John C Breckinridge became the country’s youngest vice president in 1857. He ended up on the Democratic ticket in shotgun fashion to unite the party. President James Buchanan resented the choice and did not consult his vice president on policy matters. Breckinridge turned out to be a creature of moderation while in office, but eventually took up arms against the United States in the Civil War.
Breckinridge came from a blue blooded Kentucky political family. His connections and family history led to a rapid rise in politics. He joined the House of Representatives at age 30 in 1851. Redistricting ended his House career in 1854, but not before nearly engaging in a duel with Democratic Congressman Francis Cutting of New York over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Breckinridge supported the act hoping it would end the slavery controversy forever.
The former congressman engaged in land speculation for a year before returning as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1856. President Pierce jockeyed for reelection while Stephen Douglas and James Buchanan hoped to wrest the nomination away from the incumbent. Breckinridge initially supported the president, but Pierce’s abysmal record precluded the nomination. Next, the Kentuckian threw his support to Douglas, but that bid failed as well. Then, Douglas endorsed Buchanan for party unity and Breckinridge fell into line. In response, the convention nominated Breckinridge for vice president to appease Douglas and create regional balance on the ticket with the northerner Buchanan.
The 36-year-old nominee threw himself into the election. At the time, candidates did not openly campaign, but Breckinridge eschewed tradition and campaigned energetically. He defended the Kansas-Nebraska Act in stump speeches throughout Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. He claimed to support slaveholders’ constitutional property rights, but not necessarily slavery as an institution. Southern extremists worried that Breckinridge was a closet abolitionist. Perhaps to alleviate those concerns, Breckinridge attacked the Republicans for their alleged abolitionist policies. In the end, the Buchanan-Breckinridge ticket won the 1856 election. The Democrats captured Kentucky for the first time since 1828.
President Buchanan held grudges and proved a petty and vindictive man. He resented Breckinridge for his support of Pierce and Douglas at the convention. As a result, relations between the two strained quickly. Buchanan moved to relax the tension by inviting the vice president to his office. The president, through intermediaries, instructed the Kentuckian to come to the White House and see the hostess, Harriet Lane. This insulted Breckinridge, but it was how Buchanan set up his appointments. People asked to see Lane and then met with Buchanan. There was no way for the vice president to know this at the time and the pair did not meet in private for years.
The president apologized for the slight, but refused to take Breckinridge into his confidence. Buchanan failed to consult with his vice president over patronage, the pair rarely met, and the controversy over the Lecompton Constitution further strained relations. In Kansas, voters went to the polls to choose between legalizing slavery or banning it in the territory. Vote fraud led to the proslavery Lecompton Constitution. The fraud angered Senator Stephen Douglas because it made a mockery of his popular sovereignty policy. Buchanan supported Lecompton while Douglas opposed it. Breckinridge attempted to steer a middle course, but sided with the president in the end. This ruptured his friendship with Douglas, but also further alienated Buchanan.
By 1859, the country seemed to be holding on by a thread. Slavery was ripping the nation apart. A border war raged in Kansas, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten to a pulp on the Senate floor by a proslavery congressman, and the nation appeared on the brink of war. Breckinridge presided over the U.S. Senate impartially and fairly over this time. He delivered an address when the body met for the final time in the old chamber. On that occasion, he called for unity, recalled the Constitution’s ability to survive various crises, and invoked the efforts of Henry Clay, John C. Calhoun, and Daniel Webster to create a nation.
Breckinridge’s appeals fell on deaf ears. Buchanan was not renominated for president. The Democrats nominated Douglas, but the southern delegates revolted. They left the convention and nominated Vice President Breckinridge as their candidate. The Democrats fielded two candidates against Republican Abraham Lincoln. Meanwhile, the former Whig Party nominated John Bell. As a result, the North and South held competing presidential elections. Lincoln and Douglas squared off in the North while Bell and Breckinridge battled in the South. In fact, Lincoln did not even appear on southern ballots. In the end, Lincoln won against the splintered Democrats. Southern states began to secede.
The vice president returned to Washington after his defeat. He tried in vain to convince his southern friends to return to the Union. President Buchanan felt he could do nothing to stop the South from leaving the nation. During his final months in office, Breckinridge visited his cousin, Mary Todd Lincoln, and supported the aborted Crittenden Compromise. He swore in his successor, Hannibal Hamlin, and then took his seat in the U.S. Senate. Kentucky decided to elect Breckinridge despite the presidential defeat.
Senator Breckinridge continued to support slavery and tried to work a compromise to avoid war. By this time, he was practically the lone southern voice in Washington. He begged Lincoln to withdraw federal troops from the South to keep the peace and pleaded for compromise. At the same time, the former vice president opposed the expansion of martial law during the crisis. Eventually, he returned to Kentucky to try and keep the state neutral in the coming conflict. Pro-Union forces won special elections in Kentucky isolating Breckinridge. Back in Washington, Breckinridge opposed a use of force resolution against the South. By now, his friends considered him a traitor.
On August 1, 1861, he declared that he would resign from the Senate if Kentucky fought against the Confederacy. Both Federal and Confederate forces entered the state in September. The state felt it needed to fend off the “Confederate invasion” and began arresting southern sympathizers. Breckinridge fled. Eventually, he emerged a Confederate general and Secretary of War.
The Civil War might have stopped John C. Breckinridge from becoming president. The Kentucky native became the country’s youngest vice president in 1857. He preached compromise in his term, but did not have the ear of a jealous president. In the end, the war forced his hand and he joined the Southern effort. Only President Johnson’s general amnesty allowed his return to America.