John M. Clayton

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John Middleton Clayton (July 24, 1796 - November 9, 1856) was an American lawyer and politician from Dover in Kent County, and later New Castle County, 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

Clayton was born July 24, 1796, in Dagsboro, Delaware, son of James and Sarah Middleton 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. He graduated from Yale University in 1815, studied law at the Litchfield Law School, and in 1819 began the practice of law in Dover, Delaware.

About this time his father died, and he became the sole supporter of his immediate family, weekly walking the distance from Dover to Milford to see to their needs. He married Sally Ann Fisher in 1822. She was the granddaughter of former Governor George Truitt. 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. From 1844 Clayton cultivated a tract of land near New Castle, called Buena Vista. Here, in a few years, he built a mansion and made one of the most fruitful estates in that region, gaining a reputation as an agriculturalist. Both of his sons died while in their 20s, shortly before the death of their father.

Delaware politics

Following the War of 1812, Delaware was unique in continuing to have a viable Federalist Party. Never tainted by the secessionist activities of the New England Federalists, and adaptive enough to institute modern electioneering practices, they held the loyalty of the majority Anglican/Methodist downstate population against the seemingly more radical Presbyterians and Irish immigrants in New Castle County. They remained the dominant political force in the state well into the 1820’s, when the party finally disappeared, split between an allegiance to Andrew Jackson or to John Quincy Adams and the “American system” of Henry Clay and the Whigs. New Castle County manufacturers joined most of the old Federalist Party leadership in making the Whigs the new majority in the state. This included the various members of the Clayton family, especially Thomas Clayton and John M. Clayton, who was just then entering the political arena.

Clayton was elected to the State House 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. This party inherited the former political dominance of the Federalists in Delaware, but was nearly always in the minority in Congress, and only was able to elect two Presidents, both of whom died in office.

Constitution of 1831

During this time he was also the driving force in the convention that produced the Delaware Constitution of 1831.

United States Senator

John Clayton.jpg

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. Here his great oratorical gifts gave him a high place as one of the ablest and most eloquent opponents of the Jackson administration. He early 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. His argument in favor of paying the claims for French spoliations was also a fine instance of senatorial oratory. 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.

Government offices
preceded by title succeeded by
William Wilkins Judiciary Committee
March 4, 1833 - December 29, 1836
Felix Grundy

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 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.

U.S. Secretary of State

The Zachary Taylor Administration, 1849 Daguerreotype by Brady[1]

On March 8, 1849 Clayton became U.S. Secretary of State in the Whig administration of U.S. President 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 unnecessary crises with Spain, Portugal, and France. His interest in commercial expansion was clear in his advocacy of increased trade with the Orient - later implemented by the mission of Matthew Perry to Japan - and his negotiation of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850. This treaty won British recognition of an equal American interest in the Central American canal area, and it remained in effect until 1901, when the United States acquired full dominance there.[2]

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. There he opposed the Kansas Nebraska Act and watched the dissolution of his Whig Party. One of his most noted speeches delivered in the Senate was that made in 1855 against the message of U.S. President Franklin Pierce, vetoing the act ceding public lands for an insane asylum.

Death and legacy

After the death of his second son, Clayton moved his residence back to Dover, Delaware, where he died November 9, 1856. He is buried there in the old Presbyterian Cemetery.

His contemporaries considered Clayton one of the most skilled debaters and orators in the Senate. 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 is the town of Clayton, Delaware, Clayton, New York on the St. Lawrence River, and Clayton County, 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 the following March 4th, for a six year term.

Public Offices
Office Type Location Elected Took Office Left Office notes
State Representative Legislature Dover 1823 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 Senate Democratic Andrew Jackson Militia class 2
1831-1833 22nd Senate Democratic Andrew Jackson Militia class 2
1833-1835 23rd Senate National Republican Andrew Jackson Judiciary, Militia class 2
1835-1837 24th Senate Democratic Andrew Jackson Judiciary class 2
1845-1847 29th Senate Democratic James K. Polk class 1
1847-1849 30th Senate Democratic James K. Polk class 1
1853-1855 33rd Senate Democratic Franklin Pierce class 2
1855-1857 34th Senate Democratic Franklin Pierce class 2


  1. 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.
  2. The Clayton-Bulwer Treaty. The Avalon Project. Lillian Goldman Law Library (2008). Retrieved on 22 April 2014.


  • 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. 
  • Wire, Richard (1971). John M. Clayton and the Search for Order: A Study in Whig Politics and Diplomacy.. University of Maryland: L. J. Richards & Co. 


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