John C. Breckinridge
by Drew E. VandeCreek, Ph.D.


A Kentucky attorney, John C. Breckinridge (1821-1875) served as Vice President of the United States under James Buchanan (1857-61), and accepted insurgent Democrats' nomination for the presidency when in 1860 southerners determined that the national party and Stephen Douglas' doctrine of "popular sovereignty" failed to provide sufficient protection for their right to take slave property into the western territories. Breckinridge began his political career with service in the Kentucky legislature (1849) and in the House of Representatives (1851). Like the southern Democrats he represented in the pivotal election of 1860, Breckinridge argued that the Constitution did not provide the federal government with the power to restrict slavery in the territories. Although he believed in the states' right of secession, he did not advocate that course of action during the 1860 campaign. In the November election, Breckinridge carried the nine Deep South states and received 72 electoral votes.

Serving out his term as Vice President into early 1861, Breckinridge worked to fashion a compromise that would preserve southern slavery in the Union. As Senator (elected 1859) in the special congressional session that began in July, 1861, he became a consistent opponent of the Lincoln administration's war policies. When Kentucky declared for the Union in September of 1861, Breckinridge accepted an appointment as brigadier general in the Confederacy. In early 1865 he became Confederate Secretary of War and presided over the demise of the Confederate armies. When the South surrendered, Breckinridge fled to Europe but was permitted to return to the United States by the amnesty proclamation of 1868.