Billy Reed: Breckinridge is one of only three Kyians to serve as U.S. vice president, but remove statue

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Since becoming a state in 1792, Kentucky has produced three men who have served as Vice-President of the United States. The first was Richard Mentor Johnson, who was V.P. under Martin Van Buren from 1837-’41, and the last was Alben Barkley, who was Harry S. Truman’s “Veep” from 1948-’52.

The one in the middle was John C. Breckinridge, who was only 35 years old when he was elected Vice-President in 1856 on the ticket headed by James Buchanan.

Yes, this is the same John C. Breckinridge who’s back in the news 142 years after his death in 1875. The Lexington City Council voted Thursday night to remove the statues of Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan from the city’s downtown because they were leaders of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

The national media has identified Breckinridge as the Confederacy’s Secretary of War. He was surely that, from Feb. 4, 1865, until the war’s end a few months later, but he also was much more. For example, he was a childhood playmate of Mary Todd, who was to marry a politician named Abraham Lincoln.

Statue of John C. Breckenridge in Lexington

I will pause here to make it clear that I hate the Ku Klux Klan, Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists with every fiber of my being. I think they should be classified as domestic terrorist groups and denied permits to march or hold rallies in every state.

I also support the removal of Civil War statues from public grounds. In fact, I’d like to see Union statues moved as well as Confederate ones. Why keep reminding ourselves of the darkest chapter in our history? Why not replace them with statues of peacemakers or other worthy individuals?

As a professional journalist and amateur historian, I am squarely opposed to revisionist history. However, I also understand that history also can be incomplete and needs to be re-examined from time to time. History never changes, but society does.

For example, when I was in high school and college, American history textbooks largely ignored the contributions of African-Americans, women, and immigrants. Over the years, those books have been replaced by ones that more accurately, honestly, and completely reflect the American story. That is enhancing the integrity of our history, not diminishing it.

Removing the statues of Morgan and Breckinridge from downtown Lexington is a no-brainer. But while Morgan was a reckless Confederate cavalry leader who disobeyed orders by taking the war into Indiana and Illinois, Breckenridge presents historians with a more difficult challenge.

His grandfather and namesake was a U.S. Representative, a U.S. Senator, and an Attorney General in the Cabinet of Thomas Jefferson, and his father was a Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives.

Breckinridge fought for the U.S. in the Mexican War of 1847-‘48, was elected to the Kentucky House in 1849, and won a seat in the U.S. House in 1851. He gave one of the eulogies at the funeral of famed statesman Henry Clay, known as “The Great Compromiser,” in 1852. He was elected Vice-President in 1856 and presided over the U.S. Senate until 1860.

Near the end of his Vice-Presidency, Breckinridge was elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate that he would assume as soon as he left the Vice-Presidency. Once he was in the Senate, the pro-slavery Southern Democrats convinced him to run for President in 1860 against Lincoln and the Democrat Stephen A. Douglas. He finished third, receiving 18 percent of the national vote, but was second in the Electoral College.

On Oct. 8, 1861, Breckinridge announced he was leaving his Senate seat to join the Confederacy as a battlefield general, and in December the Senate expelled him as a traitor. After leading troops in several battles, Breckinridge was named Secretary of War by Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the waning days of the war so he could represent the South in peace negotiations with Union General William T. Sherman.

Breckinridge was apparently held in high regard by President U.S. Grant, who granted him amnesty, paving the way for Breckinridge to come out of exile and return to Lexington on March 9, 1869. He spoke briefly to the thousands of supporters who met his train.

“I can truly declare that I no more feel the political excitement that marked the scene of my former years,” said Breckinridge, “than if I were an extinct volcano.”

Nevertheless Grant wanted Breckinridge to run for Governor so he could seek his counsel during the difficult period of Reconstruction. Unmoved, Breckinridge practiced law and served as president of the Lexington, Elizabethtown & Big Sandy Railroad until his death in 1875.

Breckinridge’s decision to leave the U.S. Senate to fight for the Confederacy certainly means his statue should be removed from downtown. However, that also means that Lexington apparently will be the first city in the nation to remove the statue of a former Vice-President of the United States.

The TV talking heads might want to mention that.

Billy Reed is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame and the Transylvania University Hall of Fame. He has been named Kentucky Sports Writer of the Year eight times and has won the Eclipse Award twice. Reed has written about a multitude of sports events for over four decades, but he is perhaps one of media’s most knowledgeable writers on the Kentucky Derby

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