Born at "Cabell's Dale," the Breckinridge family estate near Lexington, Kentucky, on January 16, 1821, John Cabell Breckinridge was named for his father and grandfather. The father, Joseph Cabell Breckinridge, a rising young politician, died at the state capital at the age of thirty-five. Left without resources, his wife took her children back to Cabell's Dale to live with their grandmother, known affectionately as "Grandma Black Cap." She often regaled the children with stories of their grandfather, the first John Breckinridge, who, in addition to introducing the Kentucky Resolutions that denounced the Alien and Sedition Acts, had helped secure the Louisiana Purchase and had served during the administration of Thomas Jefferson first as a Senate leader and then as attorney general.
The grandfather might well have become president one day but, like his son, he died prematurely. The sense of family mission that his grandmother imparted shaped young John C. Breckinridge's self-image and directed him towards a life in public office. The family also believed strongly in education, since Breckinridge's maternal grandfather, Samuel Stanhope Smith, had served as president of the College of New Jersey at Princeton, and his uncle Robert J. Breckinridge started Kentucky's public school system. The boy attended the Presbyterian Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, where he received his bachelor's degree at seventeen. He then attended Princeton before returning to Lexington to study law at Transylvania University.
A tall, strikingly handsome young man with a genial air and a powerful voice, considered by many "a perfect gentleman," Breckinridge set out to make his fortune on the frontier. In 1841 he and his law partner Thomas W. Bullock settled in the Mississippi River town of Burlingame, in the Iowa Territory. There he might have entered politics and pursued a career relatively free from the divisive issue of slavery, but Iowa's fierce winter gave him influenza and made him homesick for Kentucky. When he returned home on a visit in 1843, he met and soon married Mary Cyrene Burch of Georgetown. The newlyweds settled in Georgetown, and Breckinridge opened a law office in Lexington.
When the Mexican War began, Breckinridge volunteered to serve as an officer in a Kentucky infantry regiment. In Mexico, Major Breckinridge won the support of his troops for his acts of kindness, being known to give up his horse to sick and footsore soldiers. After six months in Mexico City, he returned to Kentucky and to an almost inevitable political career.
In 1849, while still only twenty-eight years old, John Cabell Breckinridge won a seat in the state house of representatives. In that election, as in all his campaigns, he demonstrated both an exceptional ability as a stump speaker and a politician's memory for names and faces. Shortly after the election, he met for the first time the Illinois legislator who had married his cousin Mary Todd. Abraham Lincoln, while visiting his wife's family in Lexington, paid courtesy calls on the city's lawyers. Lincoln and Breckinridge became friends, despite their differences in party and ideology.
Breckinridge was a Jacksonian Democrat in a state that Senator Henry Clay had made a Whig bastion. In 1851, Breckinridge shocked the Whig party by winning the congressional race in Clay's home district, a victory that also brought him to the attention of national Democratic leaders. He arrived in Congress shortly after the passage of Clay's Compromise of 1850, which had sought to settle the issue of slavery in the territories. Breckinridge became a spokesman for the proslavery Democrats, arguing that the federal government had no right to interfere with slavery anywhere, either in the District of Columbia or in any of the territories.
As the Democratic convention approached in 1856, the three leading contenders—President Pierce, Senator Douglas, and former Minister to Great Britain James Buchanan—all courted Breckinridge. He attended the convention as a delegate, voting first for Pierce and then switching to Douglas. When Douglas withdrew as a gesture toward party unity, the nomination went to Buchanan.
Voted into office as James Buchanan's Vice President at the tender age of 36, John Cabell Breckinridge is still the youngest person ever to hold the office. And before he became the only one ever forced to flee the country to escape charges of treason, Breckinridge was actually a pretty popular VP: so impressed was Kentucky's legislature that they elected him to the U.S. Senate a year and a half before his vice presidential term ended.
Although his cousin Mary Todd Lincoln resided in the White House and his home state of Kentucky remained in the Union, Breckinridge chose to volunteer his services to the Confederate army. After a failed bid for the Presidency in the tumultuous 1860 elections (eventually won by Abraham Lincoln), Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, urging the state to secede at the outbreak of the Civil War. But Kentucky stayed in the Union, prompting Breckinridge to quit the Senate and sign up for the Confederate Army. Because his state hadn't joined the Confederacy, however, his new brothers-in-arms viewed the former Senator with suspicion and immediately charged him with treason.
Towards the end of the war, John Cabell Breckinridge managed to flee to Florida, where he borrowed a small boat. Breckinridge's ill luck held: the boat was attacked by pirates, and when he managed to escape in a dinghy, a storm blew away the mast, leaving him bobbing along in the Caribbean for three weeks, eventually washing up in Cuba. (As the story goes, a Cuban band played The Star Spangled Banner and Yankee Doodle at his welcoming ceremony — song choices Breckinridge did not appreciate.) He eventually escaped to Europe, from whence he refused to return until President Andrew Johnson granted him amnesty in 1868. But it wasn't until a century later that a federal judge in Kentucky officially dismissed the treason charges against him. The town of Breckenridge, Colorado is named in his honor — although it altered the spelling of its name after the Civil War, so as not to be associated with a traitor.