John Breckinridge (December 2, 1760 – December 14, 1806) was a lawyer and politician from the U.S. state of Virginia.
He served in the state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky before being elected to the U.S. Senate and appointed United States Attorney General during the second term of President Thomas Jefferson. He is the progenitor of Kentucky’s Breckinridge political family and the namesake of Breckinridge County, Kentucky.
Breckinridge’s father was a local politician, and his mother was a member of the Preston political family. Breckinridge attended the William and Mary College intermittently between 1780 and 1784; his attendance was interrupted by the Revolutionary War and his election to the Virginia House of Delegates. One of the youngest members of that body, his political activities acquainted him with many prominent politicians.
In 1785, he married “Polly” Cabell, a member of the Cabell political family. Despite making a comfortable living through a combination of legal and agricultural endeavors, letters from relatives in Kentucky convinced him to move to the western frontier. He established “Cabell’s Dale”, his plantation, near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1793.
Breckinridge was appointed as the state’s attorney general soon after arriving. In November 1797, he resigned and was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives the next month. As a legislator, he secured passage of a more humane criminal code that abolished the death penalty for all offenses except first-degree murder. On a 1798 trip to Virginia, an intermediary gave him Thomas Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions, which denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts.
At Jefferson’s request, Breckinridge assumed credit for the modified resolutions he shepherded through the Kentucky General Assembly; Jefferson’s authorship was not discovered until after Breckinridge’s death. He opposed calling a state constitutional convention in 1799 but was elected as a delegate.
Due to his influence, the state’s government remained comparatively aristocratic, maintaining protections for slavery and limiting the power of the electorate. Called the father of the resultant constitution, he emerged from the convention as the acknowledged leader of the state’s Democratic-Republican Party and was selected Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1799 and 1800.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1800, Breckinridge functioned as Jefferson’s floor leader, guiding administration bills through the chamber that was narrowly controlled by his party. Residents of the western frontier called for his nomination as vice president in 1804, but Jefferson appointed him as U.S. Attorney General in 1805 instead. He was the first cabinet-level official from the West but had little impact before his death from tuberculosis on December 14, 1806.
John Breckinridge’s grandfather, Alexander Breckenridge, immigrated from Ireland to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, around 1728. In 1740, the family moved to Augusta County, Virginia, near the city of Staunton. John Breckinridge was born there on December 2, 1760, the second of six children of Robert Breckenridge and his second wife, Lettice (Preston) Breckenridge.
His mother was the daughter of John Preston of Virginia’s Preston political family. Robert Breckinridge had two children by a previous marriage, and it was through one of these half-brothers that John Breckinridge was uncle to future Congressman James D. Breckinridge. A veteran of the French and Indian War, Robert Breckinridge served first as Augusta County’s under-sheriff, then sheriff, then justice of the peace.
Soon after John Breckinridge’s birth, the family moved to Botetourt County where Robert Breckinridge became a constable and justice of the peace, as well as serving in the local militia. He died in 1773, leaving 12-year-old John 300 acres (1.2 km2) of land, one slave, and half-ownership of another slave.
According to his biographer, Lowell H. Harrison, Breckinridge may have attended school, including Augusta Academy (now Washington and Lee University), but any records containing this information have been lost. After his father’s death, the younger Breckinridge helped support the family by selling whiskey, brandy, and hemp. He learned surveying from his uncle, William Preston, and between 1774 and 1779, he was employed as a recorder in the land office of Fincastle.
Preston sought opportunities for his nephew to attend private schools alongside his sons, but such schools were prone to intermittent operation, and Breckinridge’s other responsibilities interfered with his attendance. Preston also nominated Breckinridge as deputy surveyor of Montgomery County, a position he accepted after passing the requisite exam on February 1, 1780.
Later that year, he joined his cousin, future Kentucky Senator John Brown, at William and Mary College (now College of William & Mary). The instructors who influenced him most were Reverend James Madison and George Wythe.
The Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close in 1781, as its buildings were used as barracks for British, French, and American troops as each nation successively controlled the college and surrounding area.
Although William C. Davis records that Breckinridge had previously served as an ensign in the Botetourt County militia, Harrison notes that the most reliable records of Virginians’ military service do not indicate his participation in the Revolutionary War, but less reliable sources mention him as a subaltern in the Virginia militia. If he enlisted, Harrison speculates that he served in one or two short 1780 militia campaigns supporting Nathanael Greene’s army in southwest Virginia.
On June 28, 1785, Breckinridge married Mary Hopkins (“Polly”) Cabell, daughter of Joseph Cabell, a member of the Cabell political family. As a dowry, he received a 400-acre (1.6-km2) plantation in Albemarle County dubbed “The Glebe”. Nine children were born to the John and Polly Breckinridge – Letitia Preston (b. 1786), Joseph “Cabell” (b. 1787), Mary Hopkins (b. 1790), Robert (b. 1793), Mary Ann (b. 1795), John (b. 1797), Robert Jefferson (b. 1800), William Lewis (b. 1803), and James Monroe (b. 1806).
Polly, Cabell, and Letitia all fell ill but survived a smallpox epidemic in 1793; however, Mary Hopkins and Robert died. Cabell would later serve as Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives and Kentucky’s Secretary of State. He was the father of U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge. The younger John Breckinridge attended Princeton Theological Seminary, served as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was president of Oglethorpe College (now Oglethorpe University) in Georgia.
Robert Jefferson was appointed superintendent of public instruction under Governor William Owsley and became known as the father of Kentucky’s public education system. William Lewis became a prominent Presbyterian minister, serving as moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1859 and later as president of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and Oakland College in Yale, Mississippi.
In 1804, Letitia married Alfred W. Grayson, son of Virginia Senator William Grayson. Alfred Grayson died in 1808, and in 1816, Letitia married Peter Buell Porter, who would later serve as Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams.
The Glebe’s profits were barely enough for Breckinridge’s growing family. His legal career provided enough money for some comforts but required long hours and difficult work.
Patrick Henry regularly represented clients opposite Breckinridge, and John Marshall both referred clients to him and asked him to represent his own clients in his absence. Though still interested in politics, Breckinridge refused to campaign for the people’s support.
He believed changes were needed to the Articles of Confederation and agreed with much of the proposed U.S. constitution, but he did not support equal representation of the states in the Senate nor the federal judiciary. Heeding the advice of his brother James and his friend, Archibald Stuart, he did not seek election as a delegate to Virginia’s ratification convention.
Breckinridge returned to Cabell’s Dale in early 1806 and fell ill in June. In July, he visited Kentucky’s Olympian Springs, hoping it would aid his recovery, but it did not. Doctors disagreed on the cause of his illness, with diagnoses ranging from typhus fever to stomach ailments.
He attempted to return to Washington, D.C., on October 22, but while his horse was being prepared for the journey, he collapsed in pain and had to be helped back inside. Friends and relatives hoped for a recovery that never came, and he died on December 14, 1806.
The cause of death was eventually determined to be tuberculosis. According to family tradition, Polly Breckinridge was so distraught over her husband’s death that she went blind from her incessant crying. Breckinridge was first buried at Cabell’s Dale on December 16 but was later reinterred in Lexington Cemetery.
At the time of his death, Breckinridge owned over 20,000 acres (81 km2) of land, and his net worth was estimated at more than $20,000. With a workforce of nearly 70 slaves, he was one of the largest slaveholders in the state. The breeding of horses and mules at Cabell’s Dale had become more profitable than selling the excess crops raised there.
His daughter, Mary Ann, and her husband, David Castleman, inherited the horse and mule breeding operations, which eventually became the thoroughbred stable of Castleton Lyons. Breckinridge County, Kentucky, created from a portion of Hardin County in 1799, was named in Breckinridge’s honor.