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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 142

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This is the grave of John C. Breckinridge

The traitor Breckinridge was born in 1821 on his slaveholding family’s plantation. His grandfather was Attorney General under Thomas Jefferson and although his father died when he was very young and like many elites of his time was encumbered in debt, young Breckinridge remained among the Kentucky elite. He went to Centre College, spent a year at Princeton, and then received a law degree from Transylvania University in Lexington, where he set up his law practice. He spent a little time in Iowa and then moved back to Georgetown, Kentucky in 1843, starting a practice. He came back to Lexington full time in 1845.

Of course, for a man of Breckinridge’s class, the law was a way to move into politics. The other thing a young ambitious southern elite needed was military experience if the opportunity arose. And it would in 1846, when the U.S. decided to steal the northern half of Mexico to expand slavery. Breckinridge immediately volunteered but had trouble securing a position equal to his social position. Finally, he was named major in the Third Kentucky Infantry. His only real action was serving on Gideon Pillow’s legal team when that general got caught taking credit for Winfield Scott’s victories in order to bolster his own presidential ambitions and hurt Scott’s.

It wasn’t such a great military career, but it was enough for Kentucky politics. Although Breckinridge had uncles who were abolitionists, he embraced his role as a slaveholder. By 1849, he owned five slaves and came out against any government restriction on slavery. He was elected to the Kentucky House that year and quickly became the leader of the Democratic minority there, although the Whigs still held power in the statehouse. In 1851, he was in Congress, where he immediately became an important player. He became a major supporter of Stephen Douglas’ “popular sovereignty” stance, working closely with Douglas and Franklin Pierce to win its passage. As was all too common at the time, he nearly fought a duel with New York’s Francis Cutting, but it was stopped in time. The Whigs in Kentucky gerrymandered Breckinridge out of office for the 1854 elections and he returned to Kentucky rather than run a losing campaign.

Breckinridge was a supporter of Franklin Pierce’s nomination for another term as president in 1856 and when that didn’t happen, he supported Douglas. When James Buchanan won the nomination instead, Breckinridge became the VP candidate as a sop to the other faction. He was never close to Buchanan but moved hard toward his pro-slavery position as the 1850s went on. Seeing his future as a leader of the fireeating pro-slavery faction instead of the more moderate Douglas faction, he split from his former friend and endorsed a federal slave code that would in effect make the protection of slaves the law of the land. When Southern Democrats walked out of the 1860 convention because Douglas was going to win the nomination, they nominated Breckinridge to be their standard bearer. By this time, he had become a full-fledged fire-eater, unlike that sellout Stephen Douglas. Despite the compromise candidate John Bell pushing the “let’s save the union by giving the South everything they want” line, Breckinridge nearly swept the South that fall, although he only received 18% of the national popular vote, behind not only Lincoln but also Douglas. He openly supported the idea of secession, even if he didn’t necessarily believe Kentucky should go down this road. Of course, Lincoln became president and the Civil War was on.

Kentucky sent Breckinridge back to the Senate in 1861, even as he supported the Confederacy. But as Kentucky became more solidly for the union later in 1861, the Kentucky populace began openly calling Breckinridge a traitor for his actions. He didn’t help his position by engaging in full-throated condemnations of Lincoln as a dictator and the normal overheated rhetoric of Democrats at that time. Unionists in Kentucky started arresting leading Kentucky traitors by the summer of 1861 and Breckinridge fled to the Confederacy, where he belonged anyway. In October 1861, he wrote a bitter letter to the people of Kentucky that declared the Union no longer existed and Kentucky should go its own course, preferably with the treasonous slaveholders of the South. On December 2, 1861, the Senate officially declared Breckinridge a traitor and expelled him from the body. That vote was 36-0.

Breckinridge now joined the Confederate military as a brigadier general, largely because he was politically important to the traitors. He commanded troops at Shiloh and was promoted to major general after the battle. Because of the incestuous nature of the Southern elite, Breckinridge had blood relations with Joseph Johnston, Wade Hampton, John Floyd, and other leading Confederate commanders, all of which helped him rise in the Confederate military and which caused resentment from other, less elite, officers. That was the nature of the Confederacy though–a nation of elite anti-democratic aristocrats who not only wanted to keep African-Americans as property to rape and kill at will, but who also rejected democracy explicitly and wanted a romanticized ancient Roman version of government based on their rural estates, even while exporting as much cotton as possible into the capitalist factories where they also held investments. He continued to serve as a general in many of the major battles of the Civil War until January 1865, when he was named as the new Confederate Secretary of State. By this time, he felt his beloved traitorous state was destined to lose and he wanted to work on terms of surrender. After Appomattox, he helped convince Jefferson Davis that the war was over. Unwilling to face the consequences of his grotesque treason, Breckinridge fled first to Cuba and then to Britain and finally to Toronto. From 1866 to 1868, he and his family toured Europe, hardly a just fate for an architect of treason. When the loathsome white supremacist Andrew Johnson issued a full pardon for all the ex-Confederates in late 1868, Breckinridge returned to the U.S. He ended up working for the railroads and staying out of politics until his death in 1875 at the age of 54 from liver problems that partisans claim was from injuries received during the war, but was really about the liquor, for which Breckinridge had a noted love.

The traitor Breckinridge is buried in Lexington Cemetery, Lexington, Kentucky. When I arrived at the grave, there were Confederate flags around it and somehow, someway, before I took the picture they ended up in a nearby trash can. Who can say why.

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