During the summer of 1856, the Democratic National Convention was held in advance of the coming election. The city was Cincinnati. The rising star was John C. Breckinridge.
Louisiana delegates nominated the former Kentucky congressman as their vice presidential pick. Breckinridge, however, declined to compete against his home state’s vice presidential nominee, Linn Boyd. His refusal only fuelled the fire. A known orator who studied and loved the speeches of Demosthenes in his youth, Breckinridge spoke gracious sentiments with unparalled eloquence. The crowd went wild. He was soon polling second, ahead of even Boyd. The next round delivered his victory. John C. Breckinridge would serve as James Buchanan’s running mate.
On that June day, it must have seemed inconceivable to consider anything but a long and fruitful future for the convention star. After all, Buchanan was nominated more for his not having ties to the Kansas-Nebraska Act than for any particular merit. He’d served as Ambassador to the United Kingdom during the Franklin Pierce presidency and was, literally and figuratively, removed from the chaos at Bleeding Kansas. Breckinridge, on the other hand, had all the makings of a success story.
He’d come from the American establishment, but had disassociated from his Whig family, and forged his own path. He was happily married, a Mexican War hero, and resonated with both Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats due to his policy preferences and hometown roots, respectively. Perhaps most critically, he was a gifted speaker, having brought Henry Clay to tears years earlier at a veteran cemetery dedication. His words on that occasion supposedly inspired the Theodore O’Hara poem, “Bivouac of the Dead,” and earned him the endorsement of Clay, a prominent Whig.
Yet, his fall from grace was looming large. The election of 1860 would bring Abraham Lincoln to the national stage and civil war to a divided nation. And Breckinridge, unbeknownst to him in 1856, would be on the wrong side of history. Kentucky, once again, would endorse someone else. This time it would be the Union, as Lincoln famously remarked, “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.” Breckinridge would put the wants of the South first, just as he had at the convention, but this time, his decision would not win him a thing.John C. Breckinridge was born near Lexington, Kentucky on January 16, 1821 to John “Cabell” and Mary Clay (née Smith) Breckinridge. His paternal grandfather and namesake, John Breckinridge, served as the Attorney General under Thomas Jefferson. His maternal great-grandfather, John Witherspoon, was the only college president to sign the Declaration of Independence. Ironically, Mary Todd Lincoln was a distant cousin to Breckinridge (she was also courted by her husband’s more famous rival, Stephen Douglas).
After his father died, Breckenridge’s uncle, William, became an influential figure in his life, encouraging him to enroll at Centre College. His classmates included Thomas L. Crittenden and poet Theodore O’Hara. He went on to study law under Judge William Owsley, where the legal writings of Sir William Blackstone were heavily emphasized.
After graduating from Transylvania University, he was admitted to the bar in 1840. In search of opportunity and familial distance (“I felt as I would have done if I had heard that my daughter had been dishonored,” said his uncle when Breckenridge became a Democrat), he opened a law firm in the Iowa territory. The conditions made it difficult to make a living, and on a visit home, Breckinridge met Mary Cyrene Burch. The two were soon engaged and began their life together in Kentucky. They had six children.
At the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, Breckinridge became the only Democrat to be named a commissioned officer. He led the Third Kentucky Volunteers and fought alongside men he would someday fight against, including Ulysses S. Grant and George B. McLellan. After the war, he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, and then the United States House of Representatives.
Breckinridge considered slavery a local issue, and more a political question than a moral one, for that matter; he supported the doctrine of popular sovereignty, regarding the slavery debate as a distraction at the national level. Still, Breckinridge was not in favor of disunion at this point in his career. In fact, although Breckinridge at times owned slaves, he also willingly represented freedmen.
When Breckinridge claimed his spot upon the Buchanan ticket in 1856, the two became “Buck and Breck” and campaign songs sang their praise. Upon his oath of office in 1857, John C. Breckinridge became the youngest vice president to date (a record he still holds). Yet his vice presidential accomplishments virtually stopped there. Heavily distrusted by Buchanan, he was greeted coldly and seldom included in policy matters. In essence, he was a lame duck to the ultimate lame duck. Still, he exercised his voice as the President of the Senate and supported the Dred Scott decision in accordance with his own convictions.
As the election of 1860 loomed, the Democrats were divided. Northern Democrats backed Stephen Douglas, a supporter of popular sovereignty. Southern Democrats walked out of the convention, seeking a candidate who would support the federal protection of slavery, as well as ensuring its extension into new territories. Breckinridge did not seek out the presidency, and learned of his nomination at a Southern Democratic Convention by mail. “I accept the nomination from a sense of public duty,” he declared, delivering the final split to his beloved party and making Lincoln’s victory all but inevitable. While Douglas placed second in the popular vote, Breckinridge took the second-most electoral votes: 72 to Lincoln’s 180. Indeed, Lincoln won the presidency without the support of any southern states.
While Breckinridge dreaded war, he ultimately chose to flee Kentucky and join the Confederacy, just as he had reluctantly accepted the Southern platform over the Northern doctrine of popular sovereignty. Though he was moderate to a fault, he found Lincoln to be a despot. “I exchange with proud satisfaction a term of six years in the United States Senate for the musket of a soldier,” he declared. He became Jefferson Davis’ Secretary of War late into the conflict.
When the Confederacy surrendered in 1865, Breckinridge fled the country. He did not return until after Andrew Johnson’s Christmas Day Pardon of 1868. He once again settled in Kentucky, the state that supported neither his vice presidential bid nor his Confederate leanings, but was his home all the same. He remained politically inactive for the remainder of his life. He died on May 17, 1875 at the age of 54.Olivia Fitzpatrick is an intern at the National Constitution Center. She is also a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in English and minoring in Legal Studies.
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