Brown University Logo

Office of University Communications
38 Brown Street / Box 1920
Providence RI 02912

401 863-2453
Fax 863-1650
[email protected]



From Martha Mitchell’s Encyclopedia Brunoniana:

Marcy, William L.

William Learned Marcy (1786-1857), Secretary of State of the United States, was born in Sturbridge (the part which is now Southbridge), Massachusetts on December 12, 1786. The son of a farmer, he studied at Leicester Academy and graduated from Brown in 1808. He found employment in a store in Troy, New York, while he studied law and contributed to the columns of anti-Federalist Troy Budget. In the War of 1812 he was a lieutenant in a military company which in October 1812 captured a company of Canadian militia at St. Regis. In 1816 he was appointed Recorder of Troy, an office from which he was removed in 1818 after he criticized Governor DeWitt Clinton’s administration in the Albany Argus. He had already become friendly with Martin Van Buren and supported him, especially by his writing, in the effort to remove “Clintonians” from the Republican party. Marcy was appointed Adjutant General of New York in 1821 and State Comptroller in 1823. The latter office gained some importance, as the state debt was increased by the expenditures for the Erie and Champlain Canals. In 1829 he was appointed a justice of the New York Supreme Court. It was necessary for him to move to Niagara County for the celebrated trial of the alleged slayers of one William Morgan, who had made enemies by threatening to expose Masonic secrets. Marcy’s expenses for this special circuit were paid by the state, and Marcy, like a good former Comptroller, accounted for every expenditure, including, to his later embarrassment this item: “For mending my pantaloons, 50 cents,” which was dug up by his political opponents to ridicule him during his campaign for governor in 1832.

He was elected to the United States Senate in 1831 and served until his resignation in 1833 to take office as Governor, just long enough to make another quotable faux pas. During debate on Van Buren’s nomination as Minister to England, Marcy defended Van Buren against charges that his “Albany Regency” practiced the “spoils system,” and added that he saw nothing wrong in the rule that “to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy.” He became identified with this unfortunate quotation, although his own practice was to appoint to office members of his own party, but never to discharge those of differing views, who were already in office. He served as governor for three terms, until he was defeated by William H. Seward. In 1840, Van Buren appointed Marcy one of the commissioners under the convention with Mexico for the adjustment of claims. In 1845, James K. Polk appointed him Secretary of War. The next year the Mexican War began, and Marcy was obliged to enlist and organize an army. Between 1849 and 1853, he held no public office, and spent his time on politics, reading, and playing whist with his political foe Thurlow Weed. He was a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 1852, but lost on the forty-ninth ballot to Franklin Pierce. He was named Secretary of State by Pierce. Marcy negotiated the Canadian reciprocity treaty in 1854, sought the annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, promoted the abolition of the Danish Sound dues, urged the free navigation of international streams, and favored the annexation of Cuba if this could be accomplished without war. He also composed on June 1, 1853 a circular in which diplomatic representatives of the United States were encouraged to be received by foreign governments “as far as practicable ... in the simple dress of an American citizen.” After leaving the Department of State in March 1857, Marcy planned a trip to Europe with Hamilton Fish. On his way to New York, he stopped at Ballston Spa on the fourth of July. There he lay down to rest, and died with an open copy of Bacon’s Essays in his hand.

Mount Marcy, 5,343 feet high, the highest peak in the Adirondacks and the highest mountain in New York State, was named in 1836 by Professor Ebenezer Emmons of the New York Geological Survey in honor of Marcy, when he was governor of New York.

The above entry appears in Encyclopedia Brunoniana by Martha Mitchell, copyright 1993 by the Brown University Library. It is used here by permission of the author and the University and may not be copied or further distributed without permission.

Return to Encyclopedia Index  |  University Home Page