m. 10 Jul 1758
m. 28 Jun 1785
Facts and Events
John Breckinridge (December 2, 1760 – December 14, 1806) was a lawyer and politician from the U.S. state of Virginia. He served in the state legislatures of Virginia and Kentucky before being elected to the U.S. Senate and appointed United States Attorney General during the second term of President Thomas Jefferson. He is the progenitor of Kentucky's Breckinridge political family and the namesake of Breckinridge County, Kentucky.
Breckinridge's father was a local politician, and his mother was a member of the Preston political family. Breckinridge attended the William and Mary College intermittently between 1780 and 1784; his attendance was interrupted by the Revolutionary War and his election to the Virginia House of Delegates. One of the youngest members of that body, his political activities acquainted him with many prominent politicians. In 1785, he married "Polly" Cabell, a member of the Cabell political family. Despite making a comfortable living through a combination of legal and agricultural endeavors, letters from relatives in Kentucky convinced him to move to the western frontier. He established "Cabell's Dale", his plantation, near Lexington, Kentucky, in 1793.
Breckinridge was appointed as the state's attorney general soon after arriving. In November 1797, he resigned and was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives the next month. As a legislator, he secured passage of a more humane criminal code that abolished the death penalty for all offenses except first-degree murder. On a 1798 trip to Virginia, an intermediary gave him Thomas Jefferson's Kentucky Resolutions, which denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts. At Jefferson's request, Breckinridge assumed credit for the modified resolutions he shepherded through the Kentucky General Assembly; Jefferson's authorship was not discovered until after Breckinridge's death. He opposed calling a state constitutional convention in 1799 but was elected as a delegate. Due to his influence, the state's government remained comparatively aristocratic, maintaining protections for slavery and limiting the power of the electorate. Called the father of the resultant constitution, he emerged from the convention as the acknowledged leader of the state's Democratic-Republican Party and was selected Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1799 and 1800.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1800, Breckinridge functioned as Jefferson's floor leader, guiding administration bills through the chamber that was narrowly controlled by his party. Residents of the western frontier called for his nomination as vice president in 1804, but Jefferson appointed him as U.S. Attorney General in 1805 instead. He was the first cabinet-level official from the West but had little impact before his death from tuberculosis on December 14, 1806.