Name:  John Cabell Breckinridge

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Born:  January 21, 1821
Died:  May 17, 1875
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John Breckinridge was a U.S Senator from Kentucky, the vice president under James Buchanan, the presidential candidate of the National Democratic party (Southern Democrats) in the critical 1860 election, and a Confederate general and (briefly) the Confederate secretary of war.

John Breckinridge was born in Lexington, Kentucky, to Mary Smith Breckinridge and John Cabell Breckinridge Sr. The family had a tradition of holding public office. Young Breckinridge's father was a state representative and his grandfather had been a U.S. senator. The senior John Breckinridge died in 1823 leaving his son to be raised by the boy's mother and grandmother. In 1839 the young man graduated from Centre College (Kentucky), then studied law at the College of New Jersey before completing his degree at Transylvania University (Kentucky) in 1841. He opened a law practice in Burlington, Iowa, but two years later returned to Kentucky, where he prospered in the profession.

During the Mexican War Breckinridge served as a major with the Kentucky volunteers. At the war's conclusion, he was elected to the state's lower house (1849-1851) as a states' rights Democrat, then won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (1851-1855). He played a key role in adding the repeal of the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery to Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act and in securing House approval for the final bill. Breckinridge himself sponsored no major legislation but was a popular political figure. In 1856 delegates to the Democratic National Convention selected him as James Buchanan's vice-presidential running-mate. Inaugurated when only 36 years old, he was the youngest vice president in American history. Buchanan did not include him in policy-making, so the vice president eagerly awaited returning to the U.S. Senate upon John Crittenden's retirement in 1861.

When the Democratic party split into sectional factions in 1860, Breckinridge was nominated for president by the Southern wing, who called themselves the National Democrats. Concerned that a divided party would allow the Republicans to triumph, he offered to decline the nomination if Douglas would reject his nomination by the Northern wing. Douglas declined, and both men remained in the race. Although Breckinridge was a slaveowner who supported the constitutional protection of slavery and the right of secession, he was not one of the radicals. He captured all the states in the Deep South, but Lincoln won the presidency with an electoral-college majority.

During the interval period, Breckinridge worked for a compromise and supported the attempt by Kentucky's government to remain neutral. When Kentucky formally sided with the Union in September 1861 and state officials tried to arrest him, he joined the Confederate army as a brigadier general. He accumulated a notable military record, fighting at Bowling Green, Shiloh, Baton Rouge, Stones River, Vicksburg, Chickamauga, and Missionary Ridge. He rose to the rank of major general, then served as the Confederacy's last secretary of war during what would be the closing months of the war. He opposed efforts to prolong the war with guerrilla fighting after Lee's surrender.

Following the war he fled to Cuba, then to England and finally to Canada. President Andrew Johnson pardoned him on Christmas Day 1868, allowing him to return to Kentucky a few months later. Although he forswore politics, Breckinridge urged sectional reconciliation and criticized the Ku Klux Klan. He was employed as a railroad executive until his death in 1874.

Source consulted: American National Biography











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