Nathan Clifford was born and raised in New Hampshire; he began his law practice in Maine. But public life had more allure so at the age of 27, Clifford ran successfully for the lower chamber of Maine's legislature. He was subsequently reelected. The Maine legislature elected Clifford to the attorney general's position. He then won two terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Clifford served as President Polk's attorney general. Years later, President Buchanan would pluck Clifford from private practice in Maine for a spot on the nation's highest court.
Clifford chaired the special commission established to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election. Clifford voted for Tilden and the Democrats, but Hayes and the Republicans won by a single vote. Clifford thereafter refused to enter the White House while Hayes was president since he viewed Hayes as an illegitimate officeholder.
Clifford suffered a stroke in 1880 but refused to resign because he did not want to create a vacancy for the Republicans then in power. He died a year later, his wish unfulfilled.