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John C. Breckinridge's Road to Disunion

John C. Breckinridge's Road to Disunion
AI visualization of U.S. troops inspecting a warehouse filled with Confederate war archives. One of John C. Breckinridge's last acts as Confederate secretary of war was to order the archives turned over to the Federals.

John C. Breckinridge holds the distinction of having served both as U.S. vice-president – the youngest ever to hold the office – and as the only American cabinet minister to lead troops in battle, during his waning days as Confederate secretary of war. And unlike such prominent Confederates as Jefferson Davis, Alexander H. Stephens, and Robert E. Lee, Breckinridge did not follow his state into disunion. Kentucky never seceded.

Historian William C. Davis explains how Breckinridge, a well-liked politician with a distinguished family history who loved the Union and was friends with William H. Seward, came inexorably to be identified with secessionists:

In many areas of politics, Breckinridge was in step with the mainstream of American thought in the years before the Civil War. Like most members of his family, he personally felt a moral antipathy toward slavery. He, too, looked to the West for the future growth of the Union, avidly supporting the idea of a transcontinental railroad. In matters of commerce and industry and expansion, he was even progressive for his time. But when it came to the Constitution and the nature of the Union, his concepts came to him almost undiluted from his grandfather John Breckinridge. The Kentucky Resolves of 1798 and 1799 — and John Breckinridge’s alleged authorship — were ancestral doctrine. His grandsire’s construction of the states' rights aspect of the national compact may have been appropriate in Jefferson's time, but it was out of step with the America of 1860. John C. Breckinridge could not see that, and could not adapt.
He was “singularly reticent and cautious in matters of import,” said Breckinridge’s friend William Preston Johnston. General William Preston would add to this that “In the character of Breckinridge there was a great reverence for authority. There was nothing turbulent, discontented, or rebellious in the man.” With this in mind, the assessment of Breckinridge’s closest lifelong friend, his law partner James B. Beck, becomes all the more meaningful. “He was jealous of the rights of the States and the people,” said Beck. “He was deeply read in the political history of the world. The Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the struggles for English liberty were with him household words. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and of the States were to him sacred.”
Clearly, to Breckinridge the Constitution was the ultimate authority. To tamper with its literal statement of intent would be “rebellion.” As a result, in the matter of slavery, for instance, however much he personally might deplore the institution, he would re every attempt at federal legislation against it. The Constitution recognized slaves as property. Therefore, any federal attempt at emancipation or restriction of the movement of slaves was unconstitutional because that sacred document did not dis- tinguish between property in Negro bondsmen and any other form of property. Only the states individually could do that.
Setting this element of Breckinridge’s makeup against the backdrop of the 1850s, his political decline and eventual fall are inevitable. From the moment he first appeared on the national scene in 1851, he was naturally allied with southern Democrats and the more conservative northern elements of the party. Three years later his role in the Kansas-Nebraska controversy and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise identified him more closely in northern public opinion with the proslave interests. Breckinridge always opposed the Missouri Compromise. “I never would have voted for the Territorial organization of Kansas and Nebraska while that odious stigma remained on the statute book,” he later declared. As a result, he became the prime mover in getting an explicit repeal incorporated in the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and in persuading President [Franklin] Pierce to make it an administration measure. “I had more to do than any other man here, in putting it in its present shape,” he told his uncle Robert. If the Union could not abide by this bill, he believed, then “it cannot last under any form of settlement.” His later support of the Dred Scott decision and of Buchanan's administration-backed Lecompton Constitution for Kansas tended further to position him with the southern extremists.
Indeed, however auspiciously it may have begun, Breckinridge’s entire vice-presidential term was unfortunate for him. Buchanan, arguably the most small-minded and inept man ever to hold his office, felt jealous and resentful of his popular young vice-president from the first. When Breckinridge asked for an audience with the president soon after their inauguration, Buchanan declined and suggested that he go see his niece Harriet Lanc instead. In the entire course of their four-year administration, Breckinridge had only one private meeting with the presi- dent, and that came just four months before they left office. In November 1860, Lincoln had been elected president. South Carolina had called a secession convention. Other southern states would surely follow. With the nation on the edge of disaster, Buchanan finally had called on Breckinridge for his counsel to preserve the Union, or so it seemed. The vice-president was ushered into Buchanan’s office with great solemnity. The president ordered that they not be disturbed, took a key from his pocket and carefully unlocked a drawer in his desk. He drew out a manuscript, then said to Breckinridge with great gravity, “I have sent for you for the purpose of consulting with you, as the second officer in the government, upon the expediency, in the present lamentable condition of the country, of issuing a Proclamation appointing a day of Humiliation & Prayer. What would you advise?” In four years in office, the only matter Buchanan deemed important enough to consult with his vice-president on was whether or not to declare a holiday! It is no wonder there was a civil war.
As a result, by 1860, even though Breckinridge never ceased to think of himself as first and foremost a Union man, public opinion saw him as, at best, a sectional statesman and, at worst, an ally of the secessionists. That year's presidential election completed his downfall.

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