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 distin-
guished 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, Ken-
tucky. The following year, Breckenridge estab-
lished 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
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.
Attorney General; Jefferson, Thomas; Republican Party.