William Ballard Preston (1805 - 1862) was a U.S. political figure. He served as the U.S. Secretary of the Navy between 1849 and 1850.
Born on 25 November 1805 at Smithfield, Va., Preston entered Hampden-Sydney College in 1821, where he was active in literary and forensic activities. Graduating in 1824, Preston studied law at the University of Virginia and was admitted to the bar in 1826.
The young attorney soon entered politics as a Whig and was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1830. During the 1831-1832 session, he took an active part in the campaign to abolish slavery. Then there followed an eight-year hiatus in his political activities during which he returned to the practice of law. In 1840, he was elected to the State Senate, where he served from 1840 to 1844, before returning to the House of Delegates. In 1846, he was elected to the United States House of Representatives.
In March of 1849, President Zachary Taylor appointed the Preston Secretary of the Navy. During Preston's tenure in that office, the United States Navy acquired new duties in the course of America's westward expansion and acquisition of California. Trade and commerce in the Pacific beckoned, and the Stars and Stripes flew from the masts of Navy ships in Chinese waters, while the shores of Japan, then unopened to the west, presented a tantalizing possibility for commercial intercourse. The Navy also was progressing through a technological transition, especially in the area of moving from sails to steam propulsion, and with the improvements in gunnery and naval ordnance. Upon the death of President Taylor, new President Millard Fillmore reorganized the cabinet and appointed another Secretary of the Navy. Preston retired from office and withdrew from politics and public life.
Resuming his private law practice, Preston acquired a reputation for being a fine defense laywer before being sent to France in 1858 to negotiate for the establishment of a line of commercial steamers to operate between Le Havre and Norfolk. The mission to France progressed well, and the project appeared promising until it was brought to nought by the American Civil War.
As states in the lower South seceded from the Union, the pressure mounted upon Virginia to do likewise. Moderate sentiment still held sway through 1860; but, early in 1861, increasing tensions forced Virginians to consider secession. On 13 February 1861, the secession convention met in Richmond and numbered William B. Preston amongst the delegates.
As the Confederacy was established and the United States divided into two hostile camps, both sides moved steadily toward open conflict. A special delegation, composed of William B. Preston, H. H. Stuart, and George W. Randolph, travelled to Washington where they met President Lincoln on 12 April. Finding the President firm in his resolve to hold the Federal forts then in the South, the three men returned to Richmond on the 15th.
With the news of the firing on Fort Sumter in South Carolina on 12 April 1861, conservative and moderate strength in the secessionist convention melted away. On the 16th, convinced that secession was inevitable, William B. Preston submitted, in secret session, an ordinance of secession. Supported 88 to 55, the Preston Resolution passed, and Virginia left the Union.
Elected senator from Virginia in the Confederate States Congress, he served in that legislative body until his death at Smithfield on 16 November 1862.
This article incorporates public domain text from the Naval Historical Center.