William L. Marcy

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William L. Marcy
William L. Marcy - Brady-Handy.jpg
21st United States Secretary of State
In office
March 7, 1853 – March 6, 1857
President Franklin Pierce
Preceded by Edward Everett
Succeeded by Lewis Cass
20th United States Secretary of War
In office
March 6, 1845 – March 4, 1849
President James K. Polk
Preceded by William Wilkins
Succeeded by George W. Crawford
11th Governor of New York
In office
January 1, 1833 – December 31, 1838
Lieutenant John Tracy
Preceded by Enos T. Throop
Succeeded by William H. Seward
United States Senator
from New York
In office
March 4, 1831 – January 1, 1833
Preceded by Nathan Sanford
Succeeded by Silas Wright
Personal details
Born William Learned Marcy
(1786-12-12)December 12, 1786
Southbridge, Massachusetts
Died July 4, 1857(1857-07-04) (aged 70)
Ballston Spa, New York
Political party Democratic-Republican, Democratic
Spouse(s) Dolly Newell
Children Edmund Marcy
Cornelia Marcy
Alma mater Brown University
Profession Politician, Lawyer, Judge
Marcy depicted on the Series 1880 $1,000 silver certificate.

William Learned Marcy (December 12, 1786 – July 4, 1857) was an American statesman, who served as U.S. Senator, Governor of New York, U.S. Secretary of War and U.S. Secretary of State. In the latter office (1853–1857) under President Franklin Pierce, he resolved the Koszta Affair and negotiated the Gadsden Purchase, as well as ordering U.S. diplomats abroad to dress in the plain style of an ordinary American.

Early life[edit]

Marcy was born in Southbridge, Massachusetts. He graduated from Brown University in 1808, taught school in Dedham, Massachusetts[1] and in Newport, Rhode Island, studied law, was admitted to the bar in 1811, and commenced practice in Troy, New York. Marcy served in the War of 1812. Afterwards he was recorder of Troy for several years, but as he sided with the Anti-Clinton faction of the Democratic-Republican Party, known as the Bucktails, he was removed from office in 1818 by his political opponents. He was the editor of the Troy Budget. On April 28, 1824, he married Cornelia Knower (1801–1889, daughter of Benjamin Knower) at the Knower House in Guilderland, New York, and their children were Edmund Marcy (b. ca. 1833) and Cornelia Marcy (1834–1888).

State politics[edit]

Gubernatorial portrait of William L. Marcy.

He was the leading member of the Albany Regency, a group of politicians who controlled State politics between 1821 and 1838. He was Adjutant-General of the New York State Militia from 1821 to 1823, New York State Comptroller from 1823 to 1829, and an associate justice of the New York Supreme Court from 1829 to 1831.

In 1831, he was elected as a Jacksonian Democrat a U.S. Senator from New York, and served from March 4, 1831, to January 1, 1833, when he resigned upon taking office as Governor. He sat on the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary in the 22nd Congress. Defending Jackson's nomination of Martin Van Buren as minister to the United Kingdom in 1832, Marcy used the phrase "'to the victor belong the spoils," from which the term spoils system is derived.[2]

He was Governor of New York for three terms, from 1833 until 1838. In 1838, he was defeated by Whig William H. Seward, which led to a radical change in State politics and ended the Regency.

He was a member of the Mexican Claims Commission from 1839 to 1842. Later he was recognized as one of the leaders of the Hunkers, the conservative, office-seeking, and pro-compromise-on-slavery faction of the Democratic Party in New York.

Federal office[edit]

Marcy served as United States Secretary of War in the Cabinet of President James K. Polk from 1845 until 1849, at which time he resumed the practice of law. After 1849, Marcy led the "Soft" faction of the Hunkers that supported reconciliation with the Barnburners, and in this role sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852, but was unsuccessful, in part due to "Hard" opposition led by Daniel S. Dickinson.

Marcy returned to public life in 1853 to serve as United States Secretary of State under President Franklin Pierce. On June 1 of that year, he issued a circular to American diplomatic agents abroad, recommending that, whenever practicable, they should appear in the simple dress of an American citizen. This directive created much discussion in Europe, and in 1867 his recommendation was enacted into a law of Congress.[3] Marcy also resolved the Koszta Affair and negotiated the Gadsden Purchase. Other affairs which demanded his attention were a Canadian reciprocity treaty, Commodore Matthew C. Perry's negotiations with Japan, a British fishery dispute, and the Ostend Conference.[4]

He died at Ballston Spa, New York, and was buried at the Rural Cemetery in Albany, New York.

His portrait appeared on American paper currency, the U.S. $1000 Silver Certificate, issued between 1878 and 1891.

Mount Marcy in Essex County, at 1629 meters the highest peak in New York, and the Town of Marcy in Oneida County are both named after him, as are the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn, New York.


"The United States consider powerful navies and large standing armies as permanent establishments to be detrimental to national prosperity and dangerous to civil liberty. The expense of keeping them up is burdensome to the people; they are in some degree a menace to peace among nations. A large force ever ready to be devoted to the purposes of war is a temptation to rush into it. The policy of the United States has ever been, and never more than now, adverse to such establishments, and they can never be brought to acquiesce in any change in International Law which may render it necessary for them to maintain a powerful navy or large standing army in time of peace." — explaining why the United States would not sign the Treaty of Paris, as U.S. Secretary of State[5]


Further reading[edit]

  • Spencer, Ivor Debenham, The Victor and the Spoils: a Life of William L. Marcy, Brown University Press (1959).


Political offices
Preceded by
John Savage
New York State Comptroller
Succeeded by
Silas Wright
Preceded by
Enos T. Throop
Governor of New York
Succeeded by
William H. Seward
Preceded by
William Wilkins
U.S. Secretary of War
Served under: James K. Polk

March 6, 1845 – March 4, 1849
Succeeded by
George W. Crawford
Preceded by
Edward Everett
U.S. Secretary of State
Served under: Franklin Pierce

March 7, 1853 – March 6, 1857
Succeeded by
Lewis Cass
United States Senate
Preceded by
Nathan Sanford
U.S. Senator (Class 3) from New York
March 4, 1831 – January 1, 1833
Served alongside: Charles E. Dudley
Succeeded by
Silas Wright