In addition to his work as the United States Senate’s Republican Leader, Mitch McConnell has a great interest in history. He will soon visit Centre College to deliver the inaugural lecture in a planned series of talks on “Prominent Kentuckians in the United States Senate: The Lives and Careers of Kentucky’s Most Influential Senators.” The lecture will take place on Thursday, April 5, at 4:15 p.m. in the Weisiger Theatre in Centre’s Norton Center for the Arts.
McConnell’s Centre lecture will focus on three prominent Kentuckians, including alumnus John C. Breckinridge, Class of 1838, who is one of two Centre alumni to serve as vice president of the United States.
Breckinridge (1821-1875) was just 17 when he graduated from Centre. John C. Young, a brother-in-law, was president of the College at the time, and an uncle, William Breckinridge, was on the faculty. He went on to become a lawyer, Kentucky state legislator, U.S. representative and U.S. senator, and vice president of the United States, all by the age of 45. In fact, when elected vice president in 1856 at age 36, Breckinridge was barely over the constitutional age requirement to serve. He continues to hold the distinction as the nation’s youngest vice president.
A champion of states’ rights and a charismatic leader with a charming personal manner, Breckinridge’s only political defeat came when he lost the 1860 presidential race to Abraham Lincoln. During the Civil War, he served as a Confederate officer and, briefly, as Confederate secretary of war. Despite being the most prominent Kentuckian to join the Confederacy, Breckinridge spent his time after the Civil War working for peace and reconciliation. While he “had not the tools to keep the Union from crumbling or to buttress the unsteady walls of the Confederacy, he was an artisan born for the work of rebuilding the two into one,” wrote William Davis in his prize-winning biography,Breckinridge. When he died in 1875, Breckinridge was just 54.
McConnell will also discuss the life of John Brown (1757-1837), who, after studying law under future President Thomas Jefferson, was appointed to the Continental Congress. He was the only representative in that body from the area that would later become Kentucky. Considered one of the Founding Fathers of the commonwealth, he was elected as one of the first two senators from Kentucky in 1792.
Finally, McConnell will discuss John Breckinridge (1760-1806). Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1800, Breckinridge strongly supported Kentucky’s interests, particularly through his advocacy for the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. In 1805, he was appointed by President Jefferson to serve as the nation’s fifth attorney general, making him the first cabinet officer from west of the Appalachian Mountains.
A Louisville native, McConnell attended duPont Manual High School, the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky School of Law. Before his election to the United States Senate in 1984, he served as a deputy assistant attorney general under President Gerald R. Ford.
McConnell has long been a friend of Centre College during his 28-year tenure in the Senate. He and his wife, then-U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, were the 2003 commencement speakers. More recently, in 2010, McConnell sponsored formal recognition of Centre College during the 111th Congress, Second Session. His remarks were included in the Congressional Record for November 19, 2010.