August 18, 1803 - July 25, 1881
A native New Englander, Nathan Clifford served in the Maine House of Representatives and as Maine’s attorney general before he was elected to Congress in 1839. He served as U.S. attorney general in the Polk administration from October 1846 until March 1848, when he was named U.S. envoy and minister to Mexico. In this capacity, Clifford oversaw the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
Clifford was born in the village of Rumney, New Hampshire, on August 18, 1803, the only son in a family of seven. Educated in the local public school and Haverhill Academy, he was unable to pay for college tuition, and became a schoolteacher. He spent a year at the New Hampton Literary Institute before devoting the next five years to studying the law at the office of Josiah Quincy. Admitted to the New Hampshire Bar in 1827, Clifford moved to nearby Newfield, Maine, to establish his practice.
Elected to the Maine House of Representatives in 1830, Clifford was re-elected two years later, serving as speaker during that term. He served as Maine’s attorney general from 1834 until 1838. Elected to the U.S. Congress in 1838, Clifford served only one term, failing to win his party’s re-nomination.
In October 1846, Polk selected Clifford to fill the post of attorney general after John Y. Mason resigned and returned to the Navy Department. Polk was not personally acquainted with Clifford, who was a member of the Van Buren faction of the Democratic Party. Initially, Clifford had reservations about his abilities; Polk recorded in his diary that Clifford offered to resign even before the Senate unanimously confirmed him in December. In cabinet meetings, Clifford was a consistent advocate of an aggressive policy in the war with Mexico. His views were in line with the president’s thinking, but often at odds with Secretary of State Buchanan.
On March 10 1848, the Senate approved the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo with amendments. Polk appointed chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ambrose Sevier, as minister to Mexico to negotiate the final draft of the treaty. Due to illness, Sevier’s ability to undertake the mission came into question, and as an emergency measure, Polk appointed Clifford as associate minister. Clifford arrived in Mexico City on April 11, a few days ahead of Sevier, who had recovered from his illness. To ensure ratification of the treaty by the Mexican senate, on May 26 1848, Sevier, Clifford, and Mexico’s minister of Foreign Affairs, Luis De La Rosa, signed the Protocol of Queretaro that explained the U.S. Senate’s modifications to the original treaty. On May 30th the Mexican senate ratified the amended treaty. Before Clifford could return home, he was appointed U.S. minister to Mexico, in which capacity he served until being recalled by the new Whig administration of Zachary Taylor in 1849.
In December 1857, President Buchanan nominated Clifford as an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Despite concerns about approving a pro-slavery Democrat, the Senate confirmed Clifford on January 12 1858 by a narrow 26-23 vote. In his twenty-three year tenure on the court, Clifford wrote the majority opinion for 398 cases. He was president of the Electoral Commission that determined the 1876 election of Rutherford B. Hayes over Democrat Samuel Tilden.
Clifford died of a stroke on July 25, 1881, in Cornish, Maine.
Clifford, Philip Greely. Nathan Clifford: Democrat (1803-1881). New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1922.