B. Hayes famously won by a single vote in the Compromise of 1877. He believed that the commission acted incorrectly in nullifying Tilden's apparent victory at the polls and never accepted Hayes as the lawful president.[4]

Clifford was one of a handful of persons who have served in all three branches of the United States federal government. He 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.

Further reading

  • Clifford, Philip G., Nathan Clifford, Democrat from 1803 to 1881, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1922.


  1. ^ "Federal Judicial Center: Nathan Clifford". 2009-12-11. Retrieved 2009-12-11. 
  2. ^ A Small Gore of Land, Merrill, Gowan et al. 1977
  3. ^ A Few New Hampshire Notables USDC - District of New Hampshire
  4. ^ William DeGregorio, The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, Gramercy 1997

External links

Nathan Clifford Historic Marker
United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
John Fairfield
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Maine's 1st congressional district

March 4, 1839 – March 3, 1843
Succeeded by
Joshua Herrick
Legal offices
Preceded by
John Y. Mason
U.S. Attorney General
Served under: James K. Polk

October 17, 1846 – March 17, 1848
Succeeded by
Isaac Toucey
Preceded by
Benjamin Robbins Curtis
Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States
January 12, 1858 – July 25, 1881
Succeeded by
Horace Gray
Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
John Slidell
United States Minister to Mexico
July 28, 1848 – September 6, 1849
Succeeded by
Robert P. Letcher
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