A powerful figure in Mississippi law and politics from the 1840s through the 1860s, Alexander Mosby Clayton was a judge on the state’s highest court and on the Confederate District Court. Born in Campbell County, Virginia, on 15 January 1801, Clayton was the first child of William Willis Clayton and Clarissa Mosby Clayton. After receiving some education in local schools, he spent two years at a classical school. Clayton studied under a lawyer in Lynchburg in 1822 and was admitted to the bar the following year. He practiced first in Louisa County, Virginia.
Clayton married Mary Walker Thomas in 1826. He had little professional success, so the family moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1829. His practice thrived, but when his wife died on 20 July 1832, leaving an infant daughter, Mary, and perhaps a son, he moved further west. On 11 December 1832 Pres. Andrew Jackson nominated Clayton to be one of the three federal judges in the Arkansas Territory. He served until 1834, when he contracted cholera.
In 1837 Clayton moved to Mississippi, his home for the remainder of his life. He established a plantation near Lamar in Marshall County and in 1839 married Barbara A. Barker of Clarksville. They had two children, Arthur and Clara.
Clayton was elected to the state’s High Court of Errors and Appeals in 1842. His opinions were thorough and largely free from political passions. All three judges on his court were delegates to the Nashville Convention in June 1850. In his 1851 reelection campaign, he was allied with Jefferson Davis’s candidacy for governor. Both men were defeated.
From 1844 to 1852 Clayton served as the first president of the Board of Trustees of the University of Mississippi. He also served on the board from 1857 to 1870 and 1878 to 1889.
On 24 May 1853 Pres. Franklin Pierce gave Clayton a recess appointment as consul for the port of Havana, Cuba. Clayton arrived in Havana in July, during a yellow fever epidemic, but soon left for Washington and offered to resign. Instead, he agreed to return in a healthier season. Arriving again in Havana on 28 November, Clayton quickly dealt with a key part of his mission, determining that England and France had not entered into a secret treaty to guarantee Spain’s possession of Cuba if it would free all the slaves there. Having accomplished that task and facing continued health risks, Clayton resigned and sailed for home before the year ended.
Clayton then practiced law in Holly Springs and in nearby Memphis. He served as a delegate to the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. He was elected to the January 1861 Mississippi secession convention, where he wrote the declaration of reasons for withdrawing from the Union. He also served as a delegate to the Montgomery convention that established the Confederacy. Clayton signed the Provisional Constitution on 11 March and became chair of the Judiciary Committee of the Provisional Congress.
On 9 May 1861 President Davis nominated Clayton to the Confederate District Court for Mississippi, and he was confirmed and served for the remainder of the Confederacy’s existence. It was often impossible to hold court because of Union occupation. Despite the military’s concerns, Clayton ruled that when the Confederacy lost control of an area, trading with the enemy was no longer a crime.
Around 1 April 1866 Gov. Benjamin Humphries appointed Clayton the circuit judge for the counties near his home. The Fourteenth Amendment, adopted on 4 July 1868, barred from office all prewar public officials who had supported the Confederacy. The US Army removed Clayton from his position as judge on 2 March 1869, and for the remainder of his life, he practiced law, managed his plantation, and served as a director of the Mississippi Central Railroad.
- Alexander M. Clayton, Journal of Southern History (August 1940)
- Hispanic American Historical Review (August 1929)
- Holly Springs Bar, Tribute to the Memory of Hon. Alexander M. Clayton (1889)
- John Livingston, Biographical Sketches of Distinguished American Lawyers (1852)
- James D. Lynch, Bench and Bar of Mississippi (1881)
- Michael P. Mills, Mississippi Law Journal (Fall 2001)
- John Ray Skates Jr., History of the Mississippi Supreme Court, 1817–1948 (1973)