Doctor Zebra > Presidential health > Other notables > Vice-Presidents > John C. Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge

Editorial in the New York Times
Dec. 7, 1863

If it be true, as is now positively declared, that a loyal bullet has sent this traitor to eternity, every loyal heart will feel satisfaction and will not scruple to express it. Ordinarily, enmity is disarmed before death; reproach is silenced, and even the sternest justice makes way for pity. The form that is shrouded is a sacred thing, and the grave itself is an altar on which every bitter feeling should be sacrificed forever. Human censorship does not presume to follow the spirit that has gone to its Eternal Judge; and even the most rigid feels constrained to remember his own frailties, and forgive. But where Death strikes such a public enemy as this, it exacts no silent obeisance. Personal feeling has no part in the matter. It is to be regarded purely as a public event; and if it really has the shape of a public deliverance, it is just as right to welcome it as any other public blessing. It is just as proper, too, to speak the truth of such a criminal when dead as when living. Humanity has a just reckoning with guilt of this particular dye that can never be satisfied without posthumous infamy.

If ever there was a public man pledged to a career of fidelity and honor, it was John C. Breckinridge. He belonged to a family that had always been noted for patriotism, as well as for every other exalted quality; as a young man he was personally associated with such great-souled patriots as Clay and Crittenden; the people of his own State, in his early youth, took him into their confidence with a readiness seldom exhibited, and the people of the United States elevated him to the second office in their gift, at an age without precedent in American history. Every inherited sentiment, every implanted principle, every obligation of gratitude, forbade him to be unfaithful to his country; but an unholy ambition ruined him. By nature frank, ardent, manly and eloquent, he fell a prey to the lures of higher preferment held out to him by plotters against the peace of the country. They named him for the Presidency at Charleston, and he accepted the nomination, though it was given in violation of every principle which had ruled Democratic conventions, and was sure to divide and destroy his party. How far he was actually cognizant, at that time, of the secession plot, is not yet known. It may be that he was let into the full confidence of the prime conspirators, and fully understood that he should help them ruin if they could not help him rule. It may be that he was at first merely a pliant dupe in the hands of crafty knaves. In measuring his guilt this matters little. The time came when the treason of his supporters was no longer disguised; and it was then his duty to have renounced them and denounced them. Had he been a true man, his indignation at the use the traitors had made of him, would have filled him with al the intenser hate of the treason itself; and the very fact that he had done something unwittingly to further it, would have stimulated him to redoubled efforts afterward to thwart and foil it. Instead of this, he showed all sympathy with it just as long as he could do so safely within the public councils, and then he betook himself bodily to the camp of the rebels. It might have been in weakness that he was first made a dupe, but his subsequent career marked him one of the basest and wickedest of traitors.

We know that it is not easy to draw distinctions between the shades of this black treason against the Union. Yet we can recognize that some sort of charity may be given to a man as Stonewall Jackson, who bred to the doctrine of paramount State sovereignty, and conscientiously believed that it was his duty to obey the decision of his State expressed through constitutional forms. But no such extenuating plea can be advanced for John C. Breckinridge. In one of his last speeches in the Senate, he declared that he was a son of Kentucky, and would follow her destiny. And yet, in spite of the fact that Kentucky, within a week afterward declared, by a majority of sixty thousand votes at the polls, that she would not go out of the Union, he went home and issued a manifesto, declaring that "there is no longer a Senate of the United States within the meaning and spirit of the Constitution; the United States no longer exist; the Union is dissolved;" and that he was now about to "exchange, with proud satisfaction, a term of six years in the Senate of the United States for the musket of a soldier." The declared intention he made good by soon afterward rallying his friends at Russellville, where a resolution was passed, in so many words, bidding "defiance both to the Federal and State Governments," and delegates were appointed to the Provisional Congress of the Confederacy. Breckinridge was soon afterward as thoroughly identified with the rebels as Jeff. Davis himself; though in doing it he had to turn his back, not only upon the Union, but upon his own State, whose destiny he had solemnly protested that he would follow. Of all the accursed traitors of the land there has been none more heinously false than he -- none whose memory will live in darker ignominy. God grant the country a speedy deliverance of all such parricides.

Note: This editorial was premature, in that Breckinridge died in 1875, ten years after the Civil War ended. He is still the youngest Vice President in American history.