John Breckenridge served as the fifth attorney general of the United States and was the second of three attorneys general who served under President Thomas Jefferson. Breckenridge was born on December 2, 1760, in Augusta County near Staunton, Virginia. He attended Augusta Academy, now known as Washington and Lee University, and later transferred to the College of William and Mary located in Williamsburg, Virginia. One of his professors at William and Mary was George Wythe, a distinguished teacher and scholar who counted John Marshall, Henry Clay, and Thomas Jefferson among his students.
At age 19, the ambitious Breckenridge was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates in 1780 but was not permitted to take the position because of his youth. Breckenridge served in the Virginia militia during the Revolutionary War. Afterwards he studied law under the tutelage of a Virginia lawyer, and he was admitted to the Virginia bar in 1785.
Breckenridge established a law practice in Charlotte, Virginia, and re-entered the political arena. In 1792, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives of the Third Congress. Before his congressional term commenced, he resigned his seat in order to move to Lexington, Kentucky. The following year, Breckenridge established a law practice in Lexington and once again turned to politics. He ran for a U.S. Senate seat in 1794 and was defeated, but he was appointed attorney general for the state of Kentucky in 1795. He served until 1797, when he resigned his position to make a successful run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Breckenridge was elected to Congress in 1798 and became speaker of the house in 1799.
Breckenridge, a Republican, ran for the senate and was elected in 1800. Taking office in 1801, Breckenridge strongly supported President Thomas Jefferson. Several times Breckenridge introduced as his own legislation bills that Jefferson had drafted, a maneuver that did not always meet with success. One bill, which was rejected by some who viewed Breckenridge as a mouthpiece for the president, would have allowed Jefferson and the territorial governor to rule the newly purchased Louisiana Territory by Executive Order.
Breckenridge also advocated the Impeachment of John Pickering and Samuel Chase, two federal district court judges who had ties to the rival Federalist Party. Pickering, who had alcohol and mental problems, was removed. The move to impeach Chase was more patently political: Chase had cast accusations that the supporters of Jefferson were atheists and had made other anti-Republican remarks from the bench. Though the House voted to impeach Chase, the Senate voted by a narrow margin to acquit him. By refusing to allow political statements to be considered within the rubric of high crimes and misdemeanors, the Senate strengthened the concept of an independent judiciary.
Jefferson ran again for president in 1804. After rejecting the bid of Aaron Burr for a second term as vice-president, the Republicans briefly considered Breckenridge for the position. He lost to Democrat George Clinton.
Breckenridge's ardent support of Jefferson and his political ambitions were rewarded when Jefferson appointed Breckenridge U.S. attorney general. At the time, the position was part-time, and Breckenridge was able to continue spending many of his days in Lexington, Kentucky. Breckenridge held the position of attorney general until his death in Lexington on December 14, 1806.
Hall, Kermit L. 1989. The Magic Mirror: Law in American History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Justice Department. Attorneys General of the United States, 1789–1985. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1985.