American Statesmen: Secretaries of State from John Jay to Colin Powell

By Edward S. Mihalkanin | Go to book overview

ABEL P. UPSHUR (1790-1844)

Served 1843-1844

Appointed by President John Tyler

Whig

Abel Parker Upshur (1790-1844), an aristocratic planter, slaveholder, and judge from Virginia's eastern shore, served briefly as secretary of state during John Tyler's presidency. Despite his short tenure at the helm of the State Department—less than a year—Upshur left his mark on U.S. diplomacy by opening the way for the nation's surge of territorial expansion in the 1840s. Texas was the prize coveted by Upshur and his fellow Virginian, Tyler. The two longtime friends very nearly succeeded before Upshur's tragic death in an explosion aboard the USS Princeton on February 28, 1844. As secretary of state, Upshur had skillfully and resolutely negotiated a Texas annexation treaty and believed he had garnered the necessary votes for quick Senate ratification. Ultimate success crowned the Virginian's efforts when Texas was annexed by joint resolution of Congress little more than a year after his death. The 1846 settlement with Great Britain of the lengthy Oregon territory dispute had its roots in Upshur's diplomacy as well. In confronting the Texas and Oregon issues and the other diplomatic issues of his day, Secretary Upshur invariably had one eye on Great Britain, the only nation that seriously challenged the United States' continental expansion, commercial ascendancy, and national destiny.

Upshur's wariness of Britain and his distrust of the former mother country's designs for world commercial and economic hegemony did not come naturally. The son of a moderately well-to-do planter with Federalist leanings and proBritish sympathies, he was taught at the parental knee to question the Jeffersonian values and beliefs prevalent in early nineteenth-century Virginia. After a brief stay at Yale, Upshur transferred to Princeton, but failed to graduate because he was dismissed for his part in a student protest against the repressive discipline of Princeton President Samuel Stanhope Smith. Undaunted, the young rebel returned to Virginia to pursue legal studies with the renowned Richmond lawyer William Wirt. As a fledgling attorney he mixed with other members of Virginia's elite in the highly charged political atmosphere of the state capital, establishing friendships with several of the state's future leaders, including John Tyler. Among his conservative col-

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