Clayton, John M.

Born: 1796-07-24 Dagsboro, Delaware

Died: 1856-11-09 Dover, Delaware

John M. Clayton graduated from Yale University in 1815 and was admitted to the bar in 1819. A Federalist, Clayton spent the next decade in a variety of Delaware state offices. In 1822, he married Sarah Ann Fisher, with whom he had two children. The Delaware Senate elected Clayton to the U.S. Senate in 1829, and he soon became a close ally of Henry Clay. Clayton remained in the Senate until 1836 and increasingly affiliated himself with the nascent Whig Party. He resigned his seat and became the chief justice of Delaware and refused to serve as William Henry Harrison's vice president. Clayton returned to the Senate in 1845 where he opposed the annexation of Texas but supported the Mexican War. Following the war, Clayton opposed the principle of popular sovereignty and chaired a committee that offered the first compromise concerning the territorial acquisitions in the northwest and southwest. The so-called Clayton Compromise admitted Oregon as a free territory and left the future of slavery in the southwest to the Supreme Court. The measure passed the Senate but was tabled by the House of Representatives.

Clayton supported Zachary Taylor in the election of 1848 and gained an appointment as secretary of state. His primary achievement in that office was the signing of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in which Great Britain and the United States agreed to cooperatively construct the Panama Canal. Clayton resigned following Taylor's death and returned to the Senate in 1853. His opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the collapse of the Whig Party brought him into the orbit of the Know-Nothings but he died of kidney disease before the sectional crisis escalated in earnest.

John M. Belohlavek, "Clayton, John Middleton," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 5:38-39.