1821–75, Vice President of the United States (1857–61) and Confederate general, b. Lexington, Ky. A lawyer, Breckinridge served in the Kentucky legislature (1849–51) and in the House of Representatives (1851–55). He was chosen by the Democrats in 1856 as a Southern running mate for Buchanan. As Vice President in a difficult period, he distinguished himself by dignified and impartial presiding over the Senate. When a division within the Democratic ranks occurred in 1860, he became the presidential candidate of the Southern faction. Breckinridge claimed that no power existed in the federal or local government to restrict slavery in any area while it was in territorial status. Believing in secession as a right, he nevertheless disapproved of such a course at that time. He received 72 electoral votes in the November election. During the remainder of his term as Vice President, he attempted to secure the adoption of some compromise. As Senator (elected 1859) in the special session that began in July, 1861, he consistently opposed the administration's war measures. He failed in efforts to have Kentucky call a convention to act on secession. When the state declared for the Union in Sept., 1861, Breckinridge offered his services to the Confederacy. Appointed brigadier general in Oct., 1861, he served with distinction throughout the war, mostly in the West. On Feb. 4, 1865, he was made secretary of war for the Confederacy. When the South surrendered, Breckinridge fled to Europe via Cuba but was permitted to return (1869) by an amnesty proclamation issued in 1868.
- See biographies by L. Stillwell (1936) and W. C. Davis (1974, repr. 1992).