October 30, 1864: Robert J. Breckinridge speaks

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge

The New York Times reports on the speech given by Robert J. Breckinridge* in Cincinnati. Breckinridge was the uncle of John Cabell Breckinridge, one of Lincoln’s opponents in the 1860 election and now a Confederate general. The uncle, though, had been a vocal abolitionist before the war, and was a staunch unionist. In Cincinnati he denounced the Democratic peace platform and advocated a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery.


Having heard that Dr. BRECKINRIDGE was to speak at Cincinnati, I took the cars and was carried there with the velocity of a locomotive. When you can get a new idea or hear a really great man, it is worth while to take a journey. Factitious great men — men made by blowing trumpets or puffing paragraphs — we have all round us. But a man whom nature made great by giving him strong moral and intellectual qualities, is a rare being. But nature did not make ROBERT J. BRECKINRIDGE altogether. The chief hand in making him was his mother, who was a strong-minded, intellectual, religious woman. There are few men, worth anything in the world, whose characters have not been formed by their mother. What is the worth of fame? Who ought to be famous: the mother, or the son? Another mother of BRECKINRIDGE was his Alma Mater — Princeton College. He was rather an unruly son of hers, (so says Dame Rumor,) but it matters not, he got a good education, and has become an eminent lawyer and a more eminent Divine. An intimate friend of HENRY CLAY, he could hardly hesitate, in taking sides with his country, against this dark and iniquitous rebellion. If the spirits of the dead come back to interfere in the affairs of men, we could easily imagine with what a lofty look, and defiant air, and uplifted arm HENRY CLAY would now be defending his country, or denouncing the recreants in Kentucky who go for MCCLELLAN.

BRECKINRIDGE is a man of inflexible will and indomitable courage. Hence it matters not to him that his nephew, JOHN C. and half his family are on the rebel side. He goes, like the Spartan hero, for his country. He asks not for slavery, for trade or for friends; but cries “My country forever!” When the rebel gangs came to his farm and wanted his fine horses, they offered to buy them. “No,” said he, “you can steal my horses, but you cannot buy them.”

Well, I went to Cincinnati, and on entering that magnificent Opera House, found three thousand of the most intelligent people in the West already assembled. Every aisle, and corner, and nook was full, and hundreds were going away, unable to come within sight of the platform. Such an assembly is rarely found. Intelligent, enthusiastic, and yet calm; not a single noise or interruption, except applause, disturbed the entertainment of the evening. Besides the orations, MURDOCH, the tragedian, recited patriotic poetry, and MERTEN’s Band furnished music.

But the point to which I would come is the doctrine put forth by Dr. BRECKINRIDGE. He considers the Chicago platform the meanest thing ever produced by the politics of this country — as expressly double-faced — but as meaning, and intended to produce an armistice, which would result in the triumph of the rebels and the dismemberment of the country; that MCCLELLAN, whatever his personal character may be, is unable to resist the influences which surround him, and could do no good thing whatever. He says, justly, that neither the President nor JEFFERSON DAVIS have any power whatever to make peace; that there is no power in the Constitution for the Government to make peace with, or to dismember a part of the country on any terms whatever. And he says, beyond this, that even a minority have a right to resist any such attempt, because a clear, undeniable usurpation; and that it would then be the duty of loyal citizens to take up arms in revolution.

In this, Dr. BRECKINRIDGE is right. Nothing is more certain than that the idea put forth at Chicago, that we can make an armistice and peace with the rebel Confederacy, is at direct war with the Constitution and the whole spirit of our institutions. The Constitution recognizes an insurrection, and the power of the Government to put it down; but the Constitution does not recognize the separation of a part, and the right of that part to set up a government and make a treaty. A hundred years will not change the fact that the secession is, in the eyes of the Constitution, a mere insurrection to be suppressed by force, and with that insurrection the Government has no power to treat. The whole idea is nonsense, manufactured by VALLANDIGHAM, and imposed upon the convention.

The next question is the slave question. “Now,” says Dr. BRECKINRIDGE, “if you want to get rid of slavery, you must meet it boldly, openly and manfully. You must amend the Constitution and strike it down, root and branch, forever!” This sentiment was received with the loudest applause. The Western people do mean to get rid of slavery, and strike the accursed thing down forever. To do this, they mean to send enough anti-slavery members of Congress to do it. We must have two-thirds of the next Congress, and I think we shall.

Another thing Dr. BRECKINRIDGE said, which don’t agree with the ideas of many persons, both Republican and Democratic. He says, that Mr. Lincoln, in his opinion, is the ablest and fittest man in the nation to be President at this time. The Chicago Convention says the war is a failure. A failure in what? Certainly, peace is not yet, if that is meant. But the war, said he, is the most successful war ever recorded for the same length of time. This is true. We have conquered half their territory and half their strength, and they are now reduced to such an extremity that their fall seems inevitable. I should like to know what REVERDY JOHNSON would say to BRECKINRIDGE’s account of LINCOLN?

I feel sorry that men like FILLMORE, WINTHROP, REVERDY JOHNSON, should have no more sense than to fix political infamy upon their names. Can they not see that the storm is gathering for the destruction of Copperheads? That their notion of conservatism is only a poor device to save the rebellion and slavery from its eternal doom? We look to men of their age and consideration for sagacity, if not wisdom. But they have learned nothing by experience. Like Ephraim, they have joined themselves to their idols, and like Ephraim will be scattered and cast out. There is a strange feeling, in old politicians like these, of dislike to the novi homines. They think, and perhaps with justice, that more respect should have been paid to men of their standing, and they should have been looked to for the high places of the land. This idea is anti-republican, for the novi homines, as they rise up, must have this place and their consideration, and the best thing conservatives can do is to yield gracefully to the coming generations.

I remarked, as one of the incidents of the evening, that the most radical sentiments were most applauded, and that by the most intelligent. It is seen clearly, by all intelligent men. that slavery and secesion must perish, or this nation cannot stand. If this revolution is carried out constitutionally, the Constitution must be amended. Revolutions never leave things as they were. The “Constitution as it is” (meaning that as understood by BUCHANAN, FLOYD and DAVIS,) is in spirit gone. Let us put that fact in form. The Constitution is elastic. Let us amend it. Let us conform it to the Public Will.


*As I’ve said elsewhere, I’m not wholly objective on the subject of Dr. Breckinridge, as he was my wife’s GG-Grandfather. She has living relatives who refer to the Civil War as the “War of Northern Aggression”, but she prefers the “War of Southern Recalcitrance.”

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