U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell briefly left present politics roiling on the Washington D.C. back-burner when he stopped Thursday in Centre College's Weisiger Theater to deliver the first in a series of historical lectures on prominent Kentucky senators.
The senate minority leader said it was apropos that the lecture series, which he envisions as seven or eight speeches given at colleges and universities across the state, begin at a school that has strong ties to the subjects of his first talk, the Breckinridge family.
John C. Breckinridge, who would become the country's youngest vice president at the age of 36 before serving in the Senate, graduated from the school in 1838. An uncle, Robert Jefferson Breckinridge, is the namesake of Breckinridge Hall on Centre's campus.
The speech, entitled “A Family Affair: John Brown and the Breckinridges in the U.S. Senate,” also touched on the careers of Brown, a Breckinridge cousin, and John Breckinridge, John C.'s grandfather.
While he didn't carry the famous last name, Brown was responsible for charting the course for the Breckinridge political dynasty, McConnell said.
A Virginian by birth, Brown became the only representative from what would later be Kentucky in the Continental Congress and lobbied hard in favor of a federal constitution. McConnell said he could be given some credit for the adoption of the Constitution because of his advocacy from afar during the Virginia Ratifying Convention.
During his time in public life, including his work in the Senate, Brown supported Kentucky statehood, American navigation rights for the Mississippi River and protection for settlers against Native American attacks. His actions secured a place for him as one of Kentucky's founding fathers, McConnell told the audience.
John Breckinridge, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, was known for his staunch support of the Louisiana Purchase, which allowed Kentuckians access to the Mississippi River. He became the first cabinet secretary from west of the Appalachian Mountains when Jefferson made him attorney general, a job McConnell said Breckinridge struggled with, as he lost all but one of his cases before the Supreme Court.
Centre Alum John C. Breckinridge, served as a pro-slavery senator who advocated for popular sovereignty in the nation’s new territories at a time when the nation was headed for the Civil War. He fled to the Confederacy and served as a general during the war, was exiled in Canada following the conflict and after a pardon from the president returned to Kentucky where he practiced law and was involved with building railroads.
McConnell, who said he has maintained a keen interest in history since his youth, spoke for about 30 minutes about the powerful political clan.
While debate is brewing in Washington and the Supreme Court presumably labors over opinions on the constitutionality of health care legislation, the hot topic of the day went largely undiscussed. However, in offering a glimpse at recent additions to his bookshelf, McConnell revealed that even his history reading involves matters of high court decision making.
The senator noted one of his most recent reads was a biography of Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall, whose court was responsible for defining the scope of federal and state powers and established judicial review in Marbury v. Madison. He said Jean Edward Smith's “John Marshall: Definer of Nation” was actually gifted to him by Chief Justice John Roberts.
There was some time left at the conclusion of the talk for McConnell to answer some questions and expound upon his own role as Kentucky's most prominent, and powerful, senator of the first part of the 21st Century.
Contrary to common perceptions about his ability to rule his fellow party members by might, McConnell said he must take an “all carrot and no stick” approach to leadership. He offered several quips about the deliberate pace at which the country's highest deliberative body works.
“It’s like being the caretaker at a cemetery,” McConnell said of his position as top Republican. “Everybody’s under you but nobody’s listening.”
McConnell is no stranger to Centre, having been awarded an honorary degree from the school in 2003. He also praised the college on the Senate floor recently, which entered his comments into the legislative record.
Michael Strysick, Centre's director of communications, was in charge of planning Thursday’s event. He said McConnell's visit was a further indication of the long-time positive relationship he and the school have developed.
Centre President John Roush also had high praise for McConnell’s initiative.
“This is what American politicians used to do,” Roush said at the conclusion of the speech.