John M. Clayton

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John Clayton
United States Senator
from Delaware
In office
March 4, 1853 – November 9, 1856
Preceded byPresley Spruance
Succeeded byJoseph P. Comegys
In office
March 4, 1845 – February 23, 1849
Preceded byRichard H. Bayard
Succeeded byJohn Wales
In office
March 4, 1829 – December 29, 1836
Preceded byHenry M. Ridgely
Succeeded byThomas Clayton
18th United States Secretary of State
In office
March 8, 1849 – July 22, 1850
PresidentZachary Taylor
Millard Fillmore
Preceded byJames Buchanan
Succeeded byDaniel Webster
Personal details
John Middleton Clayton

(1796-07-24)July 24, 1796
Dagsboro, Delaware, U.S.
DiedNovember 9, 1856(1856-11-09) (aged 60)
Dover, Delaware, U.S.
Political partyFederalist Party (Before 1824)
National Republican (Before 1834)
Whig (1824–1854)
American (1854–1856)
SpouseSally Fisher
EducationYale University (BA)
Litchfield Law School

John Middleton Clayton (July 24, 1796 – November 9, 1856) was an American lawyer and politician from Delaware. He was a member of the Whig Party who served in the Delaware General Assembly, and as U.S. Senator from Delaware and U.S. Secretary of State.

Early life and family[edit]

Born in Dagsboro, Delaware, son of Sarah (née Middleton) and James Clayton. His uncle, Dr. Joshua Clayton, was a former Governor of Delaware and his cousin, Thomas Clayton, was a prominent lawyer, U.S. Senator, and jurist. John M. Clayton studied at Berlin, Maryland and Milford, Delaware when his parents moved there. His boyhood home, known as the Parson Thorne Mansion, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.[1][2] He graduated from Yale University in 1815, where he was a member of Brothers in Unity and then studied law at the Litchfield Law School. In 1819 he began the practice of law in Dover, Delaware.

About this time his father died and Clayton became the sole supporter of his immediate family, weekly walking the distance from Dover to Milford to see to their needs.[citation needed]

He married Sally Ann Fisher in 1822. She was the granddaughter of former Governor George Truitt.[citation needed] They had two sons, James and Charles, but she died two weeks after the birth of Charles. Clayton never remarried and raised the two boys himself.

In 1844, Clayton cultivated a tract of land near New Castle, Delaware which he called Buena Vista.[3] It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971.[2] Here he built a mansion and made one of the most fruitful estates in that region. Both of his sons died while in their 20s, shortly before the death of their father.

Delaware politics[edit]

Clayton was elected to the Delaware House of Representatives for the 1824 session and was appointed the Delaware Secretary of State from December 1826 to October 1828. Conservative in background and outlook, Clayton quickly became a leader of the Adams faction which later developed into the Delaware Whig Party. During this time he was also the driving force in the convention that produced the Delaware Constitution of 1831.

National politics[edit]

In 1829, Clayton was elected to the United States Senate as its youngest member. Six years later he declined re-election, but the General Assembly elected him anyway, only to have him resign. He served from March 4, 1829, until December 29, 1836. He distinguished himself in the Senate by a speech during the debate on the Foote resolution, which, though merely relating to the survey of the public lands, introduced into the discussion the whole question of nullification. Clayton favored the extension of the charter for the Second Bank of the United States and his investigation of the Post Office Department led to its reorganization. At various times he served on the Military Affairs, Militia, District of Columbia, and Post Office Committees, but his most important position was the Chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee in the 23rd and 24th Congress.[citation needed]

After returning to Delaware from his first term in the United States Senate, Clayton was appointed Chief Justice of the Delaware Superior Court, replacing his cousin Thomas Clayton, who had been elected to the vacant U.S. Senate seat. He served in this position from January 16, 1837, until September 19, 1839, when he resigned to support the presidential candidacy of William Henry Harrison.

Clayton's statue in the National Statuary Hall Collection, sculpted by Bryant Baker.

Clayton was once again elected to the United States Senate in 1845, where he opposed the annexation of Texas and the Mexican–American War but advocated the active prosecution of the latter once it was begun. His tenure was only from March 4, 1845, until February 23, 1849, as he resigned to become U.S. Secretary of State.

The Zachary Taylor Administration, 1849 Daguerreotype by Brady[4]

On March 8, 1849, Clayton became U.S. Secretary of State in the Whig administration of Zachary Taylor. His most notable accomplishment was the negotiation of the Clayton–Bulwer Treaty of 1850 with the British minister, Sir Henry Bulwer-Lytton. This treaty guaranteed the neutrality and encouragement of lines of travel across the isthmus at Panama, and laid the groundwork for America's eventual building of the Panama Canal. His tenure was brief, however, ending on July 22, 1850, soon after President Taylor's death.

As secretary of state, Clayton was intensely nationalistic and an ardent advocate of commercial expansion but his strict interpretation of international law created crises with Spain, Portugal, and France.[citation needed]

Clayton was again elected to the United States Senate one last time in 1853 and served from March 4, 1853, until his death on November 9, 1856. He opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of his most noted speeches delivered in the Senate was that made June 15, 1854[5] against the message of U.S. President Franklin Pierce, vetoing the Bill for the Benefit of the Indigent Insane, which would have ceded public lands for an insane asylum.

Death and legacy[edit]

After the death of his second son, Clayton moved his residence back to Dover. He died there and is buried in the Old Presbyterian Cemetery, which is at Dover, on the grounds of the Delaware State Museum.

His contemporaries considered Clayton one of the most skilled debaters and orators in the Senate.[citation needed] He was always accessible, and was noted for his genial disposition and brilliant conversational powers. Clayton Hall at the University of Delaware is named in his honor, as are towns in Delaware, New York, North Carolina and a county in Iowa. In 1934, the state of Delaware donated a statue of Clayton to the National Statuary Hall Collection.


Elections were held the first Tuesday of October. Members of the General Assembly took office on the first Tuesday of January. State Representatives had a one-year term. The Secretary of State was appointed by the Governor and took office on the third Tuesday of January for a five-year term. The General Assembly chose the U.S. Senators, who took office March 4, for a six-year term.

Public Offices
Office Type Location Began office Ended office notes
State Representative Legislature Dover January 4, 1824 January 3, 1825
Secretary of State Executive Dover December 1826 October 1828
U.S. Senator Legislature Washington March 4, 1829 December 29, 1836
Superior Court Judiciary Dover January 16, 1837 September 19, 1839 Chief Justice
U.S. Senator Legislature Washington March 4, 1845 February 23, 1849
U.S. Secretary of State Executive Washington March 8, 1849 July 22, 1850
U.S. Senator Legislature Washington March 4, 1853 November 9, 1856
Delaware General Assembly service
Dates Congress Chamber Majority Governor Committees Class/District
1824 48th State Senate Federalist Samuel Paynter Kent at-large
United States Congressional service
Dates Congress Chamber Majority President Committees Class/District
1829–1831 21st U.S. Senate National Republican Andrew Jackson Militia class 2
1831–1833 22nd U.S. Senate National Republican Andrew Jackson Militia class 2
1833–1835 23rd U.S. Senate National Republican Andrew Jackson Judiciary, Militia class 2
1835–1837 24th U.S. Senate Whig Andrew Jackson Judiciary class 2
1845–1847 29th U.S. Senate Whig James K. Polk class 1
1847–1849 30th U.S. Senate Whig James K. Polk class 1
1853–1855 33rd U.S. Senate Whig Franklin Pierce class 2
1855–1857 34th U.S. Senate American Franklin Pierce class 2

See also[edit]


  1. ^ M. Catherine Downing (May 1971). "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Parson Thorne Mansion". National Park Service.
  2. ^ a b "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. July 9, 2010.
  3. ^ "Buena Vista History". Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. 2008-10-01. Archived from the original on 2011-01-07. Retrieved 2010-12-07.
  4. ^ Included from left to right are: William B. Preston, Thomas Ewing, John M. Clayton, Zachary Taylor, William M. Meredith, George W. Crawford, Jacob Collamer and Reverdy Johnson, (1849). Click on image to view in greater detail.
  5. ^ Clayton, John Middleton (1854). "Speech of Hon. John M. Clayton, of Delaware on the veto message of the President, on the bill for the benefit of the indigent insane, in the Senate of the United States, June 15, 1854". Google Books. Retrieved 2010-12-07.


  • Comegys, Joseph P. (1882). Memoirs of John M. Clayton. Wilmington, Delaware: Historical Society of Delaware.
  • Conrad, Henry C. (1908). History of the State of Delaware, 3 vols. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Wickersham Company.
  • Martin, Roger A. (2003). Delawareans in Congress. Middletown, DE: Roger A. Martin. ISBN 0-924117-26-5.
  • Martin, Roger A. (1995). Memoirs of the Senate. Newark, DE: Roger A. Martin.
  • Scharf, John Thomas (1888). History of Delaware 1609-1888. 2 vols. Philadelphia: L. J. Richards & Co.


External links[edit]

U.S. Senate
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Delaware
Served alongside: Louis McLane, Arnold Naudain, Richard H. Bayard
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 1) from Delaware
Served alongside: Thomas Clayton, Presley Spruance
Succeeded by
Preceded by U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Delaware
Served alongside: James A. Bayard Jr.
Succeeded by
Preceded by Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded by United States Secretary of State
Succeeded by