At the time of his election as vice president of the United States, John Cabell Breckinridge (1821-1875) was considered to be one of America's most promising young leaders. Caught up in the battle over the extension of slavery, this once moderate Democrat became the presidential candidate of the extreme Southern wing of his party in 1860. Joining the Confederacy, he served with distinction in the Civil War and later became an advocate of national reconciliation during Reconstruction.
Few American leaders of the mid-19th century underwent as tragic a political evolution as did John Cabell Breckinridge. A rising star in his native Kentucky by age 30, he advocated compromise and understanding between North and South at the start of his career. A strikingly handsome man with impressive oratorical skills, he advanced from a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives to serve as vice president under James Buchanan from 1857 until 1861. Many saw him as a potential president until events caused him to align himself with the Democratic Party's most vehement states' rights faction. After running on a proslavery ticket and losing to Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860, Breckinridge reluctantly joined the newly formed Confederacy and took up arms against the nation he loved. He fought valiantly in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Civil War as a Confederate general and went into exile at the war's end. He eventually returned home and, at the time of his death, was hailed by old friends and opponents alike as a statesman of courage and integrity.
A Political Family
Breckinridge seemed destined to enter politics. His grandfather had served as a U.S. senator and attorney general under Thomas Jefferson; his father had been a Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives. After graduating from Centre College in Danville, Kentucky in 1839, Breckinridge read law under Judge William Owsley, a future Kentucky governor. He attended the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) and completing his legal studies at the Transylvania Institute in Lexington, Kentucky. Admitted to the bar in 1840, he moved to Iowa Territory a year later and practiced law there. His ties to Kentucky remained strong, however, and he returned to his native state in 1843. That same year he married Mary Cyrene Burch, a cousin of his law partner, Thomas Bullock.
Unlike most of his family, Breckinridge chose the Democrats over the Whigs for his party allegiance. He began to attract notice as an orator and potential candidate for office while still in his early twenties. Service as a major of Kentucky volunteers in the Mexican War delayed his entry into public life. Returning home, he was elected to the Kentucky House in 1849. Two years later, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives once held by Henry Clay, the famed Whig leader. His victory was considered a significant one for the Democrats and marked Breckinridge as an emerging party leader.
Arriving in Washington D.C. as the crisis over slavery was escalating, Breckinridge initially positioned himself as a staunch Unionist. As the controversy over territory won during the Mexican War grew more heated, he began to adopt more overtly pro-Southern positions. He favored repeal of the Missouri Compromise and supported the proslavery tilt of President Franklin Pierce. His personal views about slavery were more complex—on several occasions, Breckinridge expressed support for voluntary emancipation and favored colonization of freed slaves in Liberia.
Breckinridge's support for the divisive Kansas-Nebraska Bill further aligned him with militant States Rights supporters. After winning a second term in the U.S. House, he was chosen by the Democrats as James Buchanan's running mate in the 1856 presidential contest. Breaking with tradition, Breckinridge campaigned actively for his ticket, which went on to defeat Republican John C. Fremont and American Party (or "Know-Nothing") nominee Millard Fillmore. At 35, he became the youngest vice president in American history.
Favored Protection for Slavery
In the midst of increasing bitterness in Washington, Breckinridge earned a reputation for fairness as the Senate's presiding officer. Personal friendships with political opponents didn't keep him from expressing increasingly extreme views, however. In a 1859 speech in Frankfort, Kentucky, he insisted that the federal government act to protect slavery in U.S. territories. Such guarantees of slaveholders' rights were unacceptable to Illinois senator Stephen Douglas, who went on to secure the 1860 Democratic presidential nomination. Southerners opposed to Douglas convened their own convention and nominated Breckinridge as a competing Democratic candidate for president, with Oregon senator Joseph Lane as his running mate. Breckinridge had no desire to head this doomed ticket—he had already been elected to the U.S. Senate and expected to take office following his vice-presidential term. He consented to run out of a sense of duty, and hoped that Douglas could be persuaded to withdraw in favor of a new Democratic nominee. In the end, both he and Douglas remained in the race against Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. A fourth candidate, Constitutional Union nominee John Bell, also competed for the anti-Lincoln vote.
Widely seen as the candidate of Southern disunionists, Breckinridge insisted that he was the true Unionist in the race. However, it became clear that his ticket would only attract support in the South and, barring a combination with Douglas and Bell, Lincoln would be elected. Attempts at combining forces were only partially successful, and the 1860 presidential election resulted in Lincoln sweeping the North while winning only 39 per cent of the national popular vote. Breckinridge came in third in the popular vote, carrying 12 of the 15 slave states for a total of 72 electoral votes. He failed to carry a single free state and, to his particular disappointment, was defeated in Kentucky.
The results of the 1860 election revealed how polarized the nation had become. Taking his seat in the U.S. Senate, Breckinridge worked hard to promote compromise proposals that would allay Southern fears of Republican anti-slavery policies. As the Union began to unravel, he felt compelled to first defend the rights of secessionists, then to join them. When the Kentucky legislature voted to support the Union on September 18, 1861, his position became untenable. Breckinridge's loyalty was questioned and he barely managed to avoid arrest by fleeing Lexington. Reacting to his expulsion from the Senate, he declared, "I exchange with proud satisfaction a term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier."
Though he lacked military training, Breckinridge was appointed brigadier general by Confederate president Jefferson Davis and placed in command of the First Kentucky Brigade. His initial hope was to return to his native state and spark a pro-Confederate uprising. When this failed to happen, he retreated to Tennessee in the spring of 1862 and served under General Albert Sidney Johnston's forces during the Battle of Shiloh. His heroic performance there raised his rank to that of major general. From there, he led an infantry assault at the Battle of Stones River near Murphreesboro, Tennessee that proved valiant but unsuccessful. After fighting Union forces in Mississippi, he helped achieve victory for the Confederate army at the Battle of Chickamauga. As a commander, Breckinridge proved to be resourceful and courageous, inspiring great loyalty in his troops.
1863 found Breckinridge in command of the Confederacy's Department of Western Virginia. In this strategic region, he defeated Union general Franz Sigel at New Market and held the line against General Ulysses S. Grant's assault at Cold Harbor. In July, he took part in a bold attack on Washington D.C. that came within five miles of reaching the city. In his final major engagement, Breckinridge was bested by General Phillip Sheridan at the Battle of Winchester.
Joined Confederate Government
On January 28, 1865, Breckinridge accepted the post of secretary of war in the Confederate government. He became increasingly convinced that the South's cause was lost and, as the end of the war drew near, he met with Union general William T. Sherman to discuss surrender terms. When these discussions fell through, Breckinridge helped Jefferson Davis make his way through the Deep South to avoid capture. Indicted by the Federal government for high treason, Breckinridge led a small party of Confederates into the wilds of Florida. Commandeering a small sloop, he survived a rough voyage across the Caribbean and found asylum in Cuba.
For over three years, Breckinridge lived as an exile, rejoining his family in Canada and moving to a house within sight of the United States border. He traveled to England, France and the Middle East during this period. With Jefferson Davis a prisoner back in the States, Breckinridge was the highest ranking official of the Confederacy still at large. He longed to return to his country, but refused to actively seek a pardon from the Federal government.
Returned from Exile
Finally, President Andrew Johnson proclaimed a universal amnesty for all former Confederates on December 25, 1868. Breckinridge returned with his wife to Lexington the following February. Refusing all requests (including one from President Grant) to seek public office, he nonetheless remained involved in civic affairs as a private citizen. He spoke out in favor of the legal rights of freedmen and denounced the Ku Klux Klan as "idiots or villains." Most of all, he urged forgiveness and harmony between the North and South. Though he never said so publicly, he intimated to friends that the South had been wrong to leave the Union.
Various business ventures occupied much of Breckinridge's time in his final years. He practiced law and served as president of the Elizabethtown, Lexington and Big Sandy railroad. His health began to decline in 1873, in part due to a Civil War battlefield injury to his liver. He died at his home on May 17, 1875 and was buried in Lexington Cemetery. His passing was mourned throughout the Union. An unfortunate symbol of sectional hatreds, John C. Breckinridge suffered for his political convictions and went on to become a champion of national healing.
Davis, William C., Breckinridge: Statesman, Soldier, Symbol, Louisiana State University Press, 1974.
Heck, Frank, Proud Kentuckian, John C. Breckinridge, 1821-1875, University Press of Kentucky, 1976.
McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era, Oxford University Press, 1988.
Nevins, Allan, The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1860, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950.
"Breckinridge, John Cabell (1821-1875)," Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, http://bioguide.congress.gov (October 26, 2001).
"New Market Personality: John C. Breckinridge," The Insiders' Guide to Civil War Sites, http: http://www.insiders.com (October 26, 2001).