US Congressman, Virginia Governor, Presidential Cabinet Secretary. Raised on his family's Albemarle County plantation, "Gilmerton", he was privately educated and by the mid-1820s was an established attorney in Charlottesville. He served 10 terms in the State House of Delegates (1829 to 1836, 1839 and 1840), the last two as Speaker, before the legislature elected him Virginia Governor in March 1840. During his tenure Gilmer inspected various aspects of the state's infrastructure at his own expense, but was not in office long enough to enact significant improvements. In March 1841 he resigned the Governorship after the legislature refused to back his demands for the return of fugitive slaves in New York. He already had his sights on Congress and in November of that year was elected to the first of two terms in the US House of Representatives, representing Virginia's 12th and 5th Districts. Switching parties midstream from the Whigs to the Democrats, his views were conservative and pro-slavery, and he strongly advocated the annexation of Texas. In 1842, Gilmer demanded the censure of Congressman (and former President) John Quincy Adams, who had presented a petition from his constituents calling for dissolution of the Union over slavery. Gilmer called it "high treason", but for the wily Adams it was merely a ruse to circumvent a standing "gag rule" that prohibited presenting abolitionist petitions before Congress. After spending a week of his censure trial denouncing slavery in forceful terms, Adams informed Gilmer and the rest of the assembly that he needed another week to complete his defense - or that they could table the whole matter. The House gratefully accepted the second option. Gilmer resigned his Congressional seat when President John Tyler appointed him Secretary of the Navy in February 1844, but he would serve in that capacity less than two weeks. On February 28, 1844, Gilmer joined 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). During a demonstration of the ship's firepower one of its guns exploded, killing Gilmer, Secretary of State Abel Parker Upshur, and six others; over 20 were injured. The President was below deck at the time and escaped unharmed. Gilmer County, West Virginia is named for him, as is the city of Gilmer in Texas, the seat of Upshur County.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards
Anne Elizabeth Baker Gilmer