Among Kentucky's political leaders none enjoyed a more illustrious national career than John C. Breckinridge, who held the offices of representative, senator, and vice president. In the multi-candidate 1860 presidential race, he ran as the candidate of the Southern Democratic party. Breckinridge was then elected to the U.S. Senate for a term beginning on March 4, 1861, as Abraham Lincoln began his administration and after seven southern states had already seceded.
A defender of the South on the Senate floor, Breckinridge personally hoped that secession could be stopped. In August 1861, when it became apparent that the secession movement was a reality, Breckinridge devoted one of his final speeches in the Senate to urging an end to the war. "I would prefer to see these States all reunited upon true constitutional principles. . . . But I infinitely prefer to see a peaceful separation of these States, than to see endless, aimless, devastating war, at the end of which I see the grave of public liberty and of personal freedom," he declared. He then returned to Kentucky, a border state torn by divided loyalties. Although sympathizing with the Confederacy, Breckinridge struggled to preserve peace and keep the state neutral, but in September the Kentucky legislature voted to side with the Union. Learning that he was about to be arrested and imprisoned, the senator hastily departed for Tennessee and soon after appeared in Richmond, the Confederate capital. There, Jefferson Davis appointed him a brigadier general in the Confederate army. Breckinridge, the champion of neutrality between the Union and the Confederacy, had finally been forced to choose.
Statement of the Case
Because he was versed in the protocol of the Senate from his service as vice president, Breckinridge, unlike many other senators who followed the Confederacy, sent a formal letter of resignation to the Senate in October. On December 4, 1861, Zachariah Chandler (R-MI) introduced a resolution of expulsion.
Response of the Senate
A brief discussion followed, in which Lyman Trumbull (R-IL) inquired of Breckinridge's Kentucky colleague, Democrat Lazarus Powell, whether it was true that Breckinridge had become a general in the Confederate army. After first trying to avoid a direct answer, Powell finally confirmed that Trumbull's information was correct. Because Breckinridge had accepted a prominent military position in the Confederacy, Trumbull asked that the resolution be amended to state:
Whereas John C. Breckinridge, a member of this body from the State of Kentucky, has joined the enemies of his country, and is now in arms against the Government he had sworn to support:
Therefore, Resolved, That the said John C. Breckinridge, the traitor, be, and he is hereby, expelled from the Senate.
That same day, the Senate voted 36 to 0 to pass the resolution as amended and expel Breckinridge.
In the earlier Civil War expulsion cases, friends of the South argued that the senators should not be penalized for the secessionist decisions of their state governments, but only for their own individual misconduct. As long as southerners did not take up arms against the United States government, their supporters maintained, they did not deserve the censure of their colleagues. In the case of John Breckinridge, with Kentucky a Union state and the senator an officer in the Confederate army, southern sympathizers were caught upon the horns of their own argument.
Promoted to major general, Breckinridge saw combat in several battles of the Civil War before Jefferson Davis appointed him secretary of war. Upon the collapse of the Confederacy, he fled to Cuba and then lived in England and Canada. Convinced by 1869 that he was finally safe from arrest, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky and quietly practiced law until his death in 1875.
Unlike the expulsions of senators from seceding states, which left those states unrepresented in the Senate, Breckinridge's departure left a vacancy that needed to be filled. On December 23, 1861, Garrett Davis, elected as a Unionist by the Kentucky legislature, arrived to take his seat in the Senate.
Source: U.S. Senate Historical Office, United States Senate Election, Expulsion and Censure Cases: 1793-1990 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1995), pp. 102-103.