Traitor or Patriot? John C. Breckinridge

By | December 4, 2018

[December 4, 2018]  The U.S. Civil War was the product of a divided nation resulting from an attempt by southern states to break from the union.  Weighing their personal beliefs, citizens had to choose which side they threw their support to; the Union or the Confederacy.  John C. Breckinridge was one of these men who would come away from the war being viewed as either a traitor or patriot; depending on your point of view.

One of the more interesting figures prior to and during the war, I’m a bit surprised no one has written a biography on him.  His life’s story is full of intrigue, danger, disaster, and fulfillment.  Only those who study John C. Breckinridge will ever get an idea of the impact this man had on the United States today.  In fact, his memory has come back to us in an unexpected way.

Born in 1821 to a prominent political and business family in Lexington, Kentucky, Breckinridge served in a non-combat role in the Mexican-American War.  He was later elected as a Democrat to the Kentucky House where he took a state’s rights position against interference with slavery.  In 1859 he was elected as the youngest Vice President of the United States. He supported the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution for Kansas, which led to a split in the Democratic Party and the election of Abraham Lincoln as President.1

Later, taking his seat in the U.S. Senate, Breckinridge urged compromise to preserve the Union but this was not to be.  When Confederate forces moved into his state of Kentucky, Breckinridge was expected to be arrested so he fled behind Confederate lines.  For this he was expelled from the U.S. Senate.

Given a position of Brigadier General with the Confederate army, he became an effective and well-liked commander of troops.  At the end of the war, instead of surrendering, Breckinridge fled to Cuba; this story itself would prove suspenseful.  Only after amnesty was granted for all former Confederate soldiers did he return to the U.S.  But when he left the country, many considered him a traitor.

To the people of his home state of Kentucky, Breckinridge was an honorable man who did much for the state.  His record prior to and during the Civil War helped his credibility and legitimacy as a man of high moral standards.  To them, he was a patriot who stood up for the all citizens, frequently compromising to avoid unnecessary violence.

In 2015, a statue erected to honor John C. Breckinridge was removed from the lawn of the Fayette County Courthouse during a shameful show of historical misrepresentation and at a time of emotional debates about slavery and discrimination in the U.S.


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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

17 thoughts on “Traitor or Patriot? John C. Breckinridge

  1. Forrest Gump

    It is, indeed, difficult to put ourselves in the position of those who had to make a choice that determined the circumstrances that it would put our families into and our future. College snowflakes today don’t have a clue and their inexperienced, inept professors encourage them to be idiots. “Stupid is as stupid does.”

  2. Scotty Bush

    Eric pointed this out below but I want to emphasize it again. Breckinridge may have been a great man with a tremendous future but he chose wrong on the issue of slavery. He may have been more swayed by his loyalty to his state of Kentucky than he should have been. I understand the issue here, as we all should, because at the time there was more loyalty to your community and state than to the country as a whole. Breckinridge should not have supported slavery. Interesting, he knew the choice was morally wrong.

    1. Martin Shiell

      From the article here is an interesting take that shows how stupid politicians are that try to straddle the fence so as to not piss off the crazies in their voting block. ” … the mayor isn’t advocating for any particular statue to be removed. Poynter said that could mean adding more context to monuments such as the Castleman statue, which has a ‘complicated history.’ “

  3. Bryan Lee

    Wow, never heard of this guy before despite him being a major figure in U.S. politics in the mid 1800s.

    1. Max Foster

      This is why the study of history is so important and doing the study from the perspective that we should not make judgments that unduly influence our understanding of events from the past.

  4. Mark Evans

    John C. Breckinridge died in 1875 at the age of 54. Too bad, this was a good man from all that I’ve read about him.

  5. Janna Faulkner

    Even though Breckinridge had lost the presidency, he was elected to the United States Senate for Kentucky. He spent 1861 trying to keep Kentucky neutral in the looming contest. All the more surprising that his statue that was torn down by moral cowards in Kentucky.

    1. Anita

      I agree that many politicians are moral cowards. What to do about it is another thing. One idea I have is to keep bringing up their stupidity for everyone to see. Sunshine is the best disinfectant for most things that make us sick as a society.

  6. Gil Johnson

    A good comment on Breckinridge from
    “The story of John C. Breckinridge is amongst the most tragic stories in American history. At one point, he was a rising star in American politics. He was elected vice-president of the United States in 1856 and was a presidential candidate in 1860. Then his world came crashing down. This disastrous collapse in his career was ultimately the result of trying to reconcile three positions that could not be reconciled: slavery, anti-secessionist leanings and hope his home state of Kentucky would remain neutral in the Civil War. In the end, he could not salvage any of these positions.”

    1. Eric Coda

      Yes, it was a tragedy but at the same time, it was an opportunity to show his morality and I think he chose incorrectly by supporting slavery.

  7. Army Captain

    Thanks for the article on a much needed subject where we need more conversation about when people are torn with their loyalties.

  8. Willie Shrumburger

    Interesting, in that I’ve never heard of him. When the stupid, clueless nutjobs started tearing down Confederate statues, the names on them had no meaning to me. This was one of them, brings that awful behavior back to all of us as a shameful time in the US.

    1. Lady Hawk

      Good point, Willie. I must say you were spot on with your comment.

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