Vice President Breckinridge
John C. Breckinridge was born on this day in 1821 near Lexington, Kentucky.
A bona fide member of the Southern political aristocracy (his father was a member of the Kentucky legislature and his grandfather, John Breckinridge, was a U.S. senator and attorney general), Breckinridge set up a law practice in Burlington, Iowa after reading law at Princeton and Transylvania University (Kentucky). He served with distinction in the Mexican War and parlayed his name, war service and affable charm into a political career as a Democrat -- first in the Kentucky House (1849-51) and then in the U.S. House (1852-55).
While in Congress, he shuttled between friends Stephen A. Douglas, Senate chairman of the committee on territories, and President Franklin Pierce, smoothing out support for the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which effectively repealed Henry Clay's Missouri Compromise and allowed each state to decide the slavery issue by popular vote. For this, although he represented a border state and was merely trying to effect a compromise between the South and Northern Democrats, he was branded as a Lower South extremist.
The Democrats chose him as James Buchanan's running mate on the successful 1856 ticket, although Buchanan completely ignored Breckinridge once in office, and Breckinridge was looking forward to leaving the administration and entering the U.S. Senate in 1861. Meanwhile, when the 1860 Democratic National Convention broke up over the slavery issue, the Southern wing of the Party nominated Breckinridge for president, while the Northern faction nominated Douglas. Breckinridge proposed that he and his friend both decline and try to bring the Convention back together, but when Douglas refused to back down, Breckinridge reluctantly went ahead as well. The two old compadres split the Democratic popular vote (although, by electoral votes, Breckinridge swept the South, while Douglas won only two states), leaving Abraham Lincoln as the victor in the 1860 election.
Breckinridge attempted to stay neutral over secession while in the Senate, but when Kentucky declared itself pro-Union, Breckinridge, under threat of arrest for treason, defected to Virginia and the Confederacy. He served, rather successfully, as a brigadier general in the Army -- thereby becoming the first vice-president to take up arms against the U.S. -- unless you count Aaron Burr.
In February 1865, Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge secretary of war, which at that late date was little more than a "winding-down" assignment, consisting mainly of preserving records, advising Gen. Joseph Johnston on the terms of surrender, and urging cooperation and orderly repatriation. Fearing arrest, he fled to Cuba after the War, and lived in England and Canada before returning to the U.S. in 1869 after Andrew Johnson issued a general pardon. He stayed away from electoral politics after his return, although he did publicly denounce the Ku Klux Klan and other devices of Southern revenge.
Breckinridge died in Lexington on May 17, 1875.
Categories: American-Politicians, Presidential-Campaigns