||Complete HarpWeek Biography:
Breckinridge, John Cabell (January 21, 1821 – May 17,
John Breckinridge was a U.S Senator from Kentucky, the vice president under
James Buchanan, the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Party
(Southern Democrats) in the critical 1860 election, and a Confederate general
and (briefly) the Confederate secretary of war.
John Breckinridge was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to Mary Smith Breckinridge
and John Cabell Breckinridge Sr. The family had a tradition of holding public
office. Young Breckinridge’s father was a state representative and his
grandfather had been a U.S. senator. The senior John Breckinridge died in 1823
leaving his son to be raised by the boy’s mother and grandmother. In 1839 the
young man graduated from Centre College (Kentucky), then studied law at the
College of New Jersey before completing his degree at Transylvania University
(Kentucky) in 1841. He opened a law practice in Burlington, Iowa, but two years
later returned to Kentucky, where he prospered in the profession.
During the Mexican War Breckinridge served as a major with the Kentucky
volunteers. At the war’s conclusion, he was elected to the state’s lower house
(1849–1851) as a states’ rights Democrat, then won a seat in the U.S. House of
Representatives (1851–1855). He played a key role in adding the repeal of the
Missouri Compromise ban on slavery to Stephen Douglas’s Kansas–Nebraska Act and
in securing House approval for the final bill. Breckinridge himself sponsored
no major legislation but was a popular political figure. In 1856 delegates to
the Democratic National Convention selected him as James Buchanan’s
vice–presidential running–mate. Inaugurated when only 36 years old, he was the
youngest vice president in American history. Buchanan did not include him in
policy–making, so the vice president eagerly awaited returning to the U.S.
Senate upon John Crittenden’s retirement in 1861.
When the Democratic Party split into sectional factions in 1860, Breckinridge
was nominated for president by the Southern wing, who called themselves the
National Democrats. Concerned that a divided party would allow the Republicans
to triumph, he offered to decline the nomination if Douglas would reject his
nomination by the Northern wing. Douglas declined, and both men remained in the
race. Although Breckinridge was a slaveowner who supported the constitutional
protection of slavery and the right of secession, he was not one of the
radicals. He captured all the states in the Deep South, but Lincoln won the
presidency with an electoral–college majority.
During the interval period, Breckinridge worked for a compromise and
supported the attempt by Kentucky’s government to remain neutral. When Kentucky
formally sided with the Union in September 1861 and state officials tried to
arrest him, he joined the Confederate army as a brigadier general. He
accumulated a notable military record, fighting at Bowling Green, Shiloh, Baton
Rouge, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. He rose to
the rank of major general, and then served as the Confederacy’s last secretary
of war during what would be the closing months of the war. He opposed efforts
to prolong the war with guerrilla fighting after Lee’s surrender.
Following the war he fled to Cuba, then to England and finally to Canada.
President Andrew Johnson pardoned him on Christmas Day 1868, allowing him to
return to Kentucky a few months later. Although he forswore politics,
Breckinridge urged sectional reconciliation and criticized the Ku Klux Klan. He
was employed as a railroad executive until his death on May 17, 1875.
Source consulted: William L. Barney, “Breckinridge, John Cabell,”
American National Biography (online).