John Cabell Breckinridge

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Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 2,302 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1260L

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About this Person
Born: January 15, 1821 in Kentucky, United States
Died: May 17, 1875 in Lexington, Kentucky, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Vice president (Government)
Other Names: Breckenridge, John Cabell; Breckenridge, John C.
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Breckinridge, John Cabell (Jan. 15, 1821 - May 17, 1875), soldier and statesman, was of Scotch-Irish descent. His grandfather John Breckinridge [q.v.] came to Kentucky in 1792 and subsequently became a United States senator and attorney-general under Jefferson. His father, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, who had married Mary Clay Smith, became a distinguished lawyer and politician but died when only thirty-four years of age. John C. Breckinridge was his only son and was born near Lexington, Ky. He attended Centre College, a Presbyterian school in Danville, and was graduated in 1839. Shortly afterward he spent some time at the College of New Jersey. With his family background it was only natural that he should study law and this he did under the direction of Gov. Owsley. He also pursued further his work in law at Transylvania College during the year 1840-41. The Lexington bar was so well supplied with men of outstanding ability and success that Breckinridge decided that his opportunities there would be rather meager. He first went to Frankfort but soon concluded to settle in a less crowded region further west and chose Burlington, Iowa. Here he remained two years, but the spell of Kentucky was always upon him. Returning to his native state, he at first located for a short time at Georgetown, near Lexington, but becoming bolder and more self-confident, in 1845 he moved back to Lexington and began practise there, later forming a partnership with James B. Beck. He was soon in comfortable circumstances but was on the road to no great fortune. The call for troops in 1846 to invade Mexico failed to enlist either his enthusiasm or his services, he being in this respect unlike most of his fellow Kentuckians. But his ability as an orator had been noted and when in July 1847 a score of dead Kentuckians, officers and privates, killed at Buena Vista and at other battles, were brought to Frankfort for a great military funeral, where 20,000 people gathered, Breckinridge was selected to deliver the commemorative oration. Aided by the solemn splendor of the occasion, Breckinridge talked himself into the army. He was commissioned a major of the 3rd Kentucky Volunteers, whom he led into Mexico. But he was too late to reap any military glory, his chief accomplishment here being his defense of Gen. Pillow in a dispute which arose with Gen. Scott.

In 1849 Breckinridge made his first entry into politics when he ran for the legislature to represent Fayette County. He was elected. It was at this time that the campaign was on for the constitutional convention and that the slavery question was being hotly agitated. Being a Democrat he favored the convention and opposed the emancipationists. In this campaign he came into conflict with his imperious uncle, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge [q.v.], with whom he was hereafter to differ on almost every subject. In 1851 the Democrats chose him as their candidate for Congress representing the Ashland District, which had become under Clay's leadership one of the strongest Whig districts in the state. The Whigs with Gen. Leslie Combs, who stood next to Clay in popularity in the state, expected to win easily. But Breckinridge overturned the normal 1,500 Whig majority and won by 500 votes. Now there had arisen a successor to Clay, who was to play almost as remarkable a part in Kentucky sentiment. The next year, when he delivered a funeral oration over the dead Clay, his position in the affections of the people was fixed. The next year the Whigs attempted without success to defeat Breckinridge, using this time the ex-governor, Robert P. Letcher. Although Breckinridge was characterized by a dignified bearing and serene nature, in 1854 on the floor of Congress he got himself involved in a heated altercation with Frank B. Cutting, a representative from New York, which came near resulting in a duel. Breckinridge had now definitely established his leadership both in Kentucky and in Congress, but at the end of his second term he decided to resume his law practise in order to repair his private fortune. At this time President Pierce offered him the diplomatic post at Madrid, which he refused.

His record in Congress had so favorably introduced him to the national Democracy that at the party convention in Cincinnati in 1856, when a Southern running-mate for Buchanan was needed, Breckinridge received the nomination. He took an active part in the campaign, making speeches in Indiana, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. His influence in Kentucky gave the state to the Democrats by 6,000 majority. When Buchanan became president in 1857, Breckinridge as vice-president became the presiding officer in the Senate. His four years of service were characterized by poise and justice in his decisions. When on Jan. 4, 1859, the Senate moved from its old chamber to its new quarters Breckinridge was chosen to deliver the parting address. He traced the development of the Union and made a strong plea for its preservation. The Kentucky Democrats now having found their leader decided to keep him before the country. Almost a year and a half before his term as vice-president would expire (December 1859), they elected him to the United States Senate for the term beginning Mar. 4, 1861.

When the Democratic National Convention met in Charleston Breckinridge's name was presented by Arkansas, but not being a candidate and not desiring to interfere with James Guthrie's aspirations, Breckinridge had his name withdrawn. No nomination having been made in Charleston, when the Southern faction of the disrupted convention later met in Baltimore, Breckinridge was selected for president despite the fact that he was still averse to having his name considered. He, however, accepted the nomination. He saw with many misgivings the break-up of the Democratic party and he readily agreed to step aside when Jefferson Davis attempted unsuccessfully to reunite the party. After all efforts toward peace had failed he took an active part in the campaign and stoutly defended himself against the charges of being inconsistent and of holding disunion sentiments. He maintained that he had always stood for the non-intervention of Congress on the subject of slavery in the territories and that slavery could be excluded only when the territory should become a state. A determined effort was made to prove that he was a disunionist but he showed that neither by word nor act had he ever promoted such an idea. In 1859 after he had been elected to the Senate he said, "She [Kentucky] will cling to the Constitution while a shred of it remains . . ." (Modern Eloquence, edited by Thomas B. Reed, 1905, VII, 105), and in 1860 at Frankfort he said, "I am an American citizen, a Kentuckian, who never did an act nor cherished a thought that was not full of devotion to the Constitution and the Union" (Kentucky Statesman, July 20, 1860). He received 72 electoral votes in November, though he failed to carry his own state.

As the presiding officer of the Senate he appointed the committee on compromise in December 1860, and he used his influence to have the Crittenden Compromise, which came before that committee, adopted. He believed in the abstract right of secession but he was opposed to the adoption of such a course at that time. Yet he was just as thoroughly opposed to the coercion of a state, holding that the Constitution gave the national government no such power. After the inauguration of Lincoln, he returned to Kentucky and took an active part in the political maneuvers there. He stood out for any compromise that would save the Union, but after the firing on Fort Sumter, which set up the second wave of secession, he held that the Union no longer existed, and that Kentucky now had the right to take any course she should please. The logical action would be to call a sovereign convention, and from this time on as long as there was a chance of using this procedure, he worked for it. On Apr. 2 he addressed the legislature and on May 10 he was appointed a member of a small conference which it was hoped would unite the state on a single course of action. The movement failed and two weeks later Kentucky declared her neutrality, a solution which did not meet with Breckinridge's approval. Yet he acquiesced in it when it was established.

Being a member of the United States Senate he attended the special session beginning on July 4, 1861, and assuming that he was to represent his state and uphold her position which she had recently adopted, he opposed Lincoln's whole war policy, refusing to vote men or money. He defended this position by later declaring to the Kentuckians, "I would have blushed to meet you with the confession that I had purchased for you exemption from the perils of the battlefields and the shame of waging war against your Southern brethren by hiring others to do the work you shrank from performing" (Rebellion Record, edited by Frank Moore, III, 254). In early September Kentucky abandoned her neutrality when the armies of both sides invaded the state, embraced the Union troops and ordered the Confederates out. The military régime immediately took charge of the state, arresting hundreds of citizens on suspicion and sending them away without trial. Breckinridge fled to escape arrest, and on Oct. 2 the legislature requested him to resign from the Senate, and on Nov. 6, he was indicted for treason in the federal district court at Frankfort. On Dec. 2, 1861, the United States Senate declared him a traitor and went through the formality of expelling him although he had long been in the Confederate army.

In September he had returned to Kentucky and on the 8th of the following month from Bowling Green he issued a burning address to the people of his native state defending his position and castigating those who had sold out the state to the Federal army. In his address he resigned his position in the Senate, saying, "I exchange with proud satisfaction a term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier" (Rebellion Record, III, 258). He helped to organize the provisional government of Kentucky (Confederate) and in November was appointed a brigadier-general under the command of Gen. A. S. Johnston at Bowling Green. In early 1862 he retreated out of Kentucky with the Confederates, taking part in the battle of Shiloh where he commanded the Reserve Corps. He was soon promoted to be a major-general and in the summer of 1862 he defended Vicksburg. He was then ordered to attack Baton Rouge which he did unsuccessfully; in August he fortified Port Hudson to block the Federal advance up the Mississippi River. He was ordered to join Bragg's invasion of Kentucky in the fall of 1862 but the order came too late for him to take part. On Bragg's return to Tennessee Breckinridge joined him and was in the thickest of the fight at Murfreesboro, commanding the 2nd Division of Hardee's corps. After the battle he covered Bragg's retreat with considerable skill. In May 1863 he was attached to Gen. Joseph E. Johnston in Mississippi and was present at the battle of Jackson. He then returned to the Army of Tennessee under Bragg and commanded a division of D. H. Hill's corps at Chickamauga and Missionary Ridge. In 1864 on the death of John H. Morgan he was ordered to southwest Virginia to assume command of the department, where he remained until Gen. Lee called him to the Shenandoah Valley. After some maneuvers in the Valley he was attached to Lee's army and at the battle of Cold Harbor commanded a division. He was with Gen. Jubal Early in the raid on the outskirts of Washington in July 1864, winning victories at Martinsburg and Monocacy. He was afterward ordered back to the department of southwest Virginia where he was located when President Davis made him secretary of war on Feb. 4, 1865. Although Breckinridge had had no military training beyond his Mexican War experiences, his innate ability as a leader of men, his ready adaptability to new circumstances, and his commanding personality made of him an able commander in the Civil War.

After Appomattox he fled southward with the Confederate cabinet, was present as an adviser to Gen. J. E. Johnston on his surrender to Gen. Sherman, and after the cabinet broke up at Washington, Ga., he made his way on horseback to the coast of Florida where he escaped to Cuba. He now embarked for Europe where he remained until 1868 when he went to Toronto, Canada. In March of the following year he was given permission by the federal government to return to Lexington, Ky. Here he was received with the greatest acclaim, and had his disabilities been removed he might have had any office within the gift of the people. He was now undoubtedly the most popular man in the state, and Grant thought it would have been well for the federal government to allow him to hold office. But he disclaimed all political ambitions and in a very retiring manner resumed his law practise. He was made vice-president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington, & Big Sandy Railroad and took a prominent part in the railroad development coming to the state at this time. He strongly favored the building of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad from Cincinnati to Chattanooga and he took a prominent part in the fight incident to the movement.

Breckinridge married Mary C. Burch of Scott County in December 1843. He died in Lexington in 1875 from the effects of a serious operation. In 1886 the state erected a statue of him in Lexington at an expense of $10,000.


[The Breckinridge MSS. in the Lib. of Cong.; Biog. Sketches of Hon. John C. Breckinridge, Democratic Nominee for President, and Gen. Jos. Lane, Democratic Nominee for Vice-President (1860); Buchanan and Breckinridge: Lives of Jas. Buchanan and John C. Breckinridge, Democratic Candidates for the Presidency and Vice-presidency of the U. S., with the Platforms of the Political Parties in the Presidential Canvass of 1856 (1856); Famous Adventures and Prison Escapes of the Civil War (1893); Battles and Leaders of the Civil War (1888); Official Records, see Index; Lexington Weekly Press, May 23, 1875; Lexington Observer and Reporter, Mar. 13, 1869; Ky. Gazette, May 19, 1875; McClure's Mag., Jan. 1901; Ed. Porter Thompson, Hist. of the Orphan Brigade (1898); Richard H. and Lewis Collins, Hist. of Ky. (1874); Alexander Brown, The Cabells and Their Kin (1895).]

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Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310017198