Abel Parker Upshur was born in 1790 in Northampton County, Virginia. His father – Littleton Upshur, a devoted Federalist- had twelve children and owned the Vaucluse plantation. Littleton Upshur also had a seat in the Virginia Legislature and Captained in the US Army in the 1812 war. Abel Upshur attended both Princeton University and Yale College but did not graduate from either after taking part in a student uprising at Princeton University. Abel studied law at a private firm in Richmond, Virginia before being admitted to the bar in 1810 (Hall 9). He shortly practiced in Baltimore, Maryland before returning to Virginia after his father’s death. In Virginia, he prospered in his law practice and took an active role in state politics. Upshur’s first wife, Elizabeth Dennis - whom he married in February 1817- died during childbirth in October of the same year. His second wife who he married in 1824- Elizabeth Ann Brown- bore him one daughter.
Upshur served a term in 1812 in the Virginia House of Delegates. Between 1816 and 1823, Upshur served as was Commonwealth's Attorney for Richmond. He vied for a seat in the U.S. Congress but was unsuccessful and went back to state politics from 1825 to 1827. In 1826, he was voted in to the Virginia General Court. When John Tyler was elected US president in 1841, he made Abel Upshur Secretary of the Navy. Upshur served from 1841-1843 (Lansford 23). In July of 1843, Daniel Webster resigned from the position of United States Secretary of State, and was succeeded by Upshur.
During his term, Upshur was responsible for a number of developments in his various capacities. As Secretary of State, Upshur successfully led the efforts in annexation of the Republic of Texas as a slave state. Upshur was at the forefront of secret talks between the Texan diplomats and US government leading up to the treaty.
Upshur was also at the forefront of negotiations in the Oregon boundary dispute. He advocated strongly for the inclusion of Oregon into the union. The inclusion of Oregon into the union would build a stronger United States (Ferrell and Bemis 43).
As Secretary of the Navy, Upshur grew and modernized the Navy. The Navy took on more servicemen and the numbers grew. Upshur used the Navy as an instrument to forge foreign policy.
Also, while he was Secretary of the Navy, he oversaw the substitution of the Board of Navy Commissioners with the more efficient Bureau system. The Board System was found unfit to handle the required technical aspects of the Navy. Naval control had grown to be increasingly complex in the first half of the 19th century. Specialized oversight was required. Five Bureaus pioneered the changes in the naval management system. They were the:
• Bureau of Naval Yards and Docks
• Bureau of Construction, Equipment, and Repairs;
• Bureau of Provisions and Clothing;
• Bureau of Ordnance and Hydrography; and
• Bureau of Medicine and Surgery
They were established by Act of Congress on August 31, 1842.Upshur also regularized the officer corps while in the Navy. The naval officer corps was fully engaged in their duties.
The Navy also benefited from an increased budgetary allocation thanks to Upshur’s management. The navy’s appropriation was increased by Congress. The Navy was consequently able to increase the quality of work.
The increased budget also saw the Navy construct new and better steam warships and sailing ships. These advances enabled the Navy to explore and gain new ground for the United States in terms of naval power for the United States.
The United States Naval Observatory and the Hydrographic Office were created under the service of Upshur. The United States Naval Observatory is among the oldest agencies that are dedicated to science in the United States. Its mission is to provide positioning, navigation and timing for the United States Navy (Mihalkanin 17).
During his term in the Navy, Upshur also sent American warships out to stop the involvement of American ships in the slave trade across the Atlantic. Due to the improvements in the Navy, the exercise was relatively a success. There were no more American ships involved in transport of slaves across the Atlantic.
Upshur was widely criticized, especially on the nature of his appointment to office. The criticism was based on the fact that he was not appointed on merit, but on the basis of his close friendship with the president.
Moreover, he was a supporter of slavery and was said to be in favour of secession of the south. The idea of the south being an independent country had been on his agenda several times.
Upshur was also against the constitution. His argument was that the constitution would lead the United States to monarchy. He reasoned that the liberty afforded by the constitution was too much for the public to handle and the powers would be concentrated in a few hands.
Upshur was also of the opinion the United States could never be united into one nation. He argued that the concept of a nation was non-existent in his interpretation of the preamble of the American constitution.
After Upshur’s death, the Oregon treaty was completed. A warship was also named after him. Upshur County, West Virginia, Upshur County, West Virginia, and Mount Upshur are all named after Upshur. Upshur’s review of Judge Story's Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States remains unanswered to date.
Ferrell, Robert H., and Samuel F. Bemis. The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy. New York: Cooper Square Publishers, 1963. Print.
Hall, Claude H. Abel Parker Upshur: Conservative Virginian, 1790-1844: the State Historical Society of. Wisconsin: Madison, 1964. Print.
Lansford, Tom. The Lords of Foggy Bottom: American Secretaries of State and the World They Shaped. Baldwin Place: Encyclopaedia Soc., 2001. Print.
Mihalkanin, Edward S. American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin
Powell. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2004. Print