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Vice Presidents of the United States John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861) - page 2 / 7

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Smith, had served as president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, and his uncle Robert J. Breckinridge started Kentucky's public school system. The boy attended the Presbyterian Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, w h e r e h e r e c e i v e d h i s b a c h e l o r ' s d e g r e e a t s e v e n t e e n . H e t h e n a t t e n d e d P r i n c e t o n b e f o r e r e t u r n i n g t o L e x i n g t o n t o study law at Transylvania University. 1

A tall, strikingly handsome young man with a genial air and a powerful voice, considered by many "a perfect gentleman," Breckinridge set out to make his fortune on the frontier. In 1841 he and his law partner Thomas W. Bullock settled in the Mississippi River town of Burlingame, in the Iowa Territory. There he might have entered politics and pursued a career relatively free from the divisive issue of slavery, but Iowa's fierce winter gave him influenza and made him homesick for Kentucky. When he returned home on a visit in 1843, he met and soon married Mary Cyrene Burch of Georgetown. The newlyweds settled in Georgetown, and Breckinridge opened a law office in Lexington.2

A Rapid Political Rise

When the Mexican War began, Breckinridge volunteered to serve as an officer in a Kentucky infantry regiment. In Mexico, Major Breckinridge won the support of his troops for his acts of kindness, being known to give up his horse to sick and footsore soldiers. After six months in Mexico City, he returned to Kentucky and to an almost inevitable political career. In 1849, while still only twenty-eight years old, he won a seat in the state house of representatives. In that election, as in all his campaigns, he demonstrated both an exceptional ability as a stump speaker and a politician's memory for names and faces. Shortly after the election, he met for the first time the Illinois legislator who had married his cousin Mary Todd. Abraham Lincoln, while visiting his wife's family in Lexington, paid courtesy calls on the city's lawyers. Lincoln and Breckinridge became friends, despite their differences in party and ideology. Breckinridge was a Jacksonian Democrat in a state that Senator Henry Clay had made a Whig bastion. In 1851, Breckinridge shocked the Whig party by winning the congressional race in Clay's home district, a victory that also brought him to the attention of national Democratic leaders. He arrived in Congress shortly after the passage of Clay's Compromise of 1850, which had sought to settle the issue of slavery in the territories. Breckinridge became a spokesman for the proslavery Democrats, arguing that the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery anywhere, either in the District of Columbia or in any of the territories.fn3

Since Breckinridge defended both the Union and slavery, people viewed him as a moderate. The Pennsylvania newspaper publisher and political adventurer John W. Forney insisted that when Breckinridge came to Congress "he was in no sense an extremist." Forney recalled how the young Breckinridge spoke with great respect about Texas Senator Sam Houston, who denounced the dangers and evils of slavery. But Forney thought that Breckinridge "was too interesting a character to be neglected by the able ultras of the South. They saw in his winning manners, attractive appearance, and rare talent for public affairs, exactly the elements they needed in their concealed designs against the country." People noted that his uncle, Robert Breckinridge, was a prominent antislavery man, and that as a state legislator Breckinridge had aided the Kentucky Colonization Society (a branch of the American Colonization Society), dedicated to gradual emancipation and the resettlement of free blacks outside the United States. They suspected that he held private concerns about the morality of slavery and that he supported gradual emancipation. Yet, while Breckinridge was no planter or large slaveholder, he owned a few household slaves and idealized the southern way of life. He willingly defended slavery and white supremacy against all critics.4

The Kansas-Nebraska Controversy

In Congress, Breckinridge became an ally of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas. When Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and left the issue of slavery in the territories to the settlers themselves—a policy known as "popular sovereignty"—Breckinridge worked hard to enact the legislation. Going to the White House, he served as a broker between Douglas and President Franklin Pierce, persuading the president to support the bill. He also spoke out in the House in favor of leaving the settlers "free to form their own institutions, and enter the Union with or without slavery, as their constitutions should prescribe." During those debates in March 1854, the normally even-tempered Breckinridge exchanged angry words on the House floor with Democratic Representative Francis B. Cutting of New York, almost provoking a duel. "They were a high-strung pair," commented Breckinridge's friend Forney. Cutting accused Breckinridge of ingratitude toward 5

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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