John Breckinridge

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John Breckinridge (Dec. 2, 1760 - Dec. 14, 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 early age of 12 due to his two oldest half-brothers (by his father’s first wife) having left home and his oldest brother being unreliable.[3] However, the experiences of being overseer and salesman for the farm, as well as writing and recording in the surveyor’s office, gave him valuable knowledge which would help him later in his legal career.[4]

John Breckenridge entered William and Mary in late 1780 or early 1781, but attended irregularly for a combined two years by 1784 under the tutelage of George Wythe.[5] During the Revolution, Breckinridge was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1781 which forced his formal education to be halted, though Wythe promised to aid him in his continued studies as much as possible.[6] He was not seated in the House until he was elected a third time, due to his young age.[7]

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.[8] Though elected to the national House of Representatives in 1792, he never served due to his Kentucky move.[9] Breckinridge became a leading Jeffersonian Republican as political parties developed in the United States, and became attorney general of Kentucky from 1793 to 1797.[10] 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.[11] These resolutions “asserted a state’s right to pass on the constitutionality of federal actions.”[12] 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.[13] The statesman was elected U.S. senator in 1800 and quickly became a floor leader pushing through many administrative measures and blocking Federalist efforts.[14] 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. He did not substantially contribute to the office, but was unique as the first Western cabinet member, though the Republican majority in the Senate suffered without his aid. Breckinridge died in 1806 of either a stomach illness or tuberculosis.[15]


  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, Feb. 2000, accessed April 14, 2014.
  6. Lowell H. Harrison, “A Young Virginian: John Breckinridge,” 22.
  7. E. Lee Shephard, “Breckinridge, John”
  8. Ibid.
  9. Lowell H. Harrison, “A Young Virginian: John Breckinridge,” 32.
  10. E. Lee Shephard, “Breckinridge, John”
  11. Lowell H. Harrison, “John Breckinridge: Western Statesman,” The Journal of Southern History 18, no. 2 (May 1952): 140.
  12. E. Lee Shephard, “Breckinridge, John”
  13. Lowell H. Harrison, “John Breckinridge: Western Statesman,” 140.
  14. E. Lee Shephard, “Breckinridge, John”
  15. Ibid.