Monday, January 16, 2017

Birth Dates of Notable Kentuckians: January 16, 1821 - John Cabell Breckinridge

 
Image from The Richmond Daily Dispatch


From The Kentucky Encyclopedia-
By the time he was forty-five years old, John Cabell Breckinridge had served as state legislator, U.S. representative, vice-president, U.S. senator, major general, and Confederate secretary of war. His only political defeat came in the 1860 presidential race, when he lost to another native Kentuckian, Abraham Lincoln

Breckinridge was born on January 16, 1821, the only son among the six children of Joseph Cabell and Mary Clay (Smith) Breckinridge. When John was two years old his father died; the widow, burdened by debt, moved to her mother-in-law's large farm near
Lexington and then to a sister's home in Danville. Breckinridge's father was speaker of the Kentucky House and secretary of state for the commonwealth. His grandfather was John Breckinridge , and an uncle and close adviser was the Rev. Robert J. Breckinridge .

After graduating in 1838 from
Centre College in Danville, he attended the College of New Jersey at Princeton. Breckinridge then studied law under future Whig governor William Owsley (1844-48) and at Transylvania University . After completing his studies in February 1841, Breckinridge began practicing law in Burlington, Iowa.

He returned to the commonwealth and married Mary Cyrene Burch on December 12, 1843; over the next eleven years, they had six children. In 1847 Breckinridge enlisted to fight in the
Mexican War . He was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1849. Two years later he sought the congressional seat of the Ashland district, Henry Clay's old bailiwick. An extremely attractive campaigner, Breckinridge had a charming personal manner. His voice was that of an orator -- clear, vibrant, expressive -- and he had few peers as a stump speaker. A charismatic leader, the young Democrat swept the usually Whig district.

During Breckinridge's two terms in the U.S. House (March 4, 1851-March 3, 1855), he quickly became known as a supporter of the viewpoints of the South. Breckinridge argued that the states had created the federal authority and, as its creators, were supreme. The constitution he followed had specific, limited powers; groups that attacked slavery were, in his view, attacking property rights guaranteed by the highest legal authority of the land. (Though once a slaveholder, he apparently held no slaves by 1860.) To allow attacks on the "peculiar institution" would be to admit to a flexible constitution, one that could be changed to allow radical, despotic acts.

Declining to run for reelection, Breckinridge returned to
Lexington, served as president of the Kentucky Association for the Improvement of the Breed of Horses, operated a small farm, and devoted time to the law. In 1856 his party nominated him to be vice-president of the United States on the James Buchanan ticket. When inaugurated at the age of thirty-six, in March 1857, he became the youngest vice-president in the nation's history.

In December 1859 -- long before the term began -- the Kentucky legislators elected him to the U.S. Senate, with 81 votes to
Joshua F. Bell 's 53. In the presidential election year of 1860, when his party divided nationally over the initial nomination of Stephen Douglas, Breckinridge became the nominee of dissatisfied southern Democrats . With Lincoln's selection by the Republicans and with John Bell seeking election as a Constitutional Unionist , it became a four-way race. Perceived as a sectional candidate, Breckinridge expected to make few inroads in the North. Yet if he downplayed his Southern ties too much, he risked losing that area to Bell. A moderate tone resulted. Lincoln's 180 electoral votes overwhelmed Breckinridge's 72, Bell's 59 (including Kentucky's), and Douglas's 12.

Breckinridge was elected to the U.S. Senate and served from March 4, 1861, until December 4, 1861. For several months he hesitated in his course, as he tried to avoid a devastating war. He then joined the Confederacy, the most important Kentuckian to do so. Though involved in a bitter controversy with Gen. Braxton Bragg, Breckinridge, overall, performed ably. As a subordinate, he led forces at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga, then in 1864 was given independent command of the Western Department of Virginia. During the ensuing campaign, he fought his finest battle, winning a decisive victory at New Market in May, then joined Jubal Early's unsuccessful foray against Washington, D.C.

On February 7, 1865, Breckinridge was appointed Confederate secretary of war. With the end of the conflict in sight, it was a thankless position, but he was perhaps the most effective of those who held that office. Breckinridge fled southward following Appomattox. Fearing arrest, he and a few others made a heroic escape through Florida and across the waters to Cuba.

For the next four years, Breckinridge remained in exile, touring Europe and the Middle East and living in Canada. In December 1868 he received amnesty and the following March he returned to Kentucky. Serving as manager of an insurance company and as president of a local railroad, while still practicing law, Breckinridge remained out of the political arena, although he did speak out against the lawlessness of the Ku Klux Klan. Breckinridge died on May 17, 1875, and was buried in the
Lexington Cemetery. A man of unlimited promise, he, like so many of his generation, never recovered from the Civil War.

JAMES C. KLOTTER , Entry Author
Selected Sources from UK Libraries: 
Breckinridge, John C. John C. Breckinridge Papers, 1861-1887. (1861). Print.
59M119, Special Collections  Research Center - Manuscript Vertical Files

Hanna, Alfred Jackson, and John C. Breckinridge. The Escape of Confederate Secretary of War John Cabell Breckinridge as Revealed by His Diary. N.p., 1939. Print.
B B741h, Special Collections Research Center - Biography Collection 
Breckinridge, John C., and Joseph Lane. The Conspiracy to Break up the Union. The Plot and Its Development. Breckinridge and Lane the Candidates of a Disunion Party. Let the Masses Read and Ponder. Washington City, D.C.: Printed by L. Towers, 1860. Print. Slavery and Anti-slavery: a Transnational Archive.
E464 .C5 1860, Special Collections Research Center

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