John Canfield Spencer

JOHN CANFIELD SPENCER was born in Hudson, New York, on 8 January 1788; entered college at Williamstown, Massachusetts, transferred to Union College, Schenectady, New York, and graduated with honors in 1806; became secretary to Governor Daniel D. Tompkins, 1807; studied law in Albany and was admitted to the bar, 1809; married Elizabeth Scott Smith, 1809; moved to Canandaigua, New York; entered the practice of law there and became a master of chancery, 1811; was appointed brigade judge advocate on the northern frontier, 1813; was postmaster at Canandaigua, 1814; became assistant attorney general and district attorney for the five western counties of New York, 1815; served in the U.S. House of Representatives, 1817–1819; was a member of the committee that reported unfavorably on the affairs of the National Bank; was nominated but defeated for the U.S. Senate; served in the state assembly, 1820–1822; served in the state senate, 1825–1828; became special prosecutor to investigate the disappearance of William Morgan, author of a manuscript on Masonic rituals, 1829; again served in the state legislature, 1831–1833; moved to Albany, 1837; edited an English edition of De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, 1838; was secretary of state of New York, 1839; served as Secretary of War, 12 October 1841–3 March 1843; proposed a chain of posts extending from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to the Columbia River; urged that the government adhere to field commander arrangements by compensating the Creek Indians who were removed; lost his son Philip, who was executed for attempted mutiny aboard the brig Somers, 1842; was nominated to the Supreme Court but rejected by the U.S. Senate, 1844; died in Albany, New York, on 18 May 1855.

The Artist

Robert Walter Weir (1803–1889), landscape, portrait, and genre painter, illustrator, and a National Academician, was instructor in drawing at the United States Military Academy when Secretary Spencer presided over the War Department. Although Spencer may well have visited West Point in the discharge of his official duties, Weir did not have the opportunity to paint him from life. The portrait was not painted until three decades later, eighteen years after Spencer’s death.


Portrait, John Canfield Spencer

Tyler Administration
By Robert Walter Weir
Oil on canvas, 29½" x 24½", 1873

page created 1 March 2001

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