Early life and family
John Breckinridge's grandfather, Alexander Breckenridge, immigrated from Ireland to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, around 1728.[note 1] In 1740, the family moved to Augusta County, Virginia, near the city of Staunton. John Breckinridge was born there on December 2, 1760, the second of six children of Robert Breckenridge and his second wife, Lettice (Preston) Breckenridge. His mother was the daughter of John Preston of Virginia's Preston political family. Robert Breckinridge had two children by a previous marriage, and it was through one of these half-brothers that John Breckinridge was uncle to future Congressman James D. Breckinridge.[note 2] A veteran of the French and Indian War, Robert Breckinridge served first as Augusta County's under-sheriff, then sheriff, then justice of the peace. Soon after John Breckinridge's birth, the family moved to Botetourt County where Robert Breckinridge became a constable and justice of the peace, as well as serving in the local militia. He died in 1773, leaving 12-year-old John 300 acres (1.2 km2) of land, one slave, and half-ownership of another slave.
According to his biographer, Lowell H. Harrison, Breckinridge may have attended school, including Augusta Academy (now Washington and Lee University), but any records containing this information have been lost. After his father's death, the younger Breckinridge helped support the family by selling whiskey, brandy, and hemp. He learned surveying from his uncle, William Preston, and between 1774 and 1779, he was employed as a recorder in the land office of Fincastle. Preston sought opportunities for his nephew to attend private schools alongside his sons, but such schools were prone to intermittent operation, and Breckinridge's other responsibilities interfered with his attendance. Preston also nominated Breckinridge as deputy surveyor of Montgomery County, a position he accepted after passing the requisite exam on February 1, 1780. Later that year, he joined his cousin, future Kentucky Senator John Brown, at William and Mary College (now College of William & Mary). The instructors who influenced him most were Reverend James Madison and George Wythe.
The Revolutionary War forced William and Mary to close in 1781, as its buildings were used as barracks for British, French, and American troops as each nation successively controlled the college and surrounding area. Although William C. Davis records that Breckinridge had previously served as an ensign in the Botetourt County militia, Harrison notes that the most reliable records of Virginians' military service do not indicate his participation in the Revolutionary War, but less reliable sources mention him as a subaltern in the Virginia militia. If he enlisted, Harrison speculates that he served in one or two short 1780 militia campaigns supporting Nathanael Greene's army in southwest Virginia.
Early political career
Although he had not sought the office and was not old enough to serve, Breckinridge was elected to represent Botetourt County in the Virginia House of Delegates in late 1780. Legend says he was twice refused his seat because of his age, but his constituents reelected him each time, and he was seated the third time, but official records do not support this. His legislative colleagues included Patrick Henry, Benjamin Harrison, John Tyler, John Taylor of Caroline, George Nicholas, Daniel Boone, and Benjamin Logan.
Prevented by British soldiers from meeting at Williamsburg, the House convened May 7, 1781, in Richmond, but failed to achieve a quorum. Because of British General Charles Cornwallis' May 10 advance on that city, the legislators adjourned to Charlottesville on May 24. Breckinridge arrived in Charlottesville on May 28; a quorum was present to conduct legislative business through June 3. The next morning, Jack Jouett rode into the city, warning the legislators that 250 light cavalrymen under Banastre Tarleton were approaching. Legislators quickly adjourned to Staunton and fled for their horses. Days later, they completed the session's business there. Breckinridge stayed at his mother's house between sessions, rejoining the legislature in Richmond in November 1781. Much of the session consisted of adopting resolutions of thanks for individuals who had made that city safe by defeating Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Financial difficulties prevented Breckinridge's return to college. He did not seek reelection in 1782; instead, he spent a year earning money by surveying, and was reelected to the House of Delegates in 1783, joining his legislative colleagues in May. He also joined the Constitutional Society of Virginia; fellow society members included future U.S. presidents James Madison and James Monroe. The House adjourned June 28, 1783, and Breckinridge returned to William and Mary, studying through the end of the year, excepting the legislative session in November and December. With the war over, he urged that no economic or political penalties be imposed on former Loyalists. In contrast to his later political views, he desired a stronger central government than provided for in the Articles of Confederation; he argued that the national government could not survive unless it could tax its citizens, a power it did not have under the Articles.
Financial problems caused Breckinridge to leave William and Mary after the spring semester in 1784. Because of his studies earlier in the year, he had no time to campaign for reelection to the House of Delegates, so he asked his brother Joseph and his cousin John Preston to campaign on his behalf. Initially, his prospects seemed favorable, but he was beaten by future Virginia Congressman George Hancock. After the defeat, voters from Montgomery County – where Breckinridge had previously been a surveyor – chose him to represent them in the House. He was appointed to the prestigious committees on Propositions and Grievances, Courts of Justice, Religion, and Investigation of the Land Offices. His fellow committee members included Henry Tazewell, Carter Henry Harrison, Edward Carrington, Spencer Roane, John Marshall, Richard Bland Lee, and Wilson Cary Nicholas. Inspired by his legislative service, he spent the summer between legislative sessions studying to become a lawyer. The legislative session focused on domestic issues like whether Virginia should establish a tax to benefit religion in the state. Breckinridge was not associated with any denomination, and his writings indicate that he was opposed to such a tax. Instead, he and James Madison secured approval of a religious liberty bill first proposed by Thomas Jefferson over five years earlier. The legislature rose on January 7, 1785, and Breckinridge was admitted to the bar later that year, beginning practice in Charlottesville.
Marriage and children
Mary Hopkins ("Polly") Cabell Breckinridge
On June 28, 1785, Breckinridge married Mary Hopkins ("Polly") Cabell, daughter of Joseph Cabell, a member of the Cabell political family. As a dowry, he received a 400-acre (1.6-km2) plantation in Albemarle County dubbed "The Glebe". Nine children were born to the John and Polly Breckinridge – Letitia Preston (b. 1786), Joseph "Cabell" (b. 1787), Mary Hopkins (b. 1790), Robert (b. 1793), Mary Ann (b. 1795), John (b. 1797), Robert Jefferson (b. 1800), William Lewis (b. 1803), and James Monroe (b. 1806).
Polly, Cabell, and Letitia all fell ill but survived a smallpox epidemic in 1793; however, Mary Hopkins and Robert died. Cabell would later serve as Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives and Kentucky's Secretary of State. He was the father of U.S. Vice President John C. Breckinridge. The younger John Breckinridge attended Princeton Theological Seminary, served as chaplain of the U.S. House of Representatives, and was president of Oglethorpe College (now Oglethorpe University) in Georgia. Robert Jefferson was appointed superintendent of public instruction under Governor William Owsley and became known as the father of Kentucky's public education system. William Lewis became a prominent Presbyterian minister, serving as moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly in 1859 and later as president of Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and Oakland College in Yale, Mississippi. In 1804, Letitia married Alfred W. Grayson, son of Virginia Senator William Grayson. Alfred Grayson died in 1808, and in 1816, Letitia married Peter Buell Porter, who would later serve as Secretary of War under President John Quincy Adams.
The Glebe's profits were barely enough for Breckinridge's growing family. His legal career provided enough money for some comforts but required long hours and difficult work. Patrick Henry regularly represented clients opposite Breckinridge, and John Marshall both referred clients to him and asked him to represent his own clients in his absence. Though still interested in politics, Breckinridge refused to campaign for the people's support. He believed changes were needed to the Articles of Confederation and agreed with much of the proposed U.S. constitution, but he did not support equal representation of the states in the Senate nor the federal judiciary. Heeding the advice of his brother James and his friend, Archibald Stuart, he did not seek election as a delegate to Virginia's ratification convention.