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Vice Presidents of the United States John C. Breckinridge (1857-1861) - page 5 / 7





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it no more." Turning to Keitt, Breckinridge advised him "to invite some of his constituents, before undertaking the war, upon a tour through the North, if only for the purpose of teaching them what an almighty big country they will have to whip before they get through!" 14

A Four-Way Race for President

Early in 1859 a New York Times correspondent in Washington wrote that "Vice President Breckinridge stands deservedly high in public estimation, and has the character of a man slow to form resolves, but unceasing and inexorable in their fulfillment." At a time when the Buchanan administration was falling "in prestige and political consequence, the star of the Vice President rises higher above the clouds." Later that year, Linn Boyd died while campaigning for the Senate, and Kentucky Democrats nominated Breckinridge for the seat, which would become vacant at the time Breckinridge's term as vice president ended. Breckinridge may also have been harboring even greater ambitions. Although he remained silent about the upcoming presidential campaign, many Democrats considered him a strong contender. In 1860, the Democratic convention met in Charleston, South Carolina. Stephen Douglas was the frontrunner, but when his supporters defeated efforts to write into the platform a plank protecting t h e r i g h t o f s l a v e r y a n y w h e r e i n t h e t e r r i t o r i e s , t h e s o u t h e r n d e l e g a t e s w a l k e d o u t . T h e y h e l d t h e i r o w n c o n v e n t i o n i n Baltimore and nominated Breckinridge as their presidential candidate. 1 5

For national balance, the breakaway Democrats selected Senator Joseph Lane, a Democrat from Oregon, for vice president. Lane had spent his youth in Kentucky and Indiana and served in the Mexican War. President James K. Polk had appointed him territorial governor of Oregon, an office he held from 1849 to 1850 before becoming Oregon's territorial delegate to Congress in 1851. When Oregon entered the Union in 1859, he was chosen one of its first senators. Lane's embrace of the secessionist spirit attracted him to the Southern Democrats. Had the four-way election of 1860 not been decided by the electoral college but been thrown into Congress, the Democratic majority i n t h e o u t g o i n g S e n a t e m i g h t w e l l h a v e e l e c t e d h i m v i c e p r e s i d e n t . I n s t e a d , t h e r a c e e n d e d L a n e ' s p o l i t i c a l c a r e e r entirely, and Oregon became a Republican state. 1 6

Breckinridge faced a campaign against three old friends: Stephen Douglas, the Democratic candidate; Abraham Lincoln, the Republican; and John Bell of Tennessee, the Constitutional Union party candidate. He was not optimistic about his chances. Privately, he told Mrs. Jefferson Davis, "I trust that I have the courage to lead a forlorn hope." At a dinner just before the nomination, Breckinridge talked of not accepting it, but Jefferson Davis persuaded him to run. Worried that a split in the anti-Republican vote would ensure Lincoln's victory, Davis proposed a scheme by which Breckinridge, Douglas, and Bell would agree to withdraw their candidacies in favor of a compromise candidate. Breckinridge and Bell agreed, but Douglas refused, arguing that northern Democrats would take Lincoln before they voted for any candidate that the southern firebrands had endorsed. The Illinois senator pointed out that, while not all of Breckinridge's followers were secessionists, every secessionist was supporting him. But Breckinridge also counted on the support of the last three Democratic presidential candidates, Lewis Cass, Franklin Pierce, and James Buchanan, as well as most of the northern Democratic senators and representatives. Despite these endorsements and the financial levies that the Buchanan administration made on all Democratic o f f i c e h o l d e r s f o r h i m , B r e c k i n r i d g e f a i l e d t o c a r r y a n y n o r t h e r n s t a t e s . I n t h e f o u r - w a y r a c e , h e p l a c e d t h i r d i n t h e popular vote and second in electoral votes. Most disappointingly, he lost Kentucky to Bell. 1 7

A Personal Secession

Following the election, Breckinridge returned to Washington to preside over the Senate, hoping to persuade southerners to abandon secession. But in December, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida left the Union. In January, Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis and other southerners bid a formal farewell to the Senate. In February, Vice President Breckinridge led a procession of senators to the House chamber to count the electoral votes, and to announce the election of Abraham Lincoln of Illinois. On March 4, Breckinridge administered the oath of office to his successor, Hannibal Hamlin, who in turn swore him into the Senate. When President Lincoln called Congress into special session on July 4, 1861, to raise the arms and men necessary to fight the Civil War, Breckinridge returned to Washington as the leader of what was left of the Senate Democrats. Many in Washington doubted that he planned to offer much support to the Union or the war effort. Breckinridge seemed out of place in the wartime capital, after so many of his southern friends had left. On several occasions, however, he visited his

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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