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Robert Jefferson Breckinridge

Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, called the father of the public school system in Kentucky, was born March 8, 1800, near Lexington, Kentucky, to John and Mary Hopkins (Cabell) Breckinridge. His father, a U.S. senator and cabinet member under President Thomas Jefferson, died in 1806 when the boy was six; his mother ran their large plantation for nearly half a century.

After attending Princeton and Yale, Breckinridge graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 1819. He was elected to the Kentucky legislature in 1825 and served until 1830. A near-fatal illness, coupled with the death of his second child, then caused him to turn to religion. Breckinridge was ordained in the Presbyterian church in 1832 and held pastorates in Baltimore and Lexington. During 1853-69, he was a professor at Danville Theological Seminary. Although elected to the church's highest leadership position in 1841, he was often involved in religious controversy. Breckinridge took a leading role in the debates that split his church in the antebellum period, wrote numerous articles and books bitterly attacking Catholicism, and composed lengthy theological works that gained both praise and considerable criticism.

After serving as president of Jefferson College in Pennsylvania during 1845-47, Breckinridge returned to Kentucky, where he was soon appointed superintendent of public instruction. After the office became elective, he was returned to the post in 1851 and served until 1853. He obtained legislative and voter approval for the first Kentucky property tax for educational purposes and secured that system in the 1850 constitution; attendance at public schools increased from 24,000 in 1848 to 195,000 four years later.

Although Breckinridge himself held slaves -- thirty-seven in 1860 -- he supported gradual emancipation and colonization and spoke for those causes in state, national, and international forums. He was an eloquent orator, but his combative spirit led to bitter debates, such as the confrontation with Robert Wickliffe , a Lexington legislator and attorney, over slavery. Breckinridge followed a political path from Whig to Know-Nothing to Republican. Running unsuccessfully as an emancipation candidate for the 1849 Kentucky constitutional convention, he was one of the last elected public officials in the South to give the antislavery cause strong public support.

Breckinridge quickly sided with the Union when the Civil War started and became a major border state spokesman for that cause through the pages of the Danville Quarterly Review. His family sent two sons south, as well as two north, and his nephew John C. Breckinridge, a former vice president of the United States, was a Confederate general. Yet Breckinridge called for harsh measures against secession, and he eventually accepted Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves.

In 1864 Breckinridge was chosen temporary chairman of the national convention that renominated President Lincoln . But with the war's end, Breckinridge and his supporters became out-numbered as the commonwealth turned anti-administration and even pro-Southern. Within his family, one of his daughters-in-law refused to let him see her children for two years after the war ended.

Breckinridge married his cousin, Ann Sophonisba Preston, in 1823; they had eleven children. Following her death in 1844, he married another cousin, Virginia Hart Shelby; they had three children. His second wife died in 1859, and in 1868 he married Margaret Faulkner White. Breckinridge died on December 27, 1871, and was buried in the Lexington Cemetery.

Source: Klotter, James C. "Robert Jefferson Breckinridge." The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Lexington, Ky. : University Press of Kentucky, 1992