Henry D. Clayton Jr. (1857-1929) was a noted lawyer who served as a judge of the U.S. District Courts for the Middle and Northern Districts in Alabama and in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he authored the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914. He also is remembered for his opposition to the Ku Klux Klan.
Henry D. Clayton Jr. The son of Confederate general Henry Delamar Clayton Sr. and Victoria Virginia Hunter Clayton, Henry was born on February 10, 1857, near Clayton, Barbour County. He was one of 13 children. Brother Bertram Tracy Clayton represented New York in Congress. Clayton was raised on his parents’ plantation in Barbour County, where he acquired the views on paternalism and social conservatism that would steer many of his future actions. The elder Clayton, a circuit judge, opposed Ku Klux Klan terrorism during Reconstruction but acquiesced to the Democratic violence in the overthrow of Alabama’s Republican regime that resulted in the 1874 election of George Smith Houston as governor.
Clayton Jr. attended the University of Alabama, graduating with a law degree in 1878. (His father would serve as president from 1886-89.) He married Virginia Ball Allen in 1882; she would die the following year and Clayton later married Bettie Davis, of Kentucky. Politically astute, he served as a U.S. attorney for the state’s middle district from 1893 to 1896. After the Panic of 1893, when Alabama suffered through an agricultural depression that led to a third-party populist agrarian political revolt, Clayton sided with the inflationist (free silver) wing of the Democratic Party, soon to be associated with 1896 presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan, but remained committed to Alabama’s Democrats. Although Bryan was unsuccessful in his bid for the presidency, Clayton was elected to Congress to represent Alabama’s Third District (in central and southeastern Alabama) in 1896 for the first of what would be nine terms. A reformist in terms of fiscal policy, he favored an expansion of the nation’s currency by increasing the coinage of silver and for moderate government regulation. He also supported white supremacy and the African American disfranchisement that was made law in Alabama’s 1901 Constitution as well as the alliance of Black Belt planters and “Big Mule industrialists who came to dominate Alabama politics.
Henry D. Clayton Jr. and John W. Davis During Clayton’s first congressional years, Republicans held the majority in both houses of the U.S. Congress, leaving Democrats, within the committee structure of the House, to develop expertise in particular types of legislation. Clayton became active in judicial policy and the reform of legal procedures. When Democrats achieved a majority in the House in the 62nd Congress in 1911, Clayton was chosen as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and again for the following term. In that position, he supported measures to streamline legal pleading, such as making the law less complex, and to exert a more centralized control over federal judges. A firm supporter of Pres. Woodrow Wilson, Clayton sponsored one of the signature pieces of the Progressive Era, the Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, which aimed to strengthen antitrust laws and improve business competition. At roughly the same time, however, Democratic control of the House meant that Clayton had to spend more time on the unpleasant task of patronage politics: trying to obtain government jobs for constituents. After considering his options, Clayton accepted Wilson’s appointment as federal judge of Alabama’s middle and northern districts in May 1914, a position he held until his death.
Clayton proved to be a knowledgeable and energetic jurist who asked many questions and insisted that trials move briskly. His reputation for efficiency ensured that he was often assigned as a visiting out-of-state judge. During World War I, he vigorously supported the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which empowered the Wilson Administration to suppress free speech and other constitutional rights in the name of supporting the war effort. In 1918, Clayton presided in New York City in a prosecutorial manner (that is, with open hostility toward the defendants) over United States v. Abrams. In that case, five anarchists were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917 with conspiracy to distribute pamphlets critical of American foreign policy. They were convicted, and Clayton, who was angered by the recent death of his brother Bertram in France, imposed harsh sentences. Later, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Clayton’s rulings despite defending attorney Oliver Wendell Holmes’ dissent in favor of a “free exchange of ideas.”
After the war, Clayton moved away from his earlier Progressive views. He decided that government, by undertaking supervisory and regulatory tasks, had undermined the essential American balance of freedoms and responsibilities. Thereafter, he identified politically with the “Old Guard” of the Alabama Democratic Party, whose Progressive wing, while still influenced by older leaders such as Sen. J. Thomas Heflin and former governor Braxton Bragg Comer, increasingly was falling under the influence of younger men such as Hugo Black and David Bibb Graves, both members of a resurgent Ku Klux Klan. The Klan exploited middle-class Protestant anxiety by promoting Prohibition and targeting Catholics, Jews, recent immigrants, and labor organizers. To Clayton, it seemed that Klan leaders had taken to heart all the bad lessons of the recent war, using propaganda and other mass-political techniques to promote a culture of spying and conformity.
Clayton consistently opposed Klan violence and lawlessness. In June 1922, he spoke before the Florida state bar, denouncing the Klan’s “indefensible” usurpations of power and its violations of the rights and legal processes that were, in Clayton’s view, the cement holding American society together. Clayton approved of the anti-Klan campaign mounted in 1927 by the newspaper mogul Victor Hanson and Hanson’s talented editor, Grover Hall Sr. of the Montgomery Advertiser. Not long thereafter, Clayton’s health began to fail and with it his ability to hold court. He died on December 21, 1929. Although he moved ultimately from Progressivism to a more conservative political stance, he consistently embraced the legal profession’s principles of fair play and due process. Clayton was buried in Fairview Cemetery, Eufaula, Barbour County. The Clayton House, just outside of Clayton, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- Alsobrook, David. “‘Remember the Maine!’ Congressman Henry D. Clayton Comments on the Impending Conflict with Spain, April 1898,” Alabama Review 30 (1977), 227-231.
- Feldman, Glen. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
- Hollis, Daniel W. An Alabama Newspaper Tradition: Grover C. Hall and the Hall Family. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1983.
- Polenberg, Richard. Fighting Faiths: The Abrams Case, the Supreme Court, and Free Speech. New York: Viking Press, 1987.
- Pruitt, Paul M. Jr. “Henry D. Clayton: Plantation Progressive on the Federal Bench,” in Taming Alabama: Lawyers and Reformers, 1804-1929. Tuscaloosa, University of Alabama Press, 2010.
- ———. “Judge Henry D. Clayton and ‘A Klansman’: A Revealing Exchange of Views.” Florida Historical Quarterly 81 (2003) 323-47.
- Rodabaugh, Carl Louis. “Congressman Henry D. Clayton and the Dothan Post Office Fight: Patronage and Politics in the Progressive Era,” Alabama Review 33 (1980) 125-149.