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Delmarva Heritage Series

* Abel Parker Upshur

Salisbury Times - January 4, 1963

Virginians have long been proud of their families and the role their ancestors played in the political, military, economic, and cultural affairs of our country. To list such family names would fill columns of pages. Here on the Eastern Shore, to mention a few, were the families of Scarburgh, Littleton, Yeardley, Wise, West, Curtis, Parker, and Upshur. And one of the most distinguished of

the Upshur family was Abel Parker Upshur, jurist, cabinet official, and publicist.

The Upshur family on the Eastern Shore dates back to the 17th century when Arthur Upshur settled in this region. Abel Parker Upshur, one of twelve children, was the son of Littleton and Anna (Parker) Upshur. He was born in Northampton County on June 17, 1791. His father, Littleton, was such a staunch individualist and rabid Federalist that when he was a member of the Virginia Legislature in 1809 he voted against resolutions expressing thanks to President Thomas Jefferson for his services to America. Later, although the Federalists in general opposed the war, he served as captain in the War of 1812.

Abel Parker Upshur inherited some of this spirit from his father.  While studying at Princeton in 1807 young Abel was expelled for participating in a student rebellion. After this he entered Yale where he continued his classical education but did not graduate. He started out on his chosen career of law by studying with William West of Richmond where he also began his legal practice. Although he did not return to his estate in Northampton County until the 1820's, it seems that he began to represent his native county in the Virginia House of the Legislature as early as 1812-13 and again in 1825 after he returned to the Shore.

As a member of the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1829-30, he was a strong opponent of proposed democratic changes in the state constitution. In denying the existence of any original principles of government, Upshur argued instead that the interest and necessities of the people decided the principles of government. He argued further that the theory of natural law should be rejected, that the only natural law was the "law of force...the only rule of right." In American politics Upshur associated with the pro-slavery group and the extreme state-rightists.

Although Upshur held higher positions of honor and authority, it was probably as a jurist that he is best viewed. From 1826 to 1841 he was on the bench of the Virginia Supreme Court. And it was during this stage of his life that he did much writing on such subjects as slavery, banks and government. These writings, as one authority has expressed it, characterized Upshur as a "particularistic jurist and planter-philosopher of Tidewater Virginia."

Representing the extreme conservative Southerner of pre-Civil War decades, Upshur considered the South as the only bulwark of conservatism against the growing forces of radicalism, agrarianism, and leveling theories of democracy which were growing in the North. In 1839 he expressed such views when he wrote: "In this country Liberty is destined to perish a suicide...And perish when she may, I am much deceived if her last entrenchment, her latest abiding place, will not be found in the slave holding states."

Somewhat in agreement with the famous doctrine of John C. Calhoun, Upshur rejected the rule of numerical majority for one of law, which he believed to be the basis of true liberty. In a letter to a friend concerning Forr's Rebellion of Rhode Island in 1841, Upshur wrote: "This is the very madness of democracy, and a fine illustration of the workings of the majority principle." Upshur's friends regarded his pamphlet, "A Brief Enquiry into the True Nature and Character of Our Federal Government," (1840) as an excellent refutation of the nationalistic theory of the federal constitution, and in 1863 it was reprinted by the Northern Democrats to explain the political philosophy of the Confederacy.

At the College of William and Mary in 1841, he spoke before an assembly of the various literary societies upon the subject, "The True Theory of Government." In the address he claimed the philosophy of natural rights is one that "overlooks all social obligations, denies the inheritable quality of property, unfrocks the priest, and laughs at the marriage tie."

Besides his various writings and speeches concerning the theories of government, Upshur often expressed his views on banks, specie, credit, and indebtedness. On one occasion he urged the minimum regulation of banks, believing that the general laws of the country and common law afford the people with ample means of keeping banks within proper limits.

President Tyler in September of 1841 appointed Upshur to Secretary of the Navy, a post which he held until 1843 when he succeeded Daniel Webster as Secretary of State. As an ardent Southerner and expansionist, Upshur felt that Texas was vital to the security of the South. Thus he was largely responsible for the reopening of negotiations with the Republic of Texas for annexation to the United States. This work, however, was interrupted by his sudden accidental death. In 1844 he was with a group of officials on board the battleship Princeton to witness some experiments with a large wrought-iron gun. Upon third firing of the gun, there was an explosion, which killed Upshur along with several others. Thus his work for the annexation of Texas to be completed by his successor, John C. Calhoun.

Abel Parker Upshur married twice during his lifetime, first to Elizabeth Dennis and next to his cousin, Elizabeth Upshur, who with their daughter survived him. The famous Upshur estate, Vaucluse, is located on Hungars Creek, near Bridgetown, Northampton County, Virginia. Built in 1784, Vaulcluse is today one of the showplaces of the Eastern Shore of Virginia.

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