Biographies of the Secretaries of State: William Learned Marcy (1786–1857)


William Learned Marcy was appointed Secretary of State by President Franklin Pierce on March 7, 1853, and entered into duty the following day. Marcy served until March 6, 1857.

William Learned Marcy, 21st Secretary of State

Rise to Prominence

Marcy was born to a farming family in Sturbridge, Massachusetts (now Southbridge) in 1786. He graduated from Brown University in 1808. After reading law, Marcy was admitted to the New York bar in 1811 and began his practice in Troy, New York.

Marcy served briefly as a soldier during the War of 1812. He served several years as Recorder for the city of Troy while he became involved in state politics.

Marcy moved to Albany in 1823, where he served two terms as Comptroller of New York State. In 1829 he was appointed Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of New York. After two years at the Court, Marcy was elected U.S. Senator from New York, a position he held until his election as Governor of New York in 1833. Marcy was elected to three terms as Governor.

In 1840, he was appointed to the Mexican Claims Commission, which examined claims of U.S. citizens against Mexico.

In 1845, President James K. Polk asked Marcy to serve as Secretary of War, a Cabinet position he held for the duration of the administration.

In 1853, President Franklin Pierce selected Marcy as his Secretary of State.

Influence on American Diplomacy

Marcy came to the position of Secretary of State with little foreign policy experience. He had never traveled outside of the United States, but was valued for his pragmatism and judgment.

During his four-year tenure, Marcy negotiated many treaties including the prominent 1853 Gadsden Treaty, which added nearly 30,000 square miles to the United States and made possible a transcontinental railroad.

Interest in territorial expansion shifted from the American Southwest to the Caribbean as the United States became increasingly involved in the question of Cuba’s sovereignty. Marcy oversaw the drafting of the Ostend Manifesto, a document that detailed the reasons for a proposed U.S. acquisition of Cuba. The Manifesto was released to the public but was later rescinded after its issuance embarrassed the Pierce administration and met with international criticism over the expansion of U.S. slavery.

The following year, Marcy negotiated a treaty with Great Britain over reciprocal fishing rights in Canada.

Marcy served the duration of the Pierce presidency, until March 1857. Four months later, he unexpectedly died in New York.