John C. Breckinridge was born on January 16th 1821 at his family’s plantation, Thorn Hill, near Lexington Kentucky but his father was appointed the Kentucky Secretary of State so the family moved to Frankfort. His mother was the granddaughter of John Witherspoon, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. In 1823 Joseph Breckinridge died and the family moved in with Cabell Breckinridge’s parents. John attended Pisgah Academy and learned about politics from his grandmother, her husband had served as a Senator and as Thomas Jefferson’s Attorney General.
Breckinridge attended Center College where he earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree and went to graduate school at the College of New Jersey (Princeton). He then transferred to Transylvania University in Lexington where he obtained his law degree. He found that there were too many lawyers in Lexington so he tried his luck in Frankfort but ran into the same problem. He decided to try his luck out west and headed to Burlington Iowa. There he found himself with plenty of work and joined the Democratic Party.
In 1843 he returned to Kentucky to help mediate a dispute between his mother and his father’s family. During the time he contracted influenza so he waited until regained his heath but he met Mary Burch and decided to remain. When the Mexican-American war broke out he applied for a commission, at first he was rejected but the Whigs felt they needed a Democratic commander and he was put in charge of the Manlius V Regiment. He was sent to Mexico however they arrived after the surrender of Mexico City and became part of the occupying force. After the war the regiment was disbanded and Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, the only deaths were due to disease, not combat.
In 1849 Breckinridge was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives by a bipartisan committee, although he was a slave owner he supported the rights of freed slaves and the founding of Liberia in Africa. He was the first Democrat elected from his district. During this time he visited his cousin Mary Todd and her husband Abraham Lincoln, the two became close friends despite their political differences.
In 1851 he ran for the House of Representatives in a heavily Whig district. Everyone expected him to lose but he went on a speaking tour, promoting State Rights and his opposition to the unpopular Tariff law and won the election. Members of the House tried to nominate him for the position of Speaker but he passed and threw his support behind Linn Boyd. During his time in Congress he supported States Rights and slavery which increased his standing in the Democratic Party in Kentucky. He also delivered the eulogy of Henry Clay in the House chambers.
During the election of 1852 he supported Franklin Pierce and after the election he found himself wielding more power in Washington than he had during Whig Presidency of Millard Fillmore. Pierce even offered him the governorship of the new territory of Washington but Breckinridge decided to remain in Congress. During the next election the Whigs tried to seize his seat but the party had become divided and was unable to unite behind a candidate, he was reelected.
Breckinridge supported the idea of secessionism but worked toward compromises including the Kansas-Nebraska Act although the divisions were becoming more hostile. During one debate Congressman Francis B. Cutting felt insulted by Breckinridge’s comments and demanded an apology. Breckinridge felt that Cutting had formally challenged him and by the rules of a duel insisted on meeting at Silver Springs Maryland where the two would face off with rifles at 60 yards. Cutting felt that Breckinridge had initiated the duel challenge and insisted on pistols at 10 paces. In the end mutual friends convinced the two to drop the duel and Kentucky passed a law barring anyone who had participated in a duel from holding public office.
In 1854 the Whig party redrew the county map of Kentucky dividing Breckinridge’s base plus the rise of the Know Nothing’s Party split the Democrats votes. Knowing he didn’t stand a chance he withdrew from the race. In December of that year Pierre Soule resigned from the Senate and although Breckenridge was offered the nomination he decided to pass. He returned to his law practice and tried his hand at land speculation in the new western territories but found that political corruption of the Homestead Act thwarted his plans
During the election of 1856 Breckenridge once again supported Franklin Pierce but he lost in the primaries. Breckenridge then supported Stephen Douglass but he too was unable to gain enough delegates at the convention. Eventually James Buchannan won the nomination. Although Breckenridge’s name was put up for the Vice Presidency nomination he passed instead throwing his support behind fellow Kentucky politician Lynn Boyd. During the first voting round Breckinridge received the second largest number of votes, in the next round many of the candidates decided to throw their votes to him and he won the Vice President nomination on the second ballot. Unlike most Vice Presidential candidates of the time he went on a nationwide speaking tour promoting the Democratic message. The Democrats won the election defeating a divided Whig party and the Know Nothings. At the age of 36 John Breckenridge became the youngest Vice President in the history of the United States.
Since Breckinridge had only endorsed Buchannan after his first choices lost in the primaries the two started off on negative terms. Further Breckinridge felt insulted when he was told to ask for Miss Lane when he was invited to visit the White House, later he found out that it was secret code to be ushered into the President’s office without waiting. He also found himself clashing with the Senate over States Rights issues and the Democrats became angry at him for not campaigning for Northern congressional candidates.
In 1860 the Democratic Party found itself divided by the issue of slavery and secessionist ideology. Although Breckinridge felt the states should remain united his opponents tried to label him as a supporter of the secessionist movement. Eventually a divided party nominated two candidates for President, Southern Breckinridge and Northern Stephen Douglass, the Democrats hoped a divided vote would throw the election into the House of Representatives however Abraham Lincoln won the majority of the Northern vote and became the first Republican President. The year before the election Breckinridge had been appointed to fill the vacant Senate seat of James Hammond so in 1861 as his last act as Vice President he swore in the new VP Hannibal Hamlin and then Hamlin swore in Breckinridge as a new Senator.
In the Senate Breckinridge found himself alone as the slave states seceded from the Union. Although he fought for a peaceful solution and tried to get President Lincoln to withdraw federal troops from the South, he found it was an uphill battle that he was losing. After the firing on Ft. Sumter Breckinridge urged Kentucky to join with the North or at least declare neutrality and only form a militia to defend itself from invasion. When the Senate passed a declaration of war against the secessionist states Breckinridge was the only member of the Senate to vote against it. When the Confederacy invaded Kentucky and took control of the state he had to flee Washington in order to avoid being arrested for treason. Once he retuned to Kentucky he resigned from the Senate and announced he would support the decision of the people of the state. The U.S. Senate formally declared Breckinridge a traitor and expelled him for Acts of Supporting the Confederacy.
During the Civil War Breckinridge was commissioned as a Brigadier General and put in charge of the First Kentucky Brigade. They found themselves in combat during the withdrawal from Bowling Green, during the retreat they were involved in the battle of Shiloh where they suffered heavy casualties and Breckinridge was wounded during the fight. After a promotion to Major General he was ordered to recapture Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Although they were initially successful they lost their naval support and the Union recaptured the city.
Breckinridge then led a successful attack to capture Port Hudson in Mississippi. With this strategic point the South was able to keep the Union from pushing south along the river. He was ordered to support General Bragg’s attempt to recapture Kentucky from the Union forces although the two generals began to clash. When Bragg ordered the execution of Asa Lewis, a solder whose enlistment had ended but continued to serve until he had to return home, Breckinridge declared Bragg an incompetent commander. During the battle of Stones River Bragg ordered Breckinridge to attack the Union flank. After a disastrous defeat Bragg blamed Breckinridge and although he protested the charge was not reputed. The Kentucky solders encouraged him to challenge Bragg to a duel or resign but he refused.
Breckinridge was transferred to the command of General Johnston but after losing the Siege of Vicksburg he was transferred back to Brigg’s command. During the Battle of Chickamauga Breckinridge managed to attack the Union lines but was unable to overcome their main force and had to retreat. Bragg once again blamed him for the loss and clamed he had been drunk during the majority of the battle. Brigg took away Breckinridge’s command and then resigned himself.
Although Bragg had made several claims against Breckinridge Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew him and reassigned him to the Eastern Theater under the command of General Lee. He soon found himself commanding several successful actions including the Battle of New Market and Cold Harbor. After a number of successful battles and the reorganization of the military Department of East Tennessee and West Virginia he was called back to Richmond to become the new Secretary of War. His first act was to declare General Lee commander of all Confederate forces. During the Union invasion Breckinridge was put in charge of the retreat, either shipping out or destroying supplies but he managed to keep the records in tact so that the history of the Confederacy wouldn’t be lost. In 1865 Breckinridge realized the Confederates were going to lose the war and recommended that Davis began the groundwork for surrender. After the surrender of Lee, Breckinridge began negotiations with Sherman for the full surrender of the South and worked to make sure the states wouldn’t be harshly punished for the war.
As the war came to an end Breckinridge fled south to avoid being arrested as a traitor. He headed down the Atlantic coast to Florida and then crossed to Cuba. From there he sailed to England and then worked his way back to join with his family in Canada, settling in the Niagara region. His poor heath forced him to head back to the warmer climates of the Mediterranean area of France. When he recovered he longed to return so they travelled back to Niagara where he could look across at the U.S. His supporters in Kentucky petitioned the government to pardon him so he could return but it was only after President Johnson offered a blanket pardon to all Confederates and he was guaranteed to not be arrested that he returned. Although President Grant offered him a position in his administration Breckinridge refused deciding to remain in private life.
Breckinridge returned to practicing law including promoting the rights of free slaves and condemning the KKK. He also worked to build new railroads and established an insurance company. In 1873 he began to develop health problems brought on by pneumonia and his war wounds. On May 17th he passed away and was buried in the Lexington cemetery. And thus ended the life of John Breckinridge, one of the most interesting Vice Presidents of the United States. Many cities are still named after him although Breckenridge Colorado changed the spelling due to the Civil War.
And remember, if you vote for Ocular Nervosa I promise to not start any Civil Wars and if I am forced to flee the nation I’ll head to someplace nice like Fiji, or Hawaii.