Two U.S. vice presidents attended Centre College, home of 2012 debate

gkocher1@herald-leader.comOctober 5, 2012 

Centre College in Danville had a history with vice presidents long before the 2000 and 2012 vice presidential debates.

Of the four U.S. vice presidents born in Kentucky, two were educated at Centre. One, John C. Breckinridge, was the country's youngest vice president before he fought in the Civil War. The other, Adlai E. Stevenson, had a grandson who became the Democratic nominee for president in 1952 and 1956.

Breckinridge was born near Lexington on Jan. 16, 1821. His family had been involved in politics for years. His grandfather was a U.S. senator and was attorney general for President Thomas Jefferson. His father had been speaker of the Kentucky House and secretary of state for the commonwealth.

Both men died young, so John and his sisters were raised by their mother and grandmother. He graduated from Centre College in 1838, and he later studied law at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University).

Breckinridge also studied law at what is now Transylvania University in Lexington. He was admitted to the bar in 1840, and three years later he married Mary Cyrene Burch. They had six children.

Breckinridge was a major in the Third Kentucky Volunteers during the Mexican War in 1847 and 1948, and was elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat in 1849, according to the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.

Two years later, he sought and won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served two terms. There he became known as a supporter of the viewpoints of the South.

"Groups that attacked slavery were, in his view, attacking property rights guaranteed" by the Constitution, according to The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Although once a slaveholder, he apparently held no slaves by 1860.

In 1856, the Democrats nominated Breckinridge to be vice president on the ticket with James Buchanan. When inaugurated at age 36 in March 1857, he became the youngest vice president in the nation's history. (Paul Ryan, the Republican candidate for vice president this year, is 42.)

Buchanan kept his distance from Breckinridge, who initially had supported Stephen Douglas for president.

Democrats were divided four years later in the 1860 presidential election. The party nominated Douglas, but Breckinridge became the nominee of dissatisfied Southern Democrats. In a four-way race, Abraham Lincoln was selected by the Republicans and John Bell was nominated as a Constitutional Unionist. Lincoln won election with 180 electoral votes to Breckinridge's 72, Bell's 59 (including Kentucky's), and Douglas' 12, The Kentucky Encyclopedia said.

Breckinridge was then elected to the U.S. Senate, but he served only 10 months because he resigned in 1861 to support the Southern rebellion. The Senate voted 36-0 to expel him. In 1862, a Fayette County grand jury indicted Breckinridge for traitorous acts.

Breckinridge led Confederate forces in battles at Shiloh, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Chattanooga and Cold Harbor. (He would later be indicted on a charge of high treason by a District of Columbia grand jury for a July 1864 raid on Washington.)

On Feb. 7, 1865, as the Civil War was winding down, Breckinridge was appointed the Confederate secretary of war. He fled south after Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, Va., then, fearing arrest, he escaped from Florida to Cuba. He lived overseas in exile until 1868, after President Andrew Johnson granted general amnesty to Confederates. He then returned to Lexington and resumed his law practice.

Breckinridge died on May 17, 1875, and is buried in Lexington Cemetery. The treason indictment against him was dismissed in May 1958, nearly 96 years after it was issued.

Adlai E. Stevenson

The other Centre alumnus, Adlai E. Stevenson, was born in Christian County in Western Kentucky on Oct. 23, 1835.

When Stevenson was 16 years old, the family's tobacco crop was killed by a severe frost, and the Stevensons moved to Bloomington, Ill. There, young Adlai worked in his father's sawmill and taught school to earn money to attend college, according to U.S. Vice Presidents of the United States, 1789-1993.

He enrolled at Centre College, where he met his future wife, Letitia Green (her father, Lewis Warner Green, was Centre's fifth president). Stevenson later attended Illinois Wesleyan University.

In 1857, Stevenson's father died, and Adlai returned to Bloomington, where he studied law and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1858. During the Civil War, Stevenson organized the Union's 108th Regiment Illinois Volunteer Infantry.

After the war, he was a prosecuting attorney and set up a law practice with a cousin. Stevenson married Letitia Green in 1866.

His political career didn't begin in earnest until 1874, when he defeated a Republican incumbent to become one of the few Democrats from Illinois in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served one term and was defeated in 1876 by a Republican challenger. Stevenson ran again for the House seat in 1878 and won, serving until 1881.

In 1885, President Grover Cleveland appointed Stevenson to be the first assistant postmaster general. During his term, he replaced more than 40,000 Republican postal employees with Democrats. After his term was completed, he returned to Bloomington, Ill.

In 1892, the Democratic Party again nominated Cleveland for president, and in a surprise to many observers, Adlai Stevenson was nominated as vice president. Cleveland won the election that fall, and Stevenson was sworn in as vice president on March 3, 1893.

Stevenson came close to becoming president that summer, according to a 2011 book, The President is a Sick Man, by Matthew Algeo. Under the guise of a fishing trip aboard a friend's boat, Cleveland disappeared for four days to have surgery to remove a malignant growth from the roof of his mouth. The country was entering a depression, and Cleveland, not eager to cause a panic on Wall Street, had the 90-minute operation performed in secret on a yacht in New York.

Stevenson and members of the Cabinet were unaware of the severity of Cleveland's health problem. The operation was a success, but full details were not made public until 1917, 24 years later, although the true nature of the "fishing trip" was reported two months after the fact, Algeo writes.

Stevenson was briefly considered as a presidential candidate in 1896, but he had limited support and eventually endorsed Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan. Stevenson had a brief respite from politics but resurfaced as Bryan's running mate in the 1900 presidential election. The pair lost to the Republican ticket of Theodore Roosevelt and William McKinley.

After the defeat in 1900, Stevenson returned to his law practice in Bloomington. He made an unsuccessful run for governor of Illinois in 1908, and after that loss, he made his final retirement from politics. He died on June 14, 1914.

His grandson, Adlai E. Stevenson II, was governor of Illinois and was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president in 1952 and 1956. He lost both times to Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Adlai Stevenson's great-grandson, Adlai E. Stevenson III, was a senator from Illinois, twice ran for governor and was himself considered a contender for the vice presidential nomination in 1976.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

Lexington Herald-Leader is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service