William Learned Marcy

All Sources -
Updated Media sources (1) About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic Share Topic
views updated

William Learned Marcy

American statesman William Learned Marcy (1786-1857), a leader of the Democratic party from its origin in the 1820s, served as secretary of war and as secretary of state.

William Marcy was born in Sturbridge, Mass., on Dec. 12, 1786. After graduating from Brown University, he studied law in New York and became a resident of the state. In the confused politics of the "Era of Good Feelings" (1815-1824) in New York State, Marcy was associated with the faction headed by Martin Van Buren in opposition to the group headed by DeWitt Clinton. Van Buren, Marcy's early patron in politics, was responsible for his rapid advancement, and Marcy followed the "Little Magician" into the Democratic party.

After holding several state offices, Marcy was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1831 and became governor of New York State in 1833. As governor, Marcy broke with Van Buren (now president) over the latter's financial policies, especially his proposal for an independent treasury system. This split was to dominate New York State politics for about 15 years. Marcy's appointment as secretary of war by President James K. Polk alienated Van Buren from the administration.

As secretary of war, Marcy supported Polk's ambitions in Mexico and took the responsibility for properly supplying the army during the Mexican War. He also had the odious task of trying to arbitrate the various disputes between Polk and his generals in Mexico—Winfield Scott and Zachary Taylor. Polk assumed the major burden for the actual battlefield tactics.

A leading contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852, Marcy was appointed secretary of state by the victorious candidate, Franklin Pierce. Marcy was the administration's foreign policy adviser and its chief dispenser of patronage. He reorganized the State Department, bringing in many able men. Two major foreign policy problems occupied him: an Anglo-American negotiations involved American opposition to British expansion in Central America, and all efforts at reaching an agreement failed.

To satisfy the more expansionist-minded Democrats, Marcy sought the acquisition of Cuba through negotiations with Spain. But the Ostend Manifesto of 1854, circulated by the American ministers to France, Spain, and England, which maintained that "by every law, human and Divine, we shall be justified in wresting it (Cuba) from Spai….," caused such a reaction in Spain that all hope of peaceful acquisition of the island ended. Marcy died shortly after leaving office, on July 4, 1857.

Further Reading

Ivon Debeham Spencer wrote a full-scale biography of Marcy, The Victor and the Spoils: A Life of William L. Marcy (1959). As no study of Marcy is complete without reference to Martin Van Buren see Holmes Alexander, The American Talleyrand: The Career and Contemporaries of Martin Van Buren (1935). □

views updated

William Learned Marcy, 1786–1857, American politician, b. Southbridge, Mass. He settled in Troy, N.Y., where he practiced law and, after serving in the War of 1812, held local offices. A Democrat and a partisan of Martin Van Buren, Marcy entered the political group known as the Albany Regency, of which he soon became a dominant figure. He served as state comptroller (1823–29) and as justice of the state supreme court (1829–31) before he entered (1831) the U.S. Senate. There he made a famous speech supporting the nomination of Van Buren as minister to England: his defense of Van Buren's methods of patronage with the claim that "to the victor belong the spoils of the enemy" supposedly gave rise to the term "spoils system." Marcy served (1833–39) as governor of New York for three terms and was a member (1840–42) of the Mexican Claims Commission. He was Secretary of War (1845–49) under President Polk and conducted that office efficiently during the Mexican War. He had drifted into opposition to Van Buren and headed the Hunkers, a faction of the New York Democratic party. The peak of Marcy's career was reached when he served as Secretary of State (1853–57) under President Pierce. He handled many delicate problems, including the Gadsden Purchase, negotiations concerning the Black Warrior affair with Spain, and the trouble arising from the filibustering expedition of William Walker in Nicaragua. He condemned the Ostend Manifesto, but he managed to maintain a neutral attitude in the rising dispute over slavery.