John Breckinridge

Citation metadata

Date: 1936
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Biography
Length: 747 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1180L

Document controls

Main content

About this Person
Born: December 02, 1760 in Augusta County, Virginia, United States
Died: December 14, 1806 in Lexington, Kentucky, United States
Nationality: American
Other Names: Breckenridge, John (American attorney general)
Full Text: 

Breckinridge, John (Dec. 2, 1760 - Dec. 14, 1806), lawyer and statesman, of Scotch-Irish ancestry, was a son of Robert Breckenridge (the spelling of the family name was for the most part, changed in the next generation) whose father came to Virginia about 1738. His mother was Letitia, a daughter of John Preston. Soon after his birth near the present site of Staunton, Va., his family moved on westward into Botetourt County where his father died in 1772, leaving a widow and seven children in exposed frontier surroundings. Though living in as refined a home as could be found in that part of the world, Breckinridge found conditions rough and uncouth. Harboring a strong desire for learning, he managed when nineteen years of age to enter William and Mary College where he remained two years. While a student here, without his previous knowledge he was elected by the voters of Botetourt County to represent them in the legislature. This was more than an attempt of his fellow citizens to save money by designating some one as representative who happened to be residing at the seat of government. On account of his youth he was not allowed to take his seat. Twice more was he elected before he was admitted. He now decided to study law, married in 1785 Mary Hopkins Cabell, a daughter of Col. Joseph Cabell of Buckingham County, and immediately settled in Albemarle County.

The spell of Kentucky, which had seized so many other Virginians, soon gripped him. Letters from two of his brothers and from many friends who were there implored him to move to that land of hope. He abandoned a position in Congress to which he had just been elected and crossed the mountains in 1792, settling near Lexington in Fayette County and developing an estate which he called Cabell's Dale. Here he built an office and began the practise of law. He was soon on the road to a comfortable fortune, being greatly busied with land suits. His ablity as a lawyer recommended him to Gov. Isaac Shelby who appointed him attorney-general for the state in 1795 following his defeat for the United States Senate by Humphrey Marshall. It was while he was in this position that the disputed gubernatorial election took place in 1796. Called upon for an opinion by Benjamin Logan, who had received a plurality of the electoral vote, he refused officially to give a decision, but privately upheld Logan's position. The next year Breckinridge was elected to represent Fayette County in the lower house of the legislature and he was successively reëlected until 1801, being speaker the last two years. In 1801 he was elected to the United States Senate, but resigned in 1805 to become attorney-general of the United States, an appointment which greatly pleased the West and strengthened President Jefferson there.

Breckinridge impressed himself upon the country as no other representative of the West had done up to that time. He believed that the national government was making little effort to open the Mississippi River, and he emphasized this belief by accepting the presidency of the Democratic Society of Kentucky, organized in Lexington the year he arrived. He also looked with favor on George Rogers Clark's plottings with Genet in their efforts to open the navigation of the Mississippi and he promised a money subscription in the undertaking. In 1794 he wrote, "We have sat down with patience to watch the Event of his [Pinckney's] negotiations & God send, thay may not show us that we may fight or negotiate for ourselves" (Breckinridge Manuscripts, Sept. 15, 1794). His insistence on the rights of the West and his friendship for Jefferson had their weight in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Breckinridge's fighting instincts led him to work readily with Jefferson in promoting the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. Jefferson wrote these celebrated resolutions; Breckinridge changed two of them slightly, introduced them in the Kentucky legislature, and forced their passage. The next year he introduced a new set which he himself wrote. He was not alone a destructive critic; he was a constructive reformer as well. He remade the penal code for Kentucky and eliminated all capital crimes except murder. His constructive ability again was shown in his work in the second constitutional convention of Kentucky. The document it produced was largely due to his efforts. He died when only forty-six years of age, but his widow lived many years thereafter. There were born to them nine children.


[Various letters to and from Breckinridge are in the Breckinridge MSS. in the Lib. of Cong. Other sources of information relating to him are: Ky. Gazette, Dec. 15, 22, 1806; E. D. Warfield, The Ky. Resolutions of 1798 (1887); Richard H. and Lewis Collins, Hist. of Ky. (1874); Biog. Encyc. of Ky. (1877); H. Levin, ed., Lawyers and Lawmakers of Ky. (1897).]


Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|BT2310017199