Clifford, Nathan

Born: 1803-08-18 New Hampshire

Died: 1881-07-25 Maine

Clifford received his early schooling at Haverhill Academy but the death of this father precluded him from attending college. He read law and gained admission to the New Hampshire bar in 1827. He moved to Newfield, Maine, where he practiced law, became involved in Democratic politics, and married Hannah Ayer, with whom he had six children. In 1830, he won election as a Democrat to the Maine House of Representatives and served four one-year terms, the last two as speaker. In 1834, he gained appointment as the attorney general of Maine. In 1837, he lost election to the U.S. Senate, but in 1838 voters elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served until 1842. In 1846, President James K. Polk appointed Clifford as attorney general of the United States. At the end of the Mexican War, Polk sent him to Mexico to negotiate the peace treaty and reestablish relations between the two countries. After the defeat of the Democrats in the presidential election of 1848, Clifford returned from Mexico and moved to Portland, Maine, where he practiced law for the next eight years. In 1857, President James Buchanan nominated Clifford to fill a vacancy on the United States Supreme Court occasioned by sudden resignation of Justice Benjamin Curtis. Selected less for his legal and intellectual abilities than for his constitutional conservatism and temperament, Clifford's nomination generated outrage among Republicans who were already angered over the Court's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford. Clifford won confirmation by one of the closest votes in Supreme Court history. Although no supporter of slavery, in one of his first cases as a justice, Clifford voted to uphold the constitutionality of the Fugitive Slave Law in Ableman v. Booth. He opposed secession, and remained a staunch Unionist throughout the Civil War, though like his hero Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, he remained a Democrat and often proved a thorn in the side of the Lincoln administration. He generally supported Lincoln's policies in prosecuting the war, while opposing the use of arbitrary power. In 1863, he was in dissent when the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Union seizure of Confederate ships attempting to evade the Union blockage of southern ports. He was in the majority when the Court overturned the conviction of Clement Vallandigham. Clifford remained on the Court until his death.

Kermit L. Hall, ed., The Oxford Companion to the Supreme Court of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 161; Robert M. Goldman, "Clifford, Nathan," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5:68-69; Philip Greely Clifford, Nathan Clifford, Democrat, 1803-1881 (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1922).