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Vice Presidents of the United States John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861) - page 3 / 7

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the North, where he had raised campaign funds for his tough reelection campaign in 1853. Breckinridge, "his eyes flashing fire," interrupted Cutting's speech, denied his charges, denounced his language, and demanded an apology. When Cutting refused, Breckinridge interpreted this as a challenge to a duel. He proposed that they meet near Silver Spring, the nearby Maryland home of his friend Francis P. Blair, and that they duel with western rifles. The New Yorker objected that he had never handled a western rifle and that as the challenged party he should pick the weapons. Once it became clear that neither party considered himself the challenger, they gained a face-saving means of withdrawing from the "code of honor" without fighting the duel. When the two next encountered each other in the House, Breckinridge looked his adversary in the eye and said: "Cutting, give me a chew of tobacco!" The New Yorker drew a plug of tobacco from his pocket, cut off a wad for Breckinridge and another for himself, and both r e t u r n e d t o t h e i r d e s k s c h e w i n g a n d l o o k i n g h a p p i e r . T h o s e w h o o b s e r v e d t h e e x c h a n g e c o m p a r e d i t t o t h e A m e r i c a n Indians' practice of smoking a peace pipe. 6

Breckinridge supported the Kansas -Nebraska Act in the hope that it would take slavery in the territories out of national politics, but the act had entirely the opposite effect. Public outrage throughout the North caused the Whig party to collapse and new antislavery parties, the Republican and the American (Know-Nothing) parties, to rise in its wake. When the spread of Know-Nothing lodges in his district jeopardized his chances of reelection in 1855, Breckinridge declined to run for a third term. He also rejected President Pierce's nomination to serve as minister to Spain and negotiate American annexation of Cuba, despite the Senate's confirmation of his appointment. Citing his w i f e ' s p o o r h e a l t h a n d h i s o w n p r e c a r i o u s f i n a n c e s , B r e c k i n r i d g e r e t u r n e d t o K e n t u c k y . L a n d s p e c u l a t i o n i n t h e West helped him accumulate a considerable amount of money during his absence from politics. 7

The Youngest Vice President

As the Democratic convention approached in 1856, the three leading contenders—President Pierce, Senator Douglas, and former Minister to Great Britain James Buchanan—all courted Breckinridge. He attended the convention as a delegate, voting first for Pierce and then switching to Douglas. When Douglas withdrew as a gesture toward party unity, the nomination went to Buchanan. The Kentucky delegation nominated former House Speaker Linn Boyd for vice president. Then a Louisiana delegate nominated Breckinridge. Gaining the floor, Breckinridge declined to run against his delegation's nominee, but his speech deeply impressed the convention. One Arkansas delegate admired "his manner, his severely simple style of delivery with scarcely an ornament [or] gesture and deriving its force and eloquence solely from the remarkably choice ready flow of words, the rich voice and intonation." The delegate noted that "every member seemed riveted to his seat and each face seemed by magnetic influence to be directed to him." When Boyd ran poorly on the first ballot, the convention switched to Breckinridge and nominated him on the second ballot. Although Tennessee's Governor Andrew Johnson grumbled that Breckinridge's lack of national reputation would hurt the ticket, Buchanan's managers were pleased with the choice. They thought Breckinridge would appease Douglas, since the two men had been closely identified through their work on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Being present at the convention, Breckinridge was prevailed upon to make a short acceptance speech, thanking the delegates for the nomination, endorsing Buchanan and the platform, and reaffirming his position as a "state's rights man." The nominee was thirty-six years old—just a year over the c o n s t i t u t i o n a l m i n i m u m a g e f o r h o l d i n g t h e o f f i c e a n d h i s e l e c t i o n w o u l d m a k e h i m t h e y o u n g e s t v i c e p r e s i d e n t i n American history. 8

Breckinridge spent most of the campaign in Kentucky, but he gave speeches in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, defending the Kansas -Nebraska Act. The election was a three-way race among the Democrats under Buchanan, the Republicans under John Charles Frémont, and the Know-Nothings under former President Millard Fillmore. Denouncing the antislavery policies of the Republicans and Know-Nothings, Breckinridge described himself not as proslavery but as a defender of the people's constitutional right to make their own territorial laws, a position that caused some Deep South extremists to accuse him of harboring abolitionist views. In November, Democrats carried all the slaveholding states except Maryland (which went Know-Nothing) and enough northern states to win the election. Breckinridge was proud that Kentucky voted for a Democratic presidential ticket for the first time since 1828. 9

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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