Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

William B. Preston (1849–1850): Secretary of the Navy

William Ballard Preston was born in 1805 near Blacksburg, Virginia. He graduated from Hampton-Sydney College in 1821, studied law at the University of Virginia in 1822, and was admitted to the state bar in 1826.

Preston served in Virginia’s House of Delegates from 1830 to 1832, became a member of the state senate from 1840 to 1844, and then returned to the House of Delegates, where he served from 1844 to 1845. In 1846, Preston headed to Washington, D.C., as a Whig to claim his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives; by 1849, he had been confirmed as President Zachary Taylor’s secretary of the Navy.

Upon Taylor’s death, Preston resigned his cabinet post and returned to his home state to practice law. Although he denounced Virginia’s secession in 1861, he nevertheless took his seat both at the secession convention, where he read the resolution of secession, and in the Confederate Senate in 1862. William Ballard Preston did not serve for long, for he died in November 1862.