Brackenridge, Hugh Henry

views updated May 21 2018

Hugh Henry Brackenridge

Born 1748 (Campbeltown, Scotland)

Died June 25, 1816 (Carlisle, Pennsylvania)


Hugh Henry Brackenridge's literary works reflect the mood and thoughts of late-eighteenth century America. His best-known work, Modern Chivalry, is one of the first novels written in the United States. It is an important example of both American satire (literary parody) and Western literature. Brackenridge also wrote short fiction stories, poetry, and essays, and he collaborated on two theatrical dramas. He wrote in the period between the end of the American Revolution (1775–83) and the beginning of the nineteenth century, a time when few other American writers were producing new literature. His work is notable for this reason and for the revolutionary ideals it expressed of individual freedoms from governmental control in politics as well as in art.

"Whence then our independence? It was the offspring of the understanding and the virtue of the people of America themselves. The eloquent advised, the brave fought, and we succeeded."

Brackenridge worked at various times as a judge, a politician, and a publisher, so most of his writing was strongly influenced by current events. He was a frequent contributor to the early debates on the nature of democracy (a government ruled by the people through majority decisions), American jurisprudence (law), and the relationship between federal and state governments. Brackenridge's published work paints a portrait of a new country in transition, moving from English traditions to a distinctly American form of government.

Called to public service

Brackenridge was born Hugh Montgomery Breckenridge in Kintyre, near Campbeltown, Scotland, in 1748. His family was very poor. They moved to America in 1753, when Hugh was only five years old. Hugh's father was William Breckenridge, a farmer; the name of Hugh's mother is unknown. The family settled in rural York County, Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border. When Hugh was seven years old, he survived Native American attacks on British settlers in York County. These attacks followed the 1755 defeat of General Edward Braddock (1695–1755) by a combined force of French soldiers and Native Americans. The experience left Hugh with a lifelong bias against Native Americans. Over time, Hugh changed his middle name to Henry and the spelling of his last name to Brackenridge. The change in his last name was in keeping with the common spelling used by other immigrants who had come to America from Scotland during that time period.

There was little opportunity for education in York County, but Hugh had a passion for learning. He was determined to educate himself and received an introduction to classical studies from a local pastor. In 1763, the fifteen-year-old Brackenridge was hired as a teacher in a free school in Gunpowder Falls, Maryland. Free schools are much less structured than regular schools and allow students to develop at their own individual pace. He supported himself first by teaching and then by farming until 1768.

At the age of twenty, Brackenridge was finally able to enter the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University), where he was a classmate and good friend of future president James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17; see entry in volume 2). The two young men were devoted Patriots—they supported America's fight for independence from Britain—and became friends when they both joined a Whig literary club at Princeton. Whig was a British political term for those opposed to absolute authority by the monarchy. Another member of the club was Philip Freneau (1752–1832; see entry in volume 1), with whom Brackenridge later wrote Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia (1770). The book, a satire on American manners, is considered the first work of prose fiction written in America.

When the Princeton class of 1771 received their degrees, Brackenridge recited "The Rising Glory of America" at their commencement exercises. The patriotic poem, cowritten by Brackenridge and Freneau, glorified America and its future potential as a land of individual freedom. The poem was published in 1772. After graduation, Brackenridge briefly tutored at Princeton before going on to serve as headmaster of a Maryland academy in Somerset County. During his time at the academy, he continued his own studies, training for the ministry. By 1774, Brackenridge earned a master's degree in divinity (religion) and once again provided a poem for the commencement exercises at Princeton, this one titled "Poem on Divine Revelation."

Writing of the Revolution

In 1775, Brackenridge wrote his first drama, titled The Battle of Bunkers-Hill, which was published in 1776. He soon began working as a Presbyterian chaplain in the Continental Army, delivering political sermons to soldiers who were serving under General George Washington (1732–1799; see entry in volume 2). Brackenridge published a play titled The Death of General Montgomery at the Siege of Quebec in 1777 and the play Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scriptures, which came out in 1778. Although none of his works had attracted much notice, Brackenridge continued to write, hoping to reach a wider audience.

Brackenridge moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1778, where he became cofounder and editor of the United States Magazine. He wrote most of the articles for the publication. However, it was not a commercial success and closed down at the end of 1779. Deciding that a career change was in order, Brackenridge took up the study of law under future U.S. Supreme Court justice Samuel Chase (1741–1811) in Maryland. In 1780, Brackenridge was admitted to the Philadelphia bar (legal profession). The following year, he opened a law office in the frontier village of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brackenridge became a model citizen of the community and was recognized as one of the most outstanding members of the local bar.

In 1785, he married a young woman known to history only as Miss Montgomery. The following year their son, Henry Marie, was born, but the child was soon left without a mother when Miss Montgomery died around 1788. Brackenridge married again in 1790, this time to Sabina (or Sofia) Wolfe, with whom he had three children.

In 1786, Brackenridge cofounded the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper on the western frontier, to which he contributed political and literary essays. That same year, Brackenridge was elected to the State Assembly of Pennsylvania and obtained state funding support for establishment of the Pittsburgh Academy, later known as the University of Pittsburgh. Although federalism (support for a strong federal government) was not popular in western Pennsylvania, Brackenridge had won his seat in the legislature as a Federalist. He won the election mainly because he supported the poorer settlers in the western part of the state in their claims against their wealthier absentee landlords. He also shared the view of most white settlers in his constituency (voting district) that the seizure of Native American land was both moral and lawful.

During his time in the state assembly, Brackenridge succeeded in passing bills founding Allegheny County and a church in Pittsburgh. However, he also antagonized a powerful party leader and lost his bid for reelection in 1788. Brackenridge switched to the Democratic-Republican Party and continued his writing career. In 1792, he began publishing his widely read novel titled Modern Chivalry. Brackenridge made a series of additions and revisions to the novel, so it remained a work in progress until its final publication in 1815.

The Whiskey Rebellion

In 1791, a struggle developed between the Federalist leaders in President George Washington's administration and American farmers west of the Appalachians, mostly in Pennsylvania. Following the advice of Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1), the leader of the Federalists, Congress had committed to paying off the national debt that had accumulated during the American Revolution. Congress created a new tax on whiskey as one way to help pay off the debt. Whiskey had become an essential trading commodity among backcountry farmers who would process corn mash into whiskey. They would then barter that whiskey for needed supplies. Set at roughly 25 percent of the market value of a gallon of whiskey, the tax was to be collected from the farmers themselves, not from those who sold whiskey to the public. Federally appointed tax collectors combed the countryside, demanding payment from farmers who had yet to see any profit from their crops. Naturally, the farmers opposed the tax. However, resisting the new law had serious consequences since tax evaders could be tried only in federal district courts rather than in more sympathetic local courts. Upon conviction, they faced fines, jail time, and the loss of their property. Tensions over the new tax mounted, and in 1793 resistance to the tax erupted into a full-blown rebellion.

Gilbert Stuart

While Hugh Henry Brackenridge created a portrait of early America with words on paper, Gilbert Stuart used paint and canvas to detail the same period. Born in North Kingstown, Rhode Island, Stuart became a famous portraitist after leaving the United States in 1775 to train and work in London, England. Before going abroad, Stuart had found that the American Revolution was distracting American citizens, keeping them from patronizing the arts. He found no such lack of patronage in England. Stuart quickly established himself as a portraitist in London and exhibited his work at the Royal Academy, commanding high prices for his canvases. In 1787, at the height of his popularity in England, Stuart left for Dublin, Ireland, where his talents gained him great popularity among the citizens.

After an absence of eighteen years, Stuart returned to America. He and his family arrived in New York City on May 6, 1793, and Stuart began receiving commissions for his work from the leading citizens of the city. His portraits gave a simple dignity to their subjects, who were frequently captured sitting at ease in the formal rooms of their homes. The women were often shown in beautiful dresses, and the men wore uniforms that commemorated their earlier military service. Stuart kept up a spirited conversation during the long hours of posing in order to keep his sitters amused. In this way, he was able to call up a variety of different emotions in the face he was studying. Maintaining this spontaneity of expression allowed him to capture the true character of his subjects.

In November 1794, Stuart moved to Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital. He went with the specific intention of painting President George Washington's portrait. Stuart obtained sittings with Washington and produced a portrait in the spring of 1795. Known as the "Vaughan" portrait, it depicts a profile of the right side of Washington's face. It is a straightforward likeness of Washington the public figure. Stuart received another opportunity to paint the president in 1796. It was the last year of Washington's presidency and the end of his life time of public service. This second painting, known as the "Athenaeum" portrait, shows the left side of Washington's face and has become the Washington portrait most familiar to Americans. The painting was immediately popular with the public, and for more than two centuries it has dictated how Americans remember the first president of the United States. Stuart created several full-length paintings of Washington that are well-known, but they are not considered to be of the same quality as the portraits.

While he was in Philadelphia, Stuart painted almost every notable man and woman of the 1790s, including first lady Martha Washington (1732–1802; see entry in volume 2). He settled in Boston in 1805 and painted the Gibbs-Coolidge Set, which is the only surviving depiction of the first five presidents. Stuart's contemporaries declared the native-born artist "Father of American Portraiture," and a number of young artists journeyed to Boston to learn from the master. Stuart continued painting until a few weeks before his death at the age of seventy-two. His body of work remains a visual record of most of the leading personages of his day in Britain, Ireland, and America.

The Whiskey Rebellion was the first large-scale resistance to a national law under the U.S. Constitution. As tax collectors went after farmers who refused to pay, rebels echoed the cry of liberty heard only a few years before during the American Revolution. Meanwhile, federal representatives tried to maintain order within the young republic. Brackenridge opposed the tax and defended some of those who were being prosecuted for failure to pay. After violence broke out in 1794, he attempted to act as a mediator (one who seeks to resolve a dispute between two other parties) by both opposing the tax and supporting the federal government. Brackenridge's efforts failed. Both sides now saw him as the enemy. Threats were made on his life even as the Whiskey Rebellion came abruptly to an end in 1794 with a strong show of force by the government. The following year, Brackenridge published Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania in the Year 1794 in an effort to explain his actions and clear his name.

Brackenridge took a break from all political involvement after the Whiskey Rebellion. He read, wrote, and reconstructed his law practice. Brackenridge also took the opportunity of a reduced schedule to personally supervise the education of his son Henry Marie, who had been living with a French family in Louisiana since 1793.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court

Brackenridge returned to political activity in 1798 when he became a leading candidate in Jefferson's Democratic-Republican Party in western Pennsylvania. Brackenridge lost the race for the State Assembly but won the support of his party's successful candidate for governor, Thomas McKean (1734–1817). The following year, Governor McKean appointed Brackenridge as a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, a position he held for the rest of his life.

During Brackenridge's judgeship, Pennsylvania politics faced a major crisis when efforts were made to impeach (formally accusing a government official with misconduct) three state supreme court justices. The proceedings grew out of a case against a Philadelphia merchant who was found guilty of contempt of court (disobedience) in 1804. At that time, people on the Western frontier felt a general distrust for educated persons; lawyers and judges were especially suspect. Therefore, the public was outraged by the guilty ruling in this case, and the people's anger rose until impeachment charges were filed. Brackenridge believed in judicial independence (courts not part of politics) and strongly defended his fellow judges from public ridicule.

In 1800, Brackenridge founded the Tree of Liberty, arival newspaper to the Pittsburgh Gazette, which had become a Federalist newspaper. The Tree of Liberty was the voice of the Jeffersonians (the Democratic-Republicans) in the West and was created to spread Brackenridge's political ideas among the frontiersmen. Relocating his family in 1801 to Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Brackenridge continued his writing and publishing efforts along with his court duties. He had a reputation for being eccentric and appeared an oddity in public because he continued his habit of wearing the knee britches, flannel frock coat, and cocked hat that had been fashionable when he was a young man. In 1810, at the age of sixty-two, Brackenridge posed for a portrait by famous painter Gilbert Stuart (1755–1828; see box).

Brackenridge believed that changing laws should be left to legislatures with their publicly elected members, but he urged judges to be active in the democratic process by interpreting laws in creative ways when faced with new kinds of situations in the cases they hear. Early in the nineteenth century, he began to study how English common law (a legal system used for several centuries in England in which law is built on a history of judge's decisions rather than written codes) fit into democratic society. Brackenridge admired common law wherever it proved useful to American jurisprudence and presented his insights in Law Miscellanies in 1814. It was Brackenridge's final major publication before he died on June 25, 1816. He was buried in the Old Graveyard in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

For More Information


Boyd, Steven R., ed. The Whiskey Rebellion: Past and Present Perspectives. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Brackenridge, Hugh Henry. Incidents of the Insurrection. New Haven, CT: College and University Press Services, 1972.

Marder, Daniel. Hugh Henry Brackenridge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1967.

Walker, John, and Daniel Robbins, eds. Gilbert Stuart: Portraitist of the Young Republic 1755–1828. Meriden, CT: Meriden Gravure Company, 1967.

Web Sites

"Brackenridge, Hugh Henry." Princeton University Press. (accessed on August 11, 2005).

"Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748–1816)." Encyclopedia Dickinsonia: Dickinson College. (accessed on August 11, 2005).

"Tour: Gilbert Stuart (American, 1755–1828)." National Gallery of Art. (accessed on August 11, 2005).

Brackenridge, Hugh Henry (1748-1816)

views updated May 29 2018

Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816)


Novelist, lawyer

Voice of the New Republic. Hugh Henry Brackenridge began his literary career as coauthor of The Rising Glory of America (1772), a poem so aptly expressing the optimism of several generations of Americans that it became the prototype for dozens of other patriotic poems, including Joel Barlows The Prospect of Peace (1778) and Timothy Dwights America (1780). Brackenridge is best known, however, for his mock-epic novel Modern Chivalry (17921815), often called the first evenhanded satire on American democracy.

Early Life. Born in Scotland, Brackenridge and his family immigrated in 1753 to Pennsylvania, where they eked out a living on a small farm in rural York County. After five years of teaching in frontier schools he enrolled at Princeton University in 1768. At graduation ceremonies in September 1771 he and his friend Philip Freneau delivered their poem The Rising Glory of America, which was published in Philadelphia the following year. After graduation Brackenridge taught school while continuing his literary pursuits. He made his revolutionary sympathies clear in two anti-British plays, The Battle of Bunkers-Hill (1776) and The Death of General Montgomery (1777). After serving as a chaplain in Gen. George Washingtons army (17771778), Brackenridge settled in Philadelphia, where he founded the United States Magazine as a vehicle for his patriotic fervor. The first issue appeared in January 1779. The failure of the magazine by the end of the same year helped to undermine his optimism about the nations potential for political and cultural achievement; yet he remained a staunch patriot.

Lawyer, Politician, and Eccentric. Temporarily abandoning literature, Brackenridge studied law, and in 1781 he established a legal practice in Pittsburgh. His success as a lawyer soon brought him into political prominence. Elected to the Pennsylvania legislature in 1786, he developed a reputation as an advocate of western frontier interests. Yet he also became known for his erratic and inconsistent behavior in political and personal matters. Stories about his disheveled and skimpy dress spread throughout his life. Someone once claimed to have seen Brackenridge riding naked in the rain with his clothes tucked under saddle. Asked to explain his behavior, he said that the storm you know, would spoil the clothes, but it couldnt spoil me. Despite such stories, Brackenridges mercurial conduct was more than a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. His inconsistencies arose from his conscious rejection of political or ideological labels. He took this outlook into his fiction, where he analyzed and examined opposing tendencies in American culture without favoring one side over the other.

Modern Chivalry. Brackenridges detached perspective is most evident in Modern Chivalry, which he began in 1788 and published in a series of volumes between 1792 and 1815. The novel is a comic account of the adventures of two fictional characters, Capt. John Farrago and his Irish servant, Teague ORegan. As he described their travels, Brackenridge offered a vivid re-creation of life on the frontier and his own commentary on postrevolutionary American society. Farrago is a gentleman who represents the deferential social order of prerevolutionary America, while the recent immigrant Teague stands for the democratic impulses that appeared to be overtaking American society. Brackenridges constant mocking of Teagues ignorance and foolishness reveals his reservations about these democratic trends. Yet he also recognized the power of the those forces and saw in them the wave of the future.

Incidents of the Insurrection. The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 forced Brackenridge to grapple directly with these forces. Incensed by the federal excise tax on whiskey, passed in 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania resorted to violent resistance. Brackenridge sympathized with their grievances, but he took a middle road and sought to moderate the conflict. Although he disavowed the rebels violent methods, supporters of the tax charged that Brackenridge had instigated the insurrection. To defend his actions Brackenridge provided his own firsthand account of the rebellion in Incidents of the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania in the Year 1794 (1795).

Later Life. After successfully vindicating himself, Brackenridge continued his political and literary activities. He was appointed a judge for the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1799 and finished publishing Modern Chivalry in 1815, the year before his death.


Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Modern Chivalry, edited by Lewis Leary (New Haven: College & University Press, 1965).

Emory Elliott, ed., American Writers of the Early Republic, Dictionary of Literary Biography, volume 37 (Detroit: Gale Research, 1985);

Joseph J. Ellis, After the Revolution: Profiles of Early American Culture (New York: Norton, 1979);

Daniel Marder, Hugh Henry Brackenridge (New York: Twayne, 1967).

Hugh Henry Brackenridge

views updated Jun 11 2018

Hugh Henry Brackenridge

Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1749-1816) was an American lawyer and writer. His reputation as a writer rests almost entirely on "Modern Chivalry, " a novel in which he humorously reveals the confusion and controversy that characterized the early years of the American Republic.

Born in Scotland, Hugh Henry Brackenridge was brought by his parents to frontier Pennsylvania in 1763. Educated in country schools, at 16 he became a schoolmaster at Gunpowder Falls, Md. In 1768 he entered Princeton, where with Philip Freneau he composed The Rising Glory of America for their graduation exercises in 1771. Though teaching and the study of divinity and law occupied the next several years, he wrote A Poem on Divine Revelation on receiving his master of arts degree from Princeton in 1774 and two patriotic plays, for presentation by his students, in 1775 and 1777.

In 1776 Brackenridge became a chaplain with the Continental Army, publishing a collection of his sermons as Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scriptures (1778). In 1779 he edited the short-lived United States Magazine, which contained important early writings of Freneau and Brackenridge's serialized allegorical narrative The Cave of Vanhest. A year later he was admitted to the bar and in 1781 settled in the frontier village of Pittsburgh, where he became a prominent, often controversial, citizen, founded its first newspaper, and opened its first bookstore.

Brackenridge wrote both in prose and in verse on law, politics, and Native American affairs, including A Masque, Written at Warm Springs in Virginia (1784); "The Trial of Mamachtaga, " one of the earliest effective American short stories; an eyewitness account, Incidents of the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania (1795); and Law Miscellanies (1814).

Modern Chivalry

Brackenridge's novel Modern Chivalry first appeared in two volumes in 1792; a third volume appeared in 1793, a fourth in 1797; new parts were issued in 1804 and 1805; the whole was expanded and revised in four volumes in 1816; a posthumous revised edition in two volumes appeared in 1819. Pretending to be "a book without a thought, or the smallest degree of sense, " Modern Chivalry recites the adventures of quixotic Captain Farrago and his servant, Teague O'Regan, as they roam the countryside, with ignorant Teague bumbling into trouble by being elected again and again to public office, tarred and feathered or jailed for political or amorous activities—a democratic bumpkin used to satirize the peculiarities of democracy. Physicians, lawyers, army veterans, strong-armed and strong-voiced politicians, mob violence, and lovesickness all submit to Brackenridge's bantering, double-edged observations. This picaresque and satirical novel owes much to Cervantes, Henry Fielding, and Laurence Sterne. In language forthright, in humor often slapstick, sometimes fiercely ironic, it anticipates later satiric examinations of democracy by James Fenimore Cooper, Herman Melville, and H.L. Mencken.

Further Reading

Excellent biographies of Brackenridge are Claude Milton Newlin, The Life and Writings of Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1932), and Daniel Marder, Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1967). A complete edition of Brackenridge's Modern Chivalry was edited by Newlin in 1937, a modernized edition of the first four volumes by Lewis Leary in 1965.

Additional Sources

Indian atrocities: narratives of the perils and sufferings of Dr. Knight and John Slover, among the Indians, during the Revolutionary War, Fairfield, Wash.: Ye Galleon Press, 1983. □