John Middleton Clayton

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

John Middleton Clayton

The American lawyer and statesman John Middleton Clayton (1796-1856) served as U.S. secretary of state during 1849-1850.

John M. Clayton was born in Dagsboro, Del., on July 24, 1796. As a young man, he showed exceptional abilities, and in 1815 he graduated from Yale College with highest honors. After studying law in the office of his cousin and at the famous Litchfield Law School in Connecticut, Clayton was admitted to the Delaware bar in 1819. Soon he became one of the state's leading lawyers and orators.

Clayton served Delaware in a number of offices and became active in national politics in 1824 as a partisan of John Quincy Adams in his battle against Andrew Jackson. Conservative in background and outlook, Clayton became a leader of the Delaware Whig party. In 1828 he was elected to the U.S. Senate and became a noted anti-Jacksonian and a confidant of Henry Clay. In 1833 Clayton was effective in securing passage of Clay's compromise tariff. Reelected to the Senate in 1834, he resigned in 1836. From 1836 to 1839 he was chief justice of Delaware.

In 1839 Clayton supported the presidential candidacy of William Henry Harrison. In 1845, after acquiring a national reputation as a scientific farmer, Clayton returned to the U.S. Senate. He opposed President James Polk's expansionist policies on Oregon and Mexico, although he supported the Mexican War after it began. In 1848 Clayton broke with Clay, supporting the successful presidential candidacy of Zachary Taylor. Taylor appointed Clayton secretary of state in 1849.

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.

After Taylor's death in 1850, Clayton resigned his office and returned to his Delaware farm. In 1853 he returned to the Senate, chiefly to defend his treaty with England against attackers who suggested he had yielded unnecessarily to the British. By 1856 declining health rendered him inactive. He died of a kidney disease that year at his home.

Further Reading

There is no modern biography of Clayton. Mary W. Williams's chapter, "John Middleton Clayton," in volume 6 of Samuel Flagg Bemis, ed., The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy (10 vols., 1927-1929; rev. ed., 17 vols., 1963-1967, with vols. 11-17 edited by Robert H. Ferrell), emphasizes Clayton's career as secretary of state but also has other biographical material. □

views updated


John Middleton Clayton achieved prominence as a U.S. senator and as a drafter of the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty.

Clayton was born July 24, 1796, in Dagsborough, Delaware. A graduate of Yale University in 1815, Clayton was admitted to the Delaware bar in 1819. He began his political career in 1824 as a member of the Delaware legislature, and, in 1826, he served as Delaware secretary of state for a two-year period.

In 1829 Clayton entered the federal political system and represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate until 1836. During his tenure, he served on the Judiciary Committee and directed an inquiry concerning scandalous activities in the U.S. Post Office. Clayton was a member of the Senate twice more, from 1845 to 1849 and from 1853 to 1856.

Between his senatorial duties, Clayton acted as U.S. secretary of state during 1849 and 1850. He formulated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty in 1850 with British emissary Sir Henry Bulwer, which settled a dispute concerning an isthmian canal in Central America by providing for neutrality by both countries in the use of the canal.

Clayton died November 9, 1856, in Dover, Delaware.

views updated

John Middleton Clayton, 1796–1856, American statesman, b. Sussex co., Del. Admitted (1819) to the bar, he practiced at Dover, Del., held many state offices, and was twice (1828, 1845) elected to the U.S. Senate. In the presidential election of 1848 he gave his support to Zachary Taylor and was rewarded with the position of Secretary of State, an office he held until Taylor's death in 1850. As Secretary of State he negotiated the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, which checked British expansion in Central America and temporarily settled a rivalry that had brought England and the United States into conflict. He reentered the Senate in 1852.