Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

John C. Breckinridge (1857–1861)

John Cabell Breckinridge became the youngest vice president in United States history when he was elected with President James Buchanan in the 1856 election. Yet, the turbulence of the times and the American Civil War led him to become the second vice president (after Aaron Burr) to be accused of treason when he joined the Confederate Army and took up arms against the Union.

Breckinridge was born January 16, 1821, in Lexington, Kentucky. His family had long been involved in politics. His grandfather was a U.S. senator and served as attorney general for President Thomas Jefferson, and his father was active in Kentucky state politics. However, both men died young, and John and his sisters were raised by their mother and grandmother. He attended Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and then studied law for a time at Princeton University in New Jersey. He returned to Kentucky to continue his law studies at Transylvania University and under Judge William Owsley in Lexington. Breckinridge was admitted to the bar in 1841.

Along with a cousin, Breckinridge moved out to the Iowa Territory to establish a law practice but soon returned to Kentucky. He practiced law in Georgetown and Lexington. In 1843, he married Mary Cyrene Burch, and they eventually had five children. Breckinridge was known for his striking good looks, commanding personality, and oratory skills. He first gained statewide attention when he gave an address at a funeral service honoring Kentucky soldiers who were killed at the Battle of Buena Vista in the Mexican War. Shortly afterwards, he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army. As a major, he served in Mexico for less than a year before returning home.

After the war, Breckinridge became active in politics. He served in the Kentucky state legislature and then in the U.S. House of Representatives for two terms from 1851 to 1855. He was a member of the Democratic Party and a strong believer in states’ rights although he opposed slavery and supported the colonization movement, which advocated freeing slaves and resettling them in Africa. As a representative, he was actively involved in helping fellow Democrat Stephen Douglas of Illinois push the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress. The act repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and allowed territories to choose whether to allow slavery. Many congressmen hoped that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would remove slavery as an issue in national politics but it had the opposite effect and made slavery even more divisive. Breckinridge did not run for reelected after his second term in the House but returned to Kentucky to resume his law practice.

In the 1856 presidential election, the Democratic Party chose Breckinridge as the vice presidential candidate to run with James Buchanan of Pennsylvania. The two easily won the election. However, Breckinridge played little role as vice president. Although vice presidents generally had little influence in this period of history, Breckinridge had almost no role because Buchanan excluded him from his administration and they rarely had any interaction at all. However, Vice President Breckinridge was respected for presiding over the U.S. Senate with fairness during a contentious time in American history.

As the presidential election of 1860 approached, the country was increasingly divided over the issue of slavery. The Democratic Party split when the Southern states walked out of the convention. The Northern Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas while the Southern Democrats nominated Breckinridge. With the Democratic vote split, the Republican Party candidate, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, won the election.

Prior to stepping down as vice president, Breckinridge had been appointed to the U.S. Senate by the Kentucky legislature. When he assumed his Senate seat, he hoped that as a Southern senator, he might be able to help the nation avoid war. He did not support secession but had little chance of influencing Southern states that had already started seceding from the Union. Breckinridge also tried to use his influence to convince Kentucky to remain neutral in the upcoming conflict but pro-Union forces dominated the state legislature and chose to align the state with the United States.

After Kentucky chose to stay in the Union, Breckinridge fled to Virginia to avoid arrest and he volunteered to serve in the Confederate Army, first as a brigadier general and then as a major general. He led troops in battles such as Shiloh, Chickamauga, Chattanooga, and Cold Harbor. Along with Jubal Early, he led a daring Confederate raid on Washington, D.C. in 1864, making it as far as Maryland, insight of the U.S. Capitol. In February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis appointed Breckinridge secretary of war. By that time, however, the South had little chance of turning the tide of the war, and it surrendered in April.

Breckinridge then fled abroad, traveling first to Cuba, then England, Europe, and Canada. He did not return to the United States until after President Andrew Johnson issued an amnesty proclamation for Confederates on Christmas Day 1868. Arriving in Lexington, Kentucky, he was greeted by a warm welcome. He did not reenter politics but resumed his law practice and became involved in the railroad industry. Breckinridge died on May 17, 1875.