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Vice Presidents of the United States John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861) - page 4 / 7

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Strained Relations with Buchanan

Buchanan won the nomination and election primarily because nobody knew where he stood on the issues, since he had been out of the country for the past three years as minister to England. Although his supporters promoted him as "the man for the crisis," Buchanan was in fact the worst man for the crisis. Narrow, secretive, petty, vindictive, and blind to corruption within his administration, he proved unable to bind together either the factions of his party or the regions of his nation. A poor winner, Buchanan distrusted his rivals for the nomination and refused to invite Stephen Douglas to join his cabinet or to take seriously Douglas' patronage requests. Similarly snubbed, Breckinridge q u i c k l y d i s c o v e r e d t h a t h e h e l d l e s s i n f l u e n c e w i t h B u c h a n a n a s v i c e p r e s i d e n t t h a n h e h a d a s a m e m b e r o f t h e House with Pierce. 1 0

Viewing Breckinridge as part of the Pierce-Douglas faction, Buchanan almost never consulted him, and rarely invited him to the White House for either political or social gatherings. Early in the new administration, when the vice president asked for a private interview with the president, he was told instead to call at the White House some evening and ask to see Buchanan's niece and hostess, Harriet Lane. Taking this as a rebuff, the proud Kentuckian left town without calling on either Miss Lane or the president. His friends reported his resentment to Buchanan, and in short order three of the president's confidants wrote to tell Breckinridge that it had been a mistake. A request to s e e M i s s L a n e w a s r e a l l y a p a s s w o r d t o a d m i t a c a l l e r t o s e e h e r u n c l e . H o w B r e c k i n r i d g e c o u l d h a v e k n o w n t h i s , they did not explain. In fact, the vice president had no private meetings with the president for over three years. The new vice president bought property in the District of Columbia and planned to construct, along with his good friends Senator Douglas and Senator Henry Rice of Minnesota, three large, expensive, connected houses at New Jersey Avenue and I Street that would become known as "Minnesota Row." Before the construction was completed, however, the friendship had become deeply strained when Douglas fell out with President Buchanan over slavery in Kansas. A proslavery minority there had sent to Washington a new territorial constitution—known as the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan threw his weight behind the Lecompton Constitution as a device for admitting Kansas as a state and defusing the explosive issue of slavery in the territory. But Douglas objected that the Lecompton Constitution made a mockery out of popular sovereignty and warned that he would fight it as a fraud. Recalling the way Andrew Jackson had dealt with his opponents, Buchanan said, "Mr. Douglas, I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an Administration of his choice without being crushed." To which Douglas replied, "Mr. President, I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead." Between these two 1 1 p o l e s , t h e v i c e p r e s i d e n t v a i n l y s o u g h t t o s t e e r a n e u t r a l c o u r s e . H e s i d e d w i t h B u c h a n a n o n t h e L e c o m p t Constitution but endorsed Douglas for reelection to the Senate. o n 1 2

An Impartial Presiding Officer

As vice president in such a turbulent era, Breckinridge won respect for presiding gracefully and impartially over the Senate. On January 4, 1859, when the Senate met for the last time in its old chamber, he used the occasion to deliver an eloquent appeal for national unity. During its half century in the chamber, the Senate had grown from thirty-two to sixty-four members. The expansion of the nation forced them to move to a new, more spacious chamber. During those years, he observed, the Constitution had "survived peace and war, prosperity and adversity" to protect "the larger personal freedom compatible with public order." He recalled the legislative labors of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun, whose performance in that chamber challenged their successors "to give the Union a destiny not unworthy of the past." He trusted that in the future "another Senate, in another age, shall bear to a new and larger Chamber, this Constitution vigorous and inviolate, and that the last generation of posterity shall witness the deliberations of the Representatives of American States, still united, prosperous, and free." The vice president t h e n l e d a p r o c e s s i o n t o t h e n e w c h a m b e r . W a l k i n g t w o - b y - t w o b e h i n d h i m w e r e t h e p o l i t i c a l a n d m i l i t a r y l e a d e r s o f what would soon become the Union and the Confederacy. 1 3

Breckinridge counseled against secession. A famous incident, recounted in many memoirs of the era, took place at a dinner party that the vice president attended. South Carolina Representative Laurence Keitt repeatedly denigrated Kentucky's compromising tendencies. Breckinridge responded by recalling a trip he had made through South Carolina, where he met a militia officer in full military regalia. "I tell you, sah, we can not stand it any longer; we intend to fight," said the officer. "And from what are you suffering?" asked Breckinridge. "Why, sah, we are suffering from the oppression of the Federal Government. We have suffered under it for thirty years, and will stand

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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