American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell

By Edward S. Mihalkanin | Go to book overview
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JOHN M. CLAYTON (1796-1856)

Served 1849-1850

Appointed by President Zachary Taylor


John Middleton Clayton, U.S. Senator (1829-1836, 1845-49, 1853-56) and secretary of state under Presidents Zachary Taylor and Millard Fillmore (8 March 1849-22 July 1850), was born in Dagsboro, Delaware, on July 24, 1796. The son of James Clayton, a tanner, miller, and farmer, and Sarah Middleton, he obtained his early schooling in academies at Berlin, Maryland, and Lewes and Milford, Delaware. Clayton then attended Yale College, graduating in 1815. Between 1815 and 1819, he served an apprenticeship in the law office of his cousin, Thomas Clayton, himself a future U.S. Senator and chief justice of the Delaware Supreme Court, and then studied law at Litchfield Law School in Connecticut. Clayton was admitted to the bar in 1819 and began his practice in Dover. In 1822, he married Sarah Ann Fisher, the daughter of a Camden, Delaware, physician. Clayton's wife died in 1825 following the birth of their second child. He never remarried.

Clayton's remarkable memory, devotion to duty, and drive, as well as his eloquence, charm, and skill at cross-examination, won him a reputation as one of Delaware's ablest lawyers and rising political stars. Influenced by his cousin and education at Yale, with its arch-Federalist college president Timothy Dwight, Clayton entered politics as an ardent Federalist and ally to John Quincy Adams. He battled Louis McLane and supporters of Andrew Jackson for political preeminence in Delaware. During the 1820s he occupied several state government posts, including clerk of both the state senate (1820) and house of representatives (1821), auditor of accounts (1821-24), member of the house of representatives (1824-26), and secretary of state (1826-28). As Delaware's secretary of state, Clayton used political spoils and oratorical prowess to advance the cause of the National Republican, or Whig, Party in helping Adams carry the state in the presidential election of 1828. Delaware Whigs rewarded Clayton's service to the party by electing him to the U.S. Senate in 1828, setting him on the road to national prominence.

During his first term in the U.S. Senate, Clayton championed Henry Clay's American System to foster economic development through a national bank, federal


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American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell
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