Abel Parker Upshur was born on 17 June 1791, the son of a planter family in Northampton County, Virginia. He attended Yale College and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) for one year before returning to Virginia to study law. Upshur gained admission to the Virginia bar in 1810 and practiced in Richmond. He served in the State House of Delegates from 1812 to 1813 and again from 1825 to 1827. From 1826 until 1841, Upshur was a member of the Supreme Court of Virginia.
In September 1841, Upshur was named Secretary of the Navy for President John Tyler’s administration. As secretary, Upshur believed in the vital role the Department of the Navy played in securing the nation’s interests. He worked to expand the Navy, outfit it with modernized warships, and reform its administration. His tenure provided him the necessary foreign policy experience to make the transition to a position in the Department of State in 1843 at the request of Tyler, a lifelong friend. He held that position until 23 July 1843, when he succeeded Daniel Webster as Secretary of State.
On 28 February 1844, Upshur accompanied a party of distinguished guests down the Potomac River in the steam sloop Princeton to witness experiments in firing a new iron gun. On the return trip, the gun was fired a third time and exploded, killing Upshur and five other people, and wounding several more on board.
USS Abel P. Upshur (DD-193), a destroyer that participated in Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa during World War II, was named in his honor.