John Breathitt (September 9, 1786 – February 21, 1834) was the 11th Governor of Kentucky. He was the first Democrat to hold this office and was the second Kentucky governor to die in office. Shortly after his death, Breathitt County, Kentucky was created and named in his honor.
Early in life, Breathitt was appointed a deputy surveyor in Illinois Territory. On his return to Kentucky, he taught at a country school, and through wise investments, amassed enough wealth to sustain him while he studied law with Judge Caleb Wallace. In 1811, he was elected to the first of several terms in the Kentucky House of Representatives. He was the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor in 1828. Although his running mate William T. Barry lost the office of governor to Thomas Metcalfe, Breathitt defeated his opponent for lieutenant governor.
During his term as lieutenant governor, Breathitt was one of several proposed candidates to succeed John Rowan in the United States Senate, but the General Assembly deadlocked over the appointment and the seat went unfilled until the Assembly's next term. In the next gubernatorial election in 1832, Breathitt was the Democratic nominee for governor. Again, Breathitt won, but James Turner Morehead, the Whig candidate for lieutenant governor, defeated Breathitt's running mate. Initially, Breathitt enjoyed popularity for his public condemnation of John C. Calhoun's doctrine of nullification, but he did not fare well in state politics because the Whigs controlled the legislature. He died in office of tuberculosis on February 21, 1834.
John Breathitt was born near New London, Henry County, Virginia on September 9, 1786. He was the eldest of five sons and four daughters born to William and Elizabeth (Whitsett) Breathitt. William Breathitt immigrated to Maryland from Scotland, then settled in Virginia. John Breathitt's brother, George, became a private secretary to President Andrew Jackson. Another brother, James, became Commonwealth's Attorney for the state of Kentucky.
Breathitt was educated at home and in the public schools of his native state. His family moved to Logan County, Kentucky in 1800, and he continued his education there. In early adulthood, he was appointed as a deputy surveyor in Illinois Territory. He then returned to Kentucky to teach in a country school. He invested his income in land purchases, and shortly amassed enough wealth to sustain him for a few years. Financially stable, he resolved to read law under Judge Caleb Wallace. He was admitted to the bar of Russellville, Kentucky in 1810 and opened his practice there.
In 1812, Breathitt married Caroline Whitaker of Logan County. The couple had a son and a daughter. When his first wife died, he married Susan M. Harris of Chesterfield County, Virginia. Breathitt had another daughter by his second wife. Though Breathitt himself died at age 47, he survived both of his wives.
Breathitt was elected to represent Logan County in the Kentucky House of Representatives in 1811, and was re-elected every year until 1815. In the gubernatorial election of 1828, the Democrats chose William T. Barry as their candidate for governor. Initially, they offered the nomination for lieutenant governor to Judge John P. Oldham, but Oldham declined, and Breathitt was chosen as his replacement. Barry lost the governorship to National Republican Thomas Metcalfe, but Breathitt defeated Metcalfe's running mate Joseph R. Underwood by more than 1,000 votes.
As lieutenant governor, Breathitt promoted the creation of public schools in the state. On December 31, 1829, he was elected president of the Kentucky Educational Society whose stated mission was to "promote improvement and diffusion of popular education by the circulation of information, by enlisting the pulpit and the press, by procuring the delivery of popular addresses on the subject on the 4th day of July, and in different neighborhoods, and by other means that may be found practicable." In 1833, he became president of the Kentucky Common School Society.
In 1831, Breathitt was one of several candidates put before the General Assembly to succeed John Rowan in the United States Senate. He received 66 of 137 votes, 3 votes short of a majority. Other unsuccessful nominees included John J. Crittenden (68 votes), Richard Mentor Johnson (64 votes), and Charles A. Wickliffe (49 votes). After 15 ballots, the Assembly still had not chosen a nominee, and postponed the matter until the next session. At that session, Henry Clay was chosen to fill the seat.
In 1832, the Democrats selected Breathitt and Benjamin Taylor as their candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, respectively. They faced a Whig (formerly National Republican) ticket of Richard Aylett Buckner and James Turner Morehead. Buckner was hurt by his extremely religious ideals, including opposition to handling mail on Sunday, and failed to garner the support of some of his own party's newspapers. Breathitt defeated Buckner by a small margin, but Morehead defeated Taylor, Breathitt's little-known running mate. Breathitt's election marked the first time a Democrat had ascended to the governorship of Kentucky. The election was marred by fraud, however. In Oldham County, the number of votes tallied represented 162.9% of the eligible voters in the county, and these votes broke two-to-one in favor of Breathitt. Most Kentuckians were more concerned about the upcoming presidential election, hoping Whig and native son Henry Clay would defeat Democrat Andrew Jackson. Because of this, most of the other state offices went to Whig candidates.
Early in his term, Breathitt won favor from both Whigs and Democrats by opposing South Carolina's actions during the Nullification Crisis. Following Breathitt's lead, the state legislature passed resolutions condemning the doctrine of nullification on February 2, 1833. This action was particularly significant because John C. Calhoun's justification for nullification was largely based on the 1799 Kentucky Resolutions.
Breathitt did not fare as well in state politics. He ardently supported Jacksonian principles, and wielded his veto against bills critical of President Jackson's land policy. He supported Jackson's desire to dissolve the Second Bank of the United States. Instead, he favored opening a number of state banks, but faced with a Whig majority in the legislature, he succeeded only in chartering the Louisville Bank of Kentucky. He also favored completion of the Lexington and Ohio Railroad, and supported a $300,000 loan from the state Board of Internal Improvements for that purpose. In 1833, a loan for half the amount was approved, and the railroad was not completed until 1851. Breathitt was also part of the temperance movement in Kentucky. In an 1832 address, he blamed consumption of alcohol for the high murder rate in the state. When the Kentucky Legislative Temperance Society was formed at a meeting in the state house on January 13, 1834, Breathitt was chosen as its president and Lieutenant Governor Morehead served as one of five vice-presidents.
Breathitt died of tuberculosis in the governor's mansion in Frankfort on February 21, 1834. He was the second sitting governor of Kentucky to die in office. Originally buried in the Breathitt Family Cemetery, he was later re-interred at Maple Grove Cemetery in Russellville. Breathitt County, Kentucky was formed in 1839 and named in his honor. On March 5, 1872, the Kentucky General Assembly resolved to erect a monument over Breathitt's grave in Russellville.