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Vice Presidents of the United States John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861)

Citation: Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office. Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1997), pp. 193-199. Introduction by Mark O. Hatfield.

I trust that I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope.

  • John C. Breckinridge, 1860

The only vice president ever to take up arms against the government of the United States, John Cabell Breckinridge completed four years as vice president under James Buchanan, ran for president as the Southern Democratic candidate in 1860, and then returned to the Senate to lead the remnants of the Democratic party for the first congressional session during the Civil War. Although his cousin Mary Todd Lincoln resided in the White House and his home state of Kentucky remained in the Union, Breckinridge chose to volunteer his services to the Confederate army. The United States Senate formally expelled him as a traitor. When the Confederates were defeated, Breckinridge's personal secession forced him into exile abroad, bringing his promising political career to a bitter end.

An Illustrious Political Family

Born at "Cabell's Dale," the Breckinridge family estate near Lexington, Kentucky, on January 16, 1821, John Cabell Breckinridge was named for his father and grandfather. The father, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, a rising young politician, died at the state capital at the age of thirty-five. Left without resources, his wife took her children back to Cabell's Dale to live with their grandmother, known affectionately as "Grandma Black Cap." She often regaled the children with stories of their grandfather, the first John Breckinridge, who, in addition to introducing the Kentucky Resolutions that denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts, had helped secure the Louisiana Purchase and had served during the administration of Thomas Jefferson first as a Senate leader and then as attorney general. The grandfather might well have become president one day but, like his son, he died prematurely. The sense of family mission that his grandmother imparted shaped young John C. Breckinridge's self-image and directed him towards a life in public office. The family also believed strongly in education, since Breckinridge's maternal grandfather, Samuel Stanhope

Reprinted from Mark O. Hatfield, with the Senate Historical Office, Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993 (Washington: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1997). www.senate.gov

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