Breckinridge, John (1760–1806)

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John Breckinridge studied law under Virginia's george wythe, then moved to Kentucky, serving as state attorney general (1795–1797), state representative (1798–1800), United States senator (1801–1805), and United States attorney general (1805–1806). During the alien and sedition act crisis Breckinridge traveled to Virginia, where he convinced thomas jefferson, through an intermediary, that the vice-president's resolutions condemning the acts should be introduced in Kentucky, and not North Carolina, Jefferson's initial choice. Breckinridge revised Jefferson's draft by deleting the term nullification, thus allowing Kentucky to condemn the acts and declare them unconstitutional without actually defying the federal government. Breckinridge then guided the resolutions through the Kentucky legislature while hiding Jefferson's authorship. In 1802 Breckinridge drafted and shepherded through the Senate an act to repeal the judiciary act of 1801—that eleventh-hour creation of the Federalists under john adams which allowed the outgoing President to appoint additional federal judges. Breckinridge argued that the repeal was constitutional, because if Congress had the power to create inferior courts, then Congress could also abolish them. He also contended against a judicial power to hold unconstitutional acts of Congress or of the President. Breckinridge initially doubted the constitutionality of the louisiana purchase, but in 1803 he introduced the Breckinridge Act which created territorial government for Louisiana. Like the Kentucky Resolutions, this act was secretly written by Jefferson.

Paul Finkelman

(see also: Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions.)


Harrison, Lowell H. 1969 John Breckinridge: Jeffersonian Republican. Louisville, Ky.: Filson Club.