Nathan Clifford came to the Supreme Court in 1858 after an active political career. He served in the Maine legislature in the 1830s and in the House of Representatives in the early 1840s. He was JAMES K. POLK'S attorney general, and during his term he represented (in a private capacity) the rebellious Dorr faction before the Supreme Court in LUTHER V. BORDEN (1849). Clifford's most significant political achievement came in 1848 when Polk dispatched him to persuade Mexico to accept the TREATY OF GUADALUPE HIDALGO as amended by Congress. A decade later, President JAMES BUCHANAN selected him to succeed Justice BENJAMIN R. CURTIS. At a time when the Court was perceived in many quarters as an instrument of southern and Democratic party interests, the choice of a Northerner with southern principles was viewed as blatant partisanship. After a lengthy confirmation battle, the SENATE narrowly approved him.
Clifford, a "doughface" in politics, regarded himself as a Jeffersonian "strict constructionist" in constitutional matters. He resolutely opposed the centralization of governmental power during the 1860s and early 1870s. But in ABLEMAN V. BOOTH (1859) he voted to affirm federal judicial supremacy. During the war, Clifford generally supported the government. He wrote opinions upholding the seizure of slave-trading ships; he joined his colleagues in declining to decide any constitutional questions involving the legal tender laws; and he supported the Court's refusal to consider the martial law issues in EX PARTE VALLANDIGHAM (1864). In the PRIZE CASES (1863), however, Clifford joined the dissenters who questioned the legality of President ABRAHAM LINCOLN'S blockade of southern ports.
Following the war, Clifford consistently opposed Republican RECONSTRUCTION policy. He joined the majority opinion in EX PARTE MILLIGAN (1866), which struck down trials by military commissions where the civil courts were functioning; he supported the majority in the TEST OATH CASES (1867); he agreed with the majority's narrow construction of the FOURTEENTH AMENDMENT in the SLAUGHTERHOUSE CASES (1873); and in separate opinions in several VOTING RIGHTS cases, including UNITED STATES V. REESE (1876) and UNITED STATES V. CRUIKSHANK (1876), he went beyond the majority opinions to condemn federal interference with state elections. Finally, he joined the Court's majority that overturned the legal tender laws in Hepburn v. Griswold (1870), but when...