Abel P. Upshur, U.S. Secretary of Navy & State

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Abel Parker Upshur

Birthdate: (53)
Death: February 28, 1844 (53) (killed during a demonstration cruise when a cannon exploded)
Place of Burial: Congressional Cemetery * Washington District of Columbia District Of Columbia
Immediate Family:

Son of Capt. Littleton Upshur and Ann "Nancy" Upshur
Husband of Elizabeth W. Upshur and Elizabeth Ann Upshur
Father of Elizabeth W. D. Upshur and Susan Parker Brown Ringgold
Brother of Littleton Upshur, II; Juliet Upshur; Caleb Brown Upshur; Arthur Brown Upshur; Dr. John Upshur and 3 others

Managed by: Private User
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About Abel P. Upshur, U.S. Secretary of Navy & State


Abel Parker Upshur (June 17, 1790 – February 28, 1844) was an American lawyer, judge and politician from Virginia. Upshur was active in Virginia state politics and later served as Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State during the Whig administration of President John Tyler. Upshur was instrumental in negotiating the secret treaty that led to the annexation of Texas to the United States and played a key role in ensuring that Texas was admitted to the United States as part of the Union. He was among six people killed when a gun exploded during an official function on board the steam warship USS Princeton.

Early life and career

Upshur was born in Northampton County, Virginia, to Littleton Upshur and Anna (née Parker) Upshur. He was one of twelve children. His father—described as a "staunch individualist and rabid Federalist"—was a plantation owner, a member of the Virginia Legislature, and a Captain during the War of 1812.

Upshur attended Princeton University and Yale College; he was expelled from the former for participating in a student rebellion. He did not graduate, returning to Richmond, Virginia to study law. Upshur was admitted to the bar in 1810; he briefly set up practice in Baltimore, Maryland but returned to Virginia after the death of his father, where he set up a thriving law practice and became active in state politics.

Upshur married Elizabeth Dennis on February 26, 1817; she died in childbirth in October 1817.[3] He remarried in 1824 to Elizabeth Ann Brown; they had one daughter.[3]

Political career

Upshur was elected to a term in the Virginia House of Delegates in 1812, was Commonwealth's Attorney for Richmond (1816–1823), ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Congress, returned to the legislature from 1825 to 1827, was elected to the Virginia General Court in 1826, and was an influential delegate to the Virginia State Constitutional Convention of 1829–1830.

Throughout his political career, Upshur was a stalwart conservative and advocate for states' rights. He opposed democratic reform at the Virginia Convention of 1829–30, backed the nullification movement in South Carolina, and defended slavery as a positive good. Upshur's conservative view of the Constitution received its fullest expression in his 1840 treatise in response to Judge Joseph Story, A Brief Enquiry into the Nature and Character of our Federal Government: Being a Review of Judge Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States.

Secretary of the Navy

Upshur's political reach became national when John Tyler became President of the United States in 1841 and selected him to become the 13th United States Secretary of the Navy in October of that year. His time with the Navy was marked by a strong emphasis on reform and reorganization and efforts to expand and modernize the service. He served from October 11, 1841 to July 23, 1843, and among his achievements were the replacement of the old Board of Navy Commissioners with the bureau system, regularization of the officer corps, increased Navy appropriations, construction of new sailing and steam warships, and the establishment of the United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office.

Secretary of State

In July 1843, President Tyler appointed Upshur United States Secretary of State, to succeed Daniel Webster, who had resigned. His chief accomplishment was advocating for the annexation of the Republic of Texas as a slave state. Upshur and Texas ambassador Isaac Van Zandt worked closely on the treaty of annexation until Upshur's death. He was also heavily involved in the negotiations in the Oregon boundary dispute and was a strong advocate of bringing the Oregon Country into the union. He was eventually willing to settle on the 49th parallel compromise, although negotiations were not finished until after his death (and after the end of Tyler's term).[5]

The USS Princeton explosion

On February 28, 1844, while joining the President and many other dignitaries for a Potomac River cruise on the new steamship USS Princeton, Secretary Upshur and several others were killed when one of the ship's guns exploded. He is buried at the Congressional Cemetery in Washington, D.C.


Two ships have been named in his honor:

The destroyer USS Abel P. Upshur (DD-193) was originally commissioned in 1920, and later a Lend-Lease ship for Great Britain.

In World War II the United States liberty ship SS Abel Parker Upshur was named in his honor.

The Military Sea Transport Service ship USNS Upshur was originally laid down as a passenger-cargo vessel, the "President Hayes" but was acquired by the US government in 1950 for the Korean War, and renamed for Secretary Upshur. It was later used to ferry troops and supplies druing the Cold War (including to evacuate the civilian and dependent population of the US base at Guantanamo Bay during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962), and during the Vietnam War, it was used to ferry troops and supplies to Vietnam, then used as the vessel that carried the first attempted prisoner exchange in Vietnam.

These places have been named in his honor:

Upshur County, West Virginia

Upshur Streets in northwest Washington, D.C., Arlington, VA, Maryland, and northwest Portland, Oregon

Upshur County, Texas

Another victim of the USS Princeton explosion was Secretary of the Navy Capt. Thomas W. Gilmer. The city of Gilmer, Texas was named for him; Gilmer is Upshur County's county seat.

Mount Upshur, aka Boundary Peak 17, a summit on the Alaska-British Columbia border near Hyder, Alaska.[6]


US Presidential Cabinet Member. He served as Secretary of the Navy and Secretary of State during the Adminstration of President John Tyler. The son of Virginia planter and politician Littleton Upshur, he was born at the family estate in Northampton County. Following classical studies at Princeton and Yale, he pursued a law degree in Richmond, Virginia and was a practicing attorney there from 1810 to 1824. He served six terms as a member of the State House of Delegates (1812 to 1813, 1824 to 1827) and was a judge of the Virginia General Court from 1826 to 1841. A lifelong conservative, Upshur supported slavery, States' Rights, and South Carolina's Nullification movement, and was opposed to Democratic reforms at the Virginia Constitutional Convention (1829 to 1830). He joined the Whig Party in 1840 after decades as a Federalist but made his political views clear in the treatise "A Brief Enquiry into the Nature and Character of our Federal Government" (1840). President Tyler appointed him as the 13th US Secretary of the Navy in 1841, and during his 21 months in office he did much to modernize and expand the service. When Daniel Webster resigned as Secretary of State in 1843, Upshur was appointed to replace him. In this capacity he advocated the annexation of the Republic of Texas and secretly began negotiating a treaty to this effect with Texas Ambassador Isaac Van Zandt, which he would not live to complete. On February 28, 1844, Upshur joined President Tyler and many other dignitaries on a Potomac River cruise aboard the new USS Princeton, the Navy's first screw-propelled steam warship (and only the second in the world), which he himself had commissioned. During a demonstration of the ship's firepower one of its guns exploded, killing Upshur, Navy Secretary Thomas Gilmer, and six others; over 20 were injured. Tyler was below deck at the time and escaped unharmed. Upshur was buried at Washington DC's Congressional Cemetery until 1874, when he was reinterred at Oak Hill Cemetery. The Texas annexation treaty he worked on was defeated by the Senate after his death but an amended version was passed in 1845. One of Upshur's key provisions - that Texas would be admitted to the US as a slave state - was included, and this became a contributing factor to the start of the Civil War. Upshur Counties in West Virginia and Texas are named for the statesman, as were several US Navy vessels.

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Abel P. Upshur, U.S. Secretary of Navy & State's Timeline

June 17, 1790
November 28, 1817
Age 27
Machipongo, Northampton County, Virginia, United States
Age 35
Machipongo, Northampton County, Virginia, United States
February 28, 1844
Age 53
Congressional Cemetery * Washington District of Columbia District Of Columbia