William L. Breckinridge

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William L. Breckinridge
A portrait of William L. Breckinridge
Breckinridge in 1865
6th President of Centre College
In office
October 15, 1863 – November 1868
Preceded byLewis W. Green
Succeeded byOrmond Beatty
4th President of Oakland College
In office
Preceded byJames Purviance
Succeeded byJohn Calvin
Personal details
William Lewis Breckinridge

(1803-07-22)July 22, 1803
near Lexington, Kentucky, U.S.
DiedDecember 26, 1876(1876-12-26) (aged 73)
Cass County, Missouri, U.S.
Resting placeCave Hill Cemetery, Louisville, Kentucky
  • Frances Prevost
  • Sarah A. Garnett
RelativesBreckinridge family
EducationTransylvania University

William Lewis Breckinridge (July 22, 1803 – December 26, 1876) was an American pastor and educator. The son of Senator John Breckinridge, he was born near Lexington, Kentucky, and attended college at Transylvania University. Early in his career, he became an emancipationist, and he entered academia in 1831 when he began teaching ancient languages at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. He was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky, from 1836 to 1858, and was moderator of the 1859 Presbyterian Church (Old School) General Assembly. He was president of Oakland College near Rodney, Mississippi, for one year prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, and afterwards he spent five years as president of Centre College.

Early life and education[edit]

William Lewis Breckinridge, a member of the prominent Breckinridge family, was born on July 22, 1803, near Lexington, Kentucky.[1] He was the eighth child of John Breckinridge and Mary Hopkins Cabell;[2] John was a sitting U.S. senator at the time of William's birth and later became U.S. attorney general.[3] William joined his family's church at the age of 15,[4] and he attended Transylvania University in Lexington.[1]


Pastor, emancipationist, and teacher[edit]

Early in his adulthood, in the early to mid-1820s, Breckinridge and several of his brothers became vocal proponents of antislavery, aligning themselves in the minority; the abolitionist James G. Birney wrote that the men "had disqualified themselves from political usefulness" as a result.[5] In 1849, he was among the attendees to the Friends of Emancipation state convention, held in Frankfort, along with his brother Robert, Cassius Marcellus Clay, John C. Young, and Walter Newman Haldeman.[6] He attended a meeting of the American Colonization Society in Louisville the same year, where he gave an address and was a part of a committee which advocated revision of the meeting's resolutions because they did not specifically include provisions for colonization.[7] After the revised resolution passed, he spoke for an hour in favor of the cause of emancipation.[8] Additionally, he was successful in convincing The Louisville Democrat to adopt an abolitionist position; this was the first time the newspaper had taken a stance on the issue.[8] He was active in his advocacy against slavery as well and spoke in Shelbyville, Lexington, Brunerstown, Jeffersontown, and Louisville throughout 1849, the last of which was a debate against the lawyer William Christian Bullitt.[9]

Breckinridge was appointed to teach ancient languages at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, in 1831.[1] He held this post for five years before taking a position in the ministry when he was made pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky,[1] beginning January 2, 1836.[2] The use of a pipe organ in his church was considered controversial by some, including his brother Robert, who threatened to leave the state because he thought such an instrument was "frivolous".[10] His tenure leading the church included a relocation which was completed within his first several years there; the new building was dedicated on July 21, 1839, with a service which he led, focused on Psalm 48.[2] In 1853, he and Robert were elected to the first board of trustees of the Danville Theological Seminary. He held the pastorate in Louisville until health problems forced his resignation in 1858; he briefly preached at several churches in Woodford County, Kentucky, in the following months.[2]

Breckinridge was elected moderator of the Presbyterian Church (Old School) General Assembly in 1859,[11] when it was held in Indianapolis.[12] There, he oversaw the selection of a new site for what would become the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest, at the time located in New Albany, Indiana; Indianapolis and Chicago were the candidate cities and the latter was ultimately selected due in part to a $100,000 (equivalent to $3.3 million in 2022) donation from Cyrus McCormick and allowance for the use of 45 acres of land from a separate group.[2] Breckinridge was nominated as a candidate for a teaching position at the new seminary but lost that election to N. L. Rice; he was subsequently elected to a teaching job at the Danville Theological Seminary in Danville, Kentucky, though he declined.[2]

College president[edit]

The following year, Breckinridge returned to academia when he accepted a position as president of Oakland College near Rodney, Mississippi, succeeding Rev. James Purviance. His presidency at Oakland was short-lived, as the breakout of the Civil War prompted the college's temporary closure. After the war, the school reopened with Rev. John Calvin at the helm, though he died shortly thereafter and Oakland never fully recovered;[13] it closed for good in 1871 and was sold to the state of Mississippi.[14]

Breckinridge began his term as president of Centre on October 15, 1863. He delivered his inaugural address, entitled A Christian College: Its Instruction and Its Government, on October 14, 1864.[15] Inheriting the presidency in the midst of the Civil War and with family members on either side of the conflict, he aligned himself with centrist views and attempted to welcome students from both sides to the school. The war had noticeable effects on the college and its enrollment: 92 students attended Centre during the academic year following the war's conclusion, though that number had dropped to 43 students some two years later,[16] and the graduating classes while he was in office totaled seven, fourteen, thirteen, eleven, and thirteen students, respectively.[17] Additionally, the cost of tuition increased for the first time since 1830 when it was changed from $33 (equivalent to $617 in 2022) to $50 (equivalent to $936 in 2022) per year.[18] Centre remained open throughout the duration of the war but suffered nonetheless, as did the town; Confederate guerilla outlaws William Quantrill and Frank James led a stint of violence in Danville in January 1865 that included the destruction of the city bookstore and telegraph office, as well as the robbery of numerous citizens at gunpoint.[18]

Breckinridge resigned as president of Centre College on October 16, 1868.[2] He formally left office and returned to his farm in Missouri to resume preaching the following month.[1]

Personal life and death[edit]

Breckinridge married Frances Prevost, granddaughter of Samuel Stanhope Smith; after she died, he remarried to Sarah A. Garnett, a widow.[2] He had twelve children, eight of whom survived to adulthood.[4] He died in Cass County, Missouri, on December 26, 1876.[1] He was buried at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Kentucky.[19]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "William L. Breckinridge, Centre College President (1863–1868)". CentreCyclopedia. Centre College. Archived from the original on January 24, 2023. Retrieved January 24, 2023.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Waugh, Barry (November 2, 2015). "William L. Breckinridge, 1803–1876". Presbyterians of the Past. Archived from the original on February 25, 2022. Retrieved January 29, 2023.
  3. ^ "Attorney General: John Breckinridge". Office of the Attorney General. United States Department of Justice. October 24, 2022. Archived from the original on January 18, 2022. Retrieved January 29, 2022.
  4. ^ a b Klotter 1986, p. 40.
  5. ^ Klotter 1986, p. 67.
  6. ^ Klotter 1986, p. 74.
  7. ^ Howard 1975, pp. 221–222.
  8. ^ a b Howard 1975, p. 222.
  9. ^ Howard 1975, p. 223.
  10. ^ Klotter 1986, p. 51.
  11. ^ Weston 2019, p. 41.
  12. ^ "Minutes of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America". Theological Commons. Princeton Theological Seminary. 1859. Archived from the original on March 9, 2023. Retrieved March 9, 2023.
  13. ^ Memoirs of Mississippi 1999, p. 310.
  14. ^ Sansing 1990, p. 63.
  15. ^ Breckinridge, William L. (1864). A Christian College: Its Instruction and Its Government (PDF). Cincinnati, Ohio: Moore, Wilstach & Baldwin, Printers.
  16. ^ Weston 2019, p. 42.
  17. ^ Craig 1967, pp. 34–35.
  18. ^ a b Hill 2009, p. 36.
  19. ^ "William Lewis Breckinridge (1803–1876)". Log College Press. Archived from the original on March 9, 2023. Retrieved March 9, 2023.