December 12, 1786 - July 4, 1857
William Learned Marcy served as secretary of war during the Polk administration. Marcy was born in1786 in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. Following his graduation from Brown University in 1808, he pursued a career as a lawyer in Troy, New York, then on the fringe of an expanding Anglo-American frontier. During the war of 1812 he served in the ill-fated Dearborn invasion of Canada.
Active in local and state politics, Marcy became a prominent figure of the "Albany Regency," the Democratic machine that controlled New York throughout much of the Jacksonian period. As a supporter of Martin Van Buren, Marcy served as state comptroller, associate justice to the state supreme court, governor, and as a U.S. senator. In 1832, during the Senate debates over the confirmation of Martin Van Buren as minister to the Court of St. James’s, Marcy issued the famous rejoinder, "to the victor belongs the spoils" to critics who opposed the appointment as an abuse of patronage.
In 1844, Marcy broke with the Van Buren faction over its leader’s equivocal stand on the annexation of Texas. The following year, James K. Polk, an avowed expansionist, appointed Marcy as secretary of war. Notwithstanding his support of the spoils system, Marcy kept many Whigs at their posts during his tenure at the War Department. In his first annual report, Marcy recommended that the army, then less than 8.000 men, be substantially increased, a move that was rejected by a budget-minded Congress. With the declaration of war in May 1845, Congress essentially adopted Marcy’s earlier recommendations, increasing the size of the regular army and authorizing a volunteer army of 50,000 volunteers for a twelve month enlistment period.
Following the declaration of war against Mexico, the president, in consultation with Marcy and General Winfield Scott, developed a basic plan of operations for the war. The plan required striking Mexico at two vital points: Santa Fe, New Mexico and Mexico’s northern provinces below the Rio Grande. The plan was soon revised to add a third prong to the plan of attack: outfitting an expeditionary force to seize Upper California.
In the summer of 1846, both the president and the secretary of war believed the conflict with Mexico would be brief. It soon became apparent, however, that the administration had greatly underestimated the determination of Mexican leaders to defend the nation’s honor, while, an uncertain political situation in Mexico City also precluded the possibility of a quick negotiated settlement. By November, Polk had come to the conclusion that an aggressive campaign into Mexico’s southern interior was needed to compel its leaders to accept defeat, a strategy which Marcy believed too risky.
Nonetheless, Marcy proved an able administrator, hastily transforming the army from one designed for frontier defense to a sophisticated fighting force capable of waging war on foreign soil. Almost as important, Marcy enjoyed a constructive relationship with his top Whig generals, Taylor and Scott, thus helping to mitigate to some degree the intense partisanship that poisoned President Polk’s conduct of the war effort.
After the war Marcy continued to be active in Democratic politics. He unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852, losing to Franklin Pierce, who appointed him as secretary of state. As head of the State Department Marcy helped negotiate the Gadsden Purchase with Mexico.
Pletcher, David M. The Diplomacy of Annexation: Texas, Oregon, and the Mexican War. Columbia, Missouri, University of Missouri Press. 1973.
Spenser, Ivor D. The Victor and the Spoils: A life of William L. Marcy. Providence, R.I., Brown University Press. 1959.