John C. Breckinridge 18211875

William R. Phipps (active c. 1849c. 1867)
Sixth-plate daguerreotype, c. 1855

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

This daguerreotype shows Kentucky congressman John C. Breckinridge around the time of the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. Having served as a major during the Mexican War, Breckinridge rose rapidly through the political ranks after being first elected to Congress in 1851.

In the debate about slavery’s future in the West, he and Illinois senator Stephen Douglas took a lead role in pressing for legislation that would allow settlers to decide for themselves whether to permit slavery in the new territories. Rendering the Missouri Compromise of 1820 “inoperative and void,” the resulting Kansas–Nebraska Act was hailed as a victory for states’ rights and the pro-slavery South. Its passage upset many Northerners and helped to give birth to the Republican Party, which opposed slavery’s extension in the West.

Thereafter, Breckinridge continued his political ascension, becoming James Buchanan’s vice president in 1856 and then running unsuccessfully for president in 1860.