Appointed by President Franklin Pierce
“To the victor belong the spoils” is a phrase that has long been cited as the ultimate expression of a partisan, patronage politician. That it was uttered by someone who for most of his political career sought to be a voice of moderation is even more of a surprise, for William L. Marcy was indeed such a figure. His long and distinguished career, which included service as governor of and senator from New York, secretary of war under President James K. Polk, and finally secretary of state to President Franklin Pierce in the years 1853 to 1857, would prove that he was far more a statesman than a mere machine politician.
Born in Southbridge, Massachusetts, a son of farm parents, Jedediah Marcy and Ruth Learned, Marcy attended various village schools before being admitted to Brown University, from which he graduated in 1808. After graduation, he moved west to Troy, New York, where he studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1811. One year later, he married Dolly Norvell, who was to bear him three children before her death in 1821. When the War of 1812 broke out, Marcy enlisted in the state militia. Although seeing limited combat service, he rose through administrative ranks to become adjutant general by 1821.
Ever since his youth, Marcy had been an ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson and so became active in Democratic Republican politics, writing for the Northern Budget in Troy and the Argus in Albany, both anti-Federalist publications. The party's success on the national level made it possible for Marcy to advance in New York politics. He became friendly with Martin Van Buren, and together they wrote a pamphlet promoting Rufus King's campaign for the U.S. Senate. With King's election, Marcy's political stock rose, and he increasingly began to play a more active role in state politics as a member of what became known as the Albany Regency. In 1823, he moved permanently to Albany and was named state comp-troller. In 1824, he took as his second wife Cornelia Kramer, with whom he had three children; in 1827, he was appointed a justice on the state supreme court, where he rendered close to 200 opinions and presided over a very controversial case involving the anti-Mason movement.