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.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards