John Breckinridge

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John Breckinridge
Fifth United States Attorney General
In office
August 5, 1805—December 14, 1806
Preceded by Levi Lincoln, Sr.
Succeeded by Caesar A. Rodney
United States Senator from Kentucky
In office
March 4, 1801—August 7, 1805
Preceded by Humphrey Marshall
Succeeded by John Adair
Member of the Virginia House of Delegates
In office
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Personal details
Born December 2, 1760
  Augusta County, Virginia
Died December 14, 1806
  Fayette County, Kentucky
Resting place Lexington Cemetary
Alma mater William & Mary
Profession Lawyer
Spouse(s) Mary Hopkins Cabell
Known for
Signature [[File:{{{signature}}}|left|200px]]

John Breckinridge (1760 – 1806) was born in Virginia, the second son of Robert Breckinridge and Lettice (Preston) Breckinridge.[1] His father was a well-respected community leader with a strong sense of social responsibility, which may have had an impact on young Breckinridge.[2] When his father died, Breckinridge had to provide for his family from the age of twelve because his two oldest half-brothers (by his father's first wife) had left home, and his oldest brother was unreliable.[3] The experiences of being overseer and salesman for the farm, as well as writing and recording in the surveyor's office, gave Breckinridge valuable knowledge which would help him later in his legal career.[4]

John Breckenridge entered William & Mary in late 1780 or early 1781, during which time he studied under George Wythe.[5] In 1780, Breckinridge was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, which forced a halt to his formal education. However, Wythe promised to aid him in his continued studies as much as possible.[6] Breckinridge was not seated in the House until he was elected a third time in 1781, due to his young age.[7] At John's urging, his younger brother James, also studied law under Wythe.[8]

An accomplished politician, Breckinridge followed James Madison's lead on issues such as a stable federal government and freedom of religion. In 1785, he married Mary Hopkins "Polly" Cabell, with whom he had nine children. When his Virginia legal practice was not as profitable as anticipated, Breckinridge bought 1,600 acres of land near Lexington, Kentucky, which was prepared by tenants and slaves for his family's move there in 1793.[9] Though elected to represent Virginia in the national House of Representatives in 1792, he never served due to his Kentucky move.[10]

Breckinridge became a leading Jeffersonian Republican as political parties developed in the United States, and served as attorney general of Kentucky from 1793 to 1797.[11] In 1797, he was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives, and possibly had a vital role in the passage of the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798 and 1799.[12] These resolutions "asserted a state's right to pass on the constitutionality of federal actions."[13] Breckinridge was passionate about reforming the "barbarous penal code," and succeeded in 1798 by abolishing the death penalty for all crimes but first-degree murder.[14] He was elected U.S. senator in 1800 and quickly became a floor leader, pushing through many administrative measures and blocking Federalist efforts.[15] In 1805, President Jefferson offered Breckinridge the position of U.S. Attorney General, a position of little esteem at the time, with not even a clerk. The first Western cabinet member, the Republican majority in the Senate suffered without Breckinridge's aid. Breckinridge died in 1806 of either a stomach illness or tuberculosis.[16]

See also


  1. Lowell H. Harrison, "A Young Virginian: John Breckinridge," The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography 71, no. 1 (Jan. 1963): 20.
  2. Ibid., 20-21.
  3. Ibid., 21.
  4. Ibid.
  5. E. Lee Shephard, "Breckinridge, John", American National Biography Online, accessed April 14, 2014.
  6. Lowell H. Harrison, "A Young Virginian: John Breckinridge," 22.
  7. E. Lee Shephard, "Breckinridge, John."]
  8. Philander D. Chase, "Breckinridge, James", American National Biography Online, accessed November 18, 2014.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Lowell H. Harrison, "A Young Virginian: John Breckinridge," 32.
  11. E. Lee Shephard, "Breckinridge, John."
  12. Lowell H. Harrison, "John Breckinridge: Western Statesman," The Journal of Southern History 18, no. 2 (May 1952): 140.
  13. E. Lee Shephard, "Breckinridge, John."
  14. Lowell H. Harrison, "John Breckinridge: Western Statesman," 140.
  15. E. Lee Shephard, "Breckinridge, John."
  16. Ibid.