Historical Marker #741 in Lexington notes the political and military career of John Cabell Breckinridge, who at age thirty-six was the youngest vice president in U.S. history.
John C. Breckinridge’s promising future started at an early age. He was born in a noted Kentucky family, and although his father passed away when he was only an infant, he was afforded an excellent education. Breckinridge graduated from Centre College in 1838, and later studied at what is now Princeton. In 1841 he graduated with a law degree from Transylvania University.
Breckinridge first practiced law in Burlington, Iowa, but soon returned to Kentucky, married, and settled in Georgetown. When the Mexican-American War broke out in 1846, Breckinridge as a Democrat supported the conflict. He made good on his support by enlisting the following year. Breckinridge was made major of the Third Kentucky Infantry Regiment.
Upon returning home, Breckinridge ran and was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives. In 1851, he was elected to the U.S. House, serving the Eighth Congressional district. Breckinridge won another term in 1853, but chose not to run again in 1855. Breckinridge was not out of politics for long, however. In 1856, he was nominated by the Democratic Party to run as the vice presidential candidate for presidential hopeful James Buchanan from Pennsylvania.
During the historic 1860 presidential election, Breckinridge ran as the split Democratic Party’s southern candidate against Republican Abraham Lincoln, Constitutional Unionist John Bell, and the other Democratic Party candidate Stephen A. Douglas. Although Breckinridge lost the election, he was selected as U.S. Senator in 1861.
Breckinridge left his senate seat in September 1861 to join the Confederate cause and was soon made a brigadier general. He participated in several western theater battles including Shiloh, Baton Rouge, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, and Chattanooga. A transfer to the eastern theater brought him a significant victory at New Market Virginia in May 1864.
With the Confederacy in its last days, Breckinridge was named its Secretary of War in February 1865. Defeat prompted him to flee the United States for several years. In 1868, however, Breckinridge received amnesty and returned to the Bluegrass State. Although he never held political office again, Breckinridge did voice his contempt of extra-legal violence during Reconstruction. He died in 1875 and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.