As Centre College prepares for this year’s only vice presidential debate, we have looked at two of Kentucky’s three vice presidents: Richard Mentor Johnson and Alben Barkley. We now look at John Cabell Breckinridge, a man whose life reflected his times and the epic struggle that would tear our nation apart.
John Breckinridge (Library of Congress)
Breckinridge, the scion of one of Kentucky’s most important political families, and co-incidentally an alumnus of Centre College himself, became one of our nation’s most important leaders on the eve of the Civil War, but his service to the United States was marred by his having taken up arms against it during the Civil War.
Breckinridge was the son of John Breckinridge, one of the early attorneys general of the United States, the patriarch of a political and business family that would include not only a vice president, but a famous (or notorious) actor and Mary Breckinridge, the founder of the Frontier Nursing Service. Like many Kentuckians of his generation, John Cabell Breckinridge had fought in the Mexican War in 1847-48 already. The muster rolls show that he served as a major in the Third Kentucky Volunteers, a unit in which my own great great great grandfather, about whose own Civil War exploits I wrote in my Fourth of July column, served as a lieutenant.
In the years preceding the Civil War, Breckinridge emerged as a spokesman for the slave-owning interests of the South. It is difficult to get the modern mind around the idea that owning another human being is a good thing, but the economy of the South was thought to depend on slave labor, and the abolition of slavery was thought by some to be an economic disaster from which the South would never recover.
Breckinridge, a loyal member of the Democratic Party, was elected vice president under James Buchanan, a weak and ineffective president who, after his election in 1856, spent the most valuable four years of the 19th century, those just prior to the Civil War, fretting and fiddling and doing little to prevent the conflict. Buchanan was out-maneuvered in his own party, denied the nomination in 1860, and the Democratic Party split into North-South factions.
When the Democratic National Convention nominated Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas as its standard bearer in 1860, Southern Democrats bolted, and in their own convention, nominated Vice President Breckinridge as a candidate of what became known as the Southern Democrats. Breckinridge split the Democratic vote, and Lincoln was elected president.
In the 19th Century, state legislatures elected Senators, and Breckinridge was a popular choice in Kentucky’s General Assembly, which elected him as a Kentucky Senator. When the Southern states purported to secede from the Union after Lincoln’s election, Breckinridge, although still serving as a Senator from Kentucky, bolted the Union and joined the Confederacy as a Brigadier General. It is difficult to understand this decision on his part. Those whose states had seceded from the Union had the excuse that their service to the Confederacy was nothing more than loyalty to their own state. Breckinridge could make no such claim, and he was roundly condemned in the Northern press for his decision to join the Confederacy. Upon a false report of Breckinridge’s death in battle in 1863, the New York Times thundered:
“We know that it is not easy to draw distinctions between the shades of this black treason against the Union. Yet we can recognize that some sort of charity may be given to a man as Stonewall Jackson, who bred to the doctrine of paramount State sovereignty, and conscientiously believed that it was his duty to obey the decision of his State expressed through constitutional forms. But no such extenuating plea can be advanced for John C. Breckinridge. . . . Of all the accursed traitors of the land there has been none more heinously false than he — none whose memory will live in darker ignominy. God grant the country a speedy deliverance of all such parricides.”
Breckinridge became a brigadier general, then major general, in the Confederate forces. In July of 1864, Confederate forces under the command of Gen. Jubal Early, in a bold attempt to put military pressure on Washington, D.C., itself, made it as far as Washington’s northeastern suburbs, in the Battle of Fort Stephens. This battle was fought so close to Washington itself that president Lincoln personally went to the scene of battle and looked over the parapets at the enemy advance. One of Early’s senior staff officers was Gen. Breckinridge. Thus, for the first (and so far, only) time in history, the losing candidate in a presidential election faced the winner in armed combat.
Breckinridge finished out the War as the Confederacy’s last secretary of war. In that position, he may have performed his greatest service to the Confederacy and to our nation by preventing the destruction of the Confederacy’s military and civilian archives so that they were preserved for the use of historians.
Like many former high-ranking Confederate officials, Breckinridge fled first to Cuba, then to Europe, to avoid being tried for treason. When he was granted amnesty by the U.S. government in 1869, he returned to Lexington, where he lived out his life as a lawyer and railroad executive. He died in Lexington in 1875, either, depending on your source, from the ravages of cirrhosis of the liver, or from a botched surgical procedure.
Breckinridge was a popular figure in post-war Kentucky, as evidenced by the erection of the statue honoring him, on Main Street in downtown Lexington. Breckinridge’s descendants have run from the serious politician John B. Breckinridge, who served two terms as Kentucky’s attorney general in the 1960s, and a number of terms in Congress in the 1970s, and the pioneering nurse Mary Breckinridge, founder of the Frontier Health Service, to the cult actor John B. “Bunny” Breckinridge, one of the most notorious gay cross dressers of Golden Age Hollywood.
Bunny Breckinridge was primarily a stage actor. His only movie role was as the star of Ed Wood’s notoriously campy “Plan 9 From Outer Space,” often described as the worst movie ever made. Bunny Breckinridge himself became a character (played by Bill Murray) in Tim Burton’s 1994 biopic “Ed Wood.” He died in 1996 at age 93. The man who was once imprisoned for being gay had become, by the time of his death, a hero to the movement. He is quoted in his obituary as having said that “I was a little bit wild when I was young, darling, but I lived my life grandly.” Perhaps the same can be said for his great grandfather.
Kentucky history is nothing if not unexpected. Next week, we will abandon politics and return to our historical look at Kentucky’s Thoroughbred horse business.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.