Breckinridge was born on March 7, 1763, near what is now Fincastle, in the southern part of Augusta County that in 1770 became Botetourt County. He was the son of Robert Breckinridge, or Breckenridge, and his second wife, Lettice Preston Breckinridge. His elder half brother Robert Breckinridge served in the Convention of 1788, and his brother John Breckinridge represented Kentucky in the U.S. Senate and served briefly as attorney general of the United States. Breckinridge received his early education from private tutors. After his father’s death about 1773, his uncle William Preston became his guardian. During the Revolutionary War Breckinridge enlisted as a private in a company of Botetourt riflemen that Preston commanded, and in 1781 he served as an ensign under General Nathanael Greene in North Carolina. Breckinridge then returned home and attended Liberty Hall Academy (later Washington and Lee University). On June 13, 1782, he was appointed deputy clerk of Botetourt County.
Breckinridge studied law under George Wythe at the College of William and Mary in 1788. A visit to that year’s state convention in Richmond impressed him with the eloquence of the debates over the ratification of the new federal Constitution. Breckinridge returned to Botetourt County early in 1789 and on February 10 presented his license to practice law to the county court. He opened a law office in Fincastle and supplemented his income with work as an inspector of federal tax collection for an eight-county district. In November 1789 Breckinridge was appointed trustee for the town of Fincastle, and on April 14, 1790, he was sworn in as a captain in the county militia. He also served as commonwealth’s attorney for Botetourt County until June 13, 1797. In Richmond on January 1, 1791, he married Ann Selden, of Elizabeth City County. At Grove Hill, their residence just northwest of Fincastle, Breckinridge built an elegant twenty-six-room house in the fashionable Federal style. They had five sons and five daughters.
In the spring of 1789 Breckinridge won election to the first of two consecutive one-year terms representing Botetourt County in the House of Delegates. He sat on the Committee for Courts of Justice during both terms and on the Committee on Privileges and Elections during the second. From 1796 to 1802 Breckinridge again represented the county in the House of Delegates. In addition to service on the same committees he was a member of the Committee on Claims in 1796 and of the Committee on Propositions and Grievances thereafter. Breckinridge speedily became a leader among the General Assembly’s Federalists, who unsuccessfully nominated him for U.S. senator in 1796 and for governor in 1799. Breckinridge also lost when he ran as the Federalist candidate for presidential elector in 1800. He returned to the House of Delegates from 1806 to 1808, when he served again on the influential Committees on Claims and on Propositions and Grievances. The assembly elected him a brigadier general of militia, with a commission dated February 1, 1809.
In 1807 Breckinridge lost a poorly organized campaign for Congress to the incumbent Republican, Alexander Wilson, of Rockbridge County. He defeated Wilson in 1809 and was reelected three times, serving from December 1809 to March 1817 as the representative of a district that initially included the counties of Botetourt, Greenbrier, Kanawha, Monroe, and Rockbridge. Breckinridge sat on the Committee for the District of Columbia during his first term, on the Committee on Public Lands during his next two terms, and on the Committee on the Post Office and Post Roads during his fourth term. He seldom spoke in Congress but kept his constituents informed of his Federalist foreign policy views, including fear of Napoleon’s expansionistic schemes. Breckinridge believed that France was a greater threat to the United States than Great Britain was. Breckinridge opposed the declaration of war on Britain in 1812, but following the burning of Washington, D.C., he received orders on October 6, 1814, to lead his brigade of Virginia militiamen north from Richmond to reinforce the defenses around Washington and Baltimore. His regiment crossed the Potomac River into Maryland and encamped until the danger of further damage from the British fleet was over and his troops were sent home that December.
Breckinridge did not seek reelection to Congress in 1817. The previous year he had been president of a convention in Staunton at which representatives from the Piedmont and western counties unsuccessfully called for a state constitutional convention to reduce the disproportionate political power of Tidewater counties in the General Assembly. Breckinridge was also one of the commissioners who met with Thomas Jefferson on August 1, 1818, to determine the site of the University of Virginia and served on the committee that reported the commission’s recommendations to the assembly. In 1819 the governor appointed him to the new university’s board of visitors, a position he held until his death.
Reelected to the House of Delegates in 1819, Breckinridge served on the Committees on Finance and on Schools and Colleges and used his influence to push through the assembly a loan bill for the university, thus enabling the construction of buildings to proceed. After two terms he declined to run for reelection in 1821, but he served again during the session of 1823–1824 and was appointed to the Committees on Militia Laws and on Roads and Internal Navigation. In 1829 Breckinridge lost his last campaign, as a candidate for a state constitutional convention, and received the fifth-largest number of votes for the four seats from a seven-county district.
A successful land speculator, Breckinridge owned about 4,000 acres by 1804. He was a planter, but his diverse business interests also included a brickyard, a tannery, a forge, and the Catawba Mill, mostly built and operated by slaves, which for many years ground cornmeal and graham flour. Not surprisingly, Breckinridge supported internal improvement proposals in the assembly, particularly construction of the James River and Kanawha Canal, and he attended a meeting in Charlottesville on July 14, 1828, to recommend that the General Assembly supplement the state’s internal improvement fund and improve Virginia’s roads and canals.
Breckinridge died at Grove Hill on May 13, 1833, and was buried with military honors in the family cemetery there.