1821 - 1875
John Cabell Breckinridge, (1821-1875), brek'in-rij, Southern public official, who was VICE PRESIDENT of the United States (1857-1861) before giving his allegiance to the Confederacy. Born near Lexington, Ky., on Jan. 15, 1821, he was educated at Centre College and Transylvania University and became a lawyer. After service in the Mexican War and in the Kentucky legislature, he was elected to CONGRESS in 1851. A Democrat from a previously Whig district, he was catapulated into leadership of his party in Kentucky. Five years later he leaped into national prominence as James BUCHANAN's vice-presidential running mate. While still vice president, he was elected to the U.S. SENATE in 1859, effective on his retirement.
Extremely cautious, Breckinridge avoided sectional controversy, but he held that slavery could not constitutionally be excluded from a territory. As a result, the Southern faction of the DEMOCRATIC PARTY nominated him for president in 1860. He never advocated secession, but, of the four candidates, he best represented the views of the deep South. He received 854,248 popular votes, 18.2% of the total, and carried 11 states with 72 ELECTORAL votes.
Before the inauguration of the new REPUBLICAN administration, Breckinridge sought constitutional guarantees for slavery in order to forestall secession. When his efforts failed, he encouraged his own state to join the Confederacy, and when Kentucky instead ordered the removal of Confederate troops, he helped organize a rival government loyal to the Confederacy and accepted a Confederate commission as brigadier general. These actions resulted in his expulsion as a traitor from the U.S. Senate.
During the War for Southern Independence he rose to the rank of major general, and in February 1865, Confederate President Jefferson Davis made him secretary of war in his cabinet. Breckinridge fled to Europe after the South surrendered, returning by permission of President GRANT in 1869. Resuming his law practice, he engaged in railroad promotions. He died in Lexington on May 17, 1875.