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John H. Clifford

John Henry Clifford
21st Governor of Massachusetts
In office
January 14, 1853 – January 12, 1854
Lieutenant Elisha Huntington
Preceded by George S. Boutwell
Succeeded by Emory Washburn
9th & 11th Massachusetts Attorney General
In office
Preceded by Office revived (abolished since 1843)
Succeeded by Rufus Choate
In office
Preceded by Rufus Choate
Succeeded by Stephen Henry Phillips
Personal details
Born (1809-01-16)January 16, 1809
Providence, Rhode Island
Died January 2, 1876 (aged 66)
New Bedford, Massachusetts
Political party Whig
Spouse(s) Sarah Parker Allen
Profession Lawyer, politician

John Henry Clifford (January 16, 1809 – January 2, 1876) was an American lawyer and politician from New Bedford, Massachusetts. He served as the state's attorney general for much of the 1850s, retaining the office during administrations dominated by three different political parties. A Whig, he was elected the state's 21st governor, serving a single term from 1853 to 1854. He was the first governor of Massachusetts not born in the state.

As attorney general Clifford gained fame by leading the prosecution in one of the most sensational trials of the 19th century, the Parkman–Webster murder case. The case, where both victim and assailant were from the upper crust of Boston society, featured the first use of forensic dentistry to secure a conviction. During the American Civil War Clifford supported the Union cause, and was involved in unsuccessful maneuvers to prosecute Confederate President Jefferson Davis after the war. In his later years he served as president of the Boston and Providence Railroad.


  • Early years 1
  • Attorney general and governor 2
  • Later political and legal work 3
  • Later years 4
  • Clifford and Melville 5
  • Notes 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Early years

John Clifford was born to Benjamin and Achsah (Wade) Clifford in Providence, Rhode Island on January 16, 1809. He was the sixth of thirteen children.[1] He graduated from Brown University in 1827, read law with Timothy Coffin in New Bedford, Massachusetts and Theron Metcalf in Dedham, Massachusetts, and then opened a law practice in New Bedford. He maintained that practice, sometimes with partners, for the rest of his life.[2] Clifford married Sarah Parker Allen on January 16, 1832.[1] The couple had five children.[3]

In 1835, Clifford was elected to the Mr. [Benjamin] Hallett was the candidate most generally supported. He was full of prejudices and he was not well instructed as a lawyer. In these respects Clifford was his opposite."[6]

Attorney general and governor


Political offices
Preceded by
George S. Boutwell
Governor of Massachusetts
January 11, 1853 – January 12, 1854
Succeeded by
Emory Washburn
Legal offices
Office abolished since 1843
Title last held by
James T. Austin
Attorney General of Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Rufus Choate
Preceded by
Rufus Choate
Attorney General of Massachusetts
Succeeded by
Stephen Henry Phillips
  • Official Commonwealth of Massachusetts Governor Biography

External links

  • Boutwell, George S (1902). Reminiscences of Sixty Years in Public Affairs, Volume 1. New York: McLure, Phillips.  
  • Cowles, Luther (1902). History of the 5th Massachusetts Battery. Boston: self-published.  
  • Davis, William (2008) [1900]. History of the Judiciary of Massachusetts. Clark, NJ: Lawbook Exchange.  
  • Davis, William (1895). Bench and Bar of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Volume 1. Boston, MA: The Boston History Company.  
  • Frothingham, Louis (1916). A Brief History of the Constitution and Government of Massachusetts. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.  
  • Grover, Kathryn (2009). The Fugitive's Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.  
  • Holt, Michael (1999). The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party : Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • Hurd, Duane Hamilton (1883). History of Bristol County, Massachusetts, Part 1. Philadelphia, PA: J. Lewis & CO. 
  • Johnson, Scott (2011). Trials of the Century. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.  
  • The Massachusetts Register, Issue 88. Boston: George Adams. 1854.  
  • Moore, John (1898). History and Digest of the International Arbitrations to which the United States has been a Party, Volume 1. Washington, DC: United States Government.  
  • Nichols, Roy (January 1926). "United States vs. Jefferson Davis, 1865–1869". The American Historical Review (Volume 31, No. 2).  
  • Parker, Hershel (2005) [1996]. Herman Melville: A Biography. Baltimore: JHU Press. Two-volume biography of Melville.  
  • Reno, Conrad (1901). Memoirs of the Judiciary and the Bar, Volume 2. Boston: Century Memorial Publishing.  
  • Roe, Arthur (February 1901). "The Governors of Massachusetts". The Bay State Monthly (Volume 25, No. 6). 
  • Rogers, Alan (2008). Murder and the Death Penalty in Massachusetts. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.  
  • Sammarco, Anthony (2004). Boston's Back Bay in the Victorian Era. Portsmouth, NH: Arcadia Publishing.  
  • Smith, Adam (2006). No Party Now: Politics in the Civil War North. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  • Thomas, Brook (1987). Cross-examinations of Law and Literature : Cooper, Hawthorne, Stowe, and Melville. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.  
  • Winthrop, Robert Charles (1877). Memoir of the Hon. John H. Clifford, LL. D. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society.  


  1. ^ a b Hurd, p. 12
  2. ^ Reno, p. 118
  3. ^ a b c Hurd, p. 14
  4. ^ a b c d  Wilson, James Grant; Fiske, John, eds. (1900). "Clifford, John Henry".  
  5. ^ a b c Reno, p. 119
  6. ^ Boutwell, p. 124
  7. ^ Johnson, p. 58
  8. ^ Rogers, pp. 95–96
  9. ^ a b c Rogers, p. 96
  10. ^ Johnson, p. 60
  11. ^ Thomas, p. 203
  12. ^ Rogers, p. 97
  13. ^ Johnson, p. 61
  14. ^ a b Holt, p. 762
  15. ^ The Massachusetts Register, Issue 88, p. 43
  16. ^ Frothingham, p. 54
  17. ^ Davis (2008), p. 286
  18. ^ Davis (1895), p. 290
  19. ^ Cowles, p. 30
  20. ^ Cowles, pp. 31–33
  21. ^ Grover, p. 175
  22. ^ Smith, pp. 62–63
  23. ^ Smith, p. 121
  24. ^ a b Hurd, p. 13
  25. ^ Nichols, pp. 266–268
  26. ^ Nichols, p. 272
  27. ^ Winthrop, p. 13
  28. ^ Sammarco, p. 116
  29. ^ Reno, p. 120
  30. ^ Moore, pp. 725–727
  31. ^ Roe, p. 651
  32. ^ "MACRIS Inventory Record for Gov. John H. Clifford House". Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Retrieved 2013-04-23. 
  33. ^ Parker, p. 2:113
  34. ^ Parker, p. 2:114
  35. ^ Parker, pp. 2:115, 120
  36. ^ Parker, pp. 2:159–161, 202


Clifford had a friendly and collegial relationship with Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, who was the father-in-law of writer Herman Melville.[33] Clifford and Melville crossed paths on a number of occasions, most notably on Nantucket in the summer of 1852. On this occasion Clifford recounted to Melville a story about one of his early cases.[34] Melville later wrote him, asking for further details, and Clifford sent Melville journal entries on the case.[35] Melville ended up using the material for Isle of the Cross, a story that was never published.[36]

Clifford and Melville

In 1875 Clifford was appointed to a diplomatic commission established pursuant to the 1871 Treaty of Washington with the United Kingdom to resolve fishery issues. However, owing to a delay occasioned by the difficulty in selecting a neutral third commissioner, Clifford never assumed his duties.[30] He died of heart disease, after a short illness, on January 2, 1876 at his home in New Bedford,[3] and was buried in New Bedford's Rural Cemetery.[31] Clifford's Greek Revival mansion still stands on Orchard Street in New Bedford, contributing to the County Street Historic District.[32]

In 1867 Clifford retired from the legal profession and became president of the Peabody Education Fund, a philanthropic initiative for building educational resources in the post-war South.[24] In his later years he was offered, but turned down, a number of diplomatic postings in Europe, including Ambassador to Russia and Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.[3] In 1873 and 1875 he traveled to warmer climates in a bid to improve his declining health.[29]

Clifford's grave marker in the Rural Cemetery
Clifford's house in New Bedford

Later years

In 1865 Clifford was chosen to act as one of the special counsels prosecuting former Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis was to be prosecuted for treason, but for a variety of reasons the charges were eventually dropped after four years of political and legal wrangling. Clifford contributed to a debate in 1866 over the difficulty of prosecuting Davis in Virginia, noting that without essentially packing the jury, a failed prosecution would result in the awkward outcome of a Virginia jury in some sense overturning the outcome of the war.[25] He resigned from these duties in July 1866.[26]

Clifford was, like other conservative Whigs, politically opposed to the abolitionist movement; he was described by former slave Frederick Douglass as "pro-slavery" and "about the most aristocratic gentleman in Bristol County".[21] However, once the Civil War broke out he supported the Union cause and the state's participation in the conflict. In 1862 he joined in a call for the formation of an antiabolition party to oppose the Republicans. The "People's Party" was formed primarily by people who had supported the pro-Union Constitutional Union Party of 1860, and failed to gain traction because of President Abraham Lincoln's preliminary Emancipation Proclamation issued in September.[22] Clifford was elected to the state senate that year, where he served as its president.[4] Clifford supported Lincoln for reelection in 1864.[23] In 1868 he was chosen a presidential elector, casting his vote for Ulysses S. Grant.[24]

The state hired Clifford in 1859 to assist Phillips in prosecuting what turned out to be the final stages of a long-running (200 year) series of issues concerning the state's boundary with Rhode Island.[18] Phillips and Clifford traveled to Washington, DC in January 1861 to make their appearance before the American Civil War.[20]

Later political and legal work

After his single term as governor, Clifford refused to stand for reelection, preferring to work as a lawyer. His successor, Governor Emory Washburn, reappointed him to be attorney general, an office he held from 1854 to 1858. This term of service notably included the tenure of Know Nothing Governor Henry J. Gardner. Gardner, who had politically been a Whig before the advent of the Know Nothings, retained Clifford in the office, and the two of them blunted some of anti-immigrant legislation and (in their view) extreme reform proposals of the Know Nothing legislature. During Gardner's tenure, the state constitution was amended so that the office of attorney general was elected rather than appointed.[16] In the election of 1858, Stephen Henry Phillips was elected to replace Clifford.[17]

In 1852 the state Whig Party parlayed his popularity in the Parkman case into a nomination for the governorship, which Clifford reluctantly accepted.[5] The race was a difficult one, dominated by the presidential contest and candidate stands on the state's temperance "Maine law". In addition to Whig support, Clifford was nominated by a party opposed to the Maine law, while one of his opponents, Horace Mann, was running with both Free Soil and pro-Maine law nominations. The Whigs had been divided by their reactions to the Compromise of 1850, and the national election (held one week before the state election) saw many Whigs voting for Democrat Franklin Pierce.[14] In a three way race involving Clifford, Mann, and Democrat Henry W. Bishop, Clifford received 45% of the vote. A majority requirement still in effect for popular election, he was elected by the state senate 29–4 over Bishop,[15] although fractious Whigs demanded the replacement of Senator John Davis in exchange for their support for him.[14]

Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw (portrait by William Morris Hunt) presided over the Parkman–Webster murder case and was a friend of Clifford's

[13][9], but Webster was eventually hanged after confessing the crime. The case has continued to interest legal scholars, in part over allegations that the defense (which included one lawyer lacking significant criminal trial experience) failed to aggressively dispute the evidence presented, and also did not introduce potentially exculpatory evidence.Lemuel Shaw There was much controversy afterward concerning the jury instructions given by Chief Justice [12] The jury returned a guilty verdict after two and one half hours of deliberation.[9] and strong circumstantial evidence to build the case against forensics he resorted instead to [11]

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