Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William A. Graham (1850–1852): Secretary of the Navy

William Alexander Graham was born in 1804 in Lincoln County, North Carolina. He graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1824, studied the law, and was admitted to the state bar in 1825.

Graham began the practice of law but ultimately turned his attention to politics, becoming a leader among North Carolina Whigs. From 1833 to 1840, he served in the state House of Commons before assuming a vacant United States Senate seat in 1840. Graham served in the Senate for three years before becoming governor of North Carolina, a post he held until 1849.

Prevented from running for a third term as governor, Graham chose to focus on his personal affairs, declining President Zachary Taylor’s offers to become U.S. minister to Russia or to Spain. A year later, however, President Millard Fillmore offered him the Navy portfolio, and Graham accepted. He enjoyed being secretary of the Navy so much that he declined Fillmore’s offer to become secretary of the interior in 1850, choosing to remain at his Navy post until 1852, when he resigned to campaign for the vice presidency of the United States on General Winfield Scott’s ticket.

The Scott/Graham candidacy was not a successful one, and Graham returned to North Carolina where, despite his loyalties to the Union, he supported both his state’s secession and the new Confederate States of America, becoming a member of the Confederate Senate in 1866. At war’s end, Graham was elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate (1866) but was not allowed to occupy it, owing to his Confederate past. William Alexander Graham died in 1875.