Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Abel P. Upshur (1843–1844): Secretary of State

Abel Parker Upshur was born in 1790 in the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia. The son of a plantation owner, he attended Yale College and Princeton College but was expelled from the latter for participating in a riot. He then turned his attention to the law and began a practice in Baltimore before returning to Virginia following the death of his father.

Upshur volunteered for the state militia during the War of 1812 but never saw action. That same year, he served in the state House of Delegates, resigning after one term. He moved his law practice to Richmond, where he was elected commonwealth attorney for the city in 1816, a post he held until 1823. Upshur then became a member of Richmond’s city council, served in the Virginia state legislature from 1825 to 1827, and was elected judge of the General Court of Virginia in 1826.

Upshur left his judgeship in 1841 when President John Tyler tapped him to become secretary of the Navy. Following the resignation of Secretary of State Daniel Webster in 1843, Upshur served as Tyler’s secretary of state ad interim before formally assuming the post in January 1844. He did not hold the position for long; on February 28, 1844, some 400 guests, including President Tyler, looked on as Abel Parker Upshur was one of five people killed instantly, including Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, when two huge 225-pound guns aboard the U.S.S. Princeton misfired.