Brackenridge, Hugh Henry

Brackenridge, Hugh Henry (1748-1816), a powerfully built, twenty-year-old Scotsman with a booming voice and fierce countenance, must have captured the attention of his younger classmates when he entered the class of 1771. Instead of courting the Muses, he appeared better suited for clearing the barrens of York County, Pennsylvania, to which his parents had emigrated from Scotland when he was a child. But as his quick and lasting friends James Madison and Philip Freneau soon recognized, this farmer's son possessed impressive classical learning, oratorical skills, and a wit as ready as his fists. With his passion for knowledge and for moral and public good, Brackenridge had before him a career in public service and letters that would lead him to the bench of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and to the first rank of early American writers.

An avid Whig at Princeton and later a Jeffersonian democrat, Brackenridge joined Freneau, Madison, and others in forming the American Whig Society to counter the conservative Cliosophic Society. These activities led Freneau and Brackenridge to collaborate on Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia, a satire on American manners that may be the first work of prose fiction written in America. They also combined their talents in composing a patriotic poem of epic design, ``The Rising Glory of America,'' which Brackenridge read at the commencement exercises of 1771 at Nassau Hall.

After his graduation Brackenridge sought a calling through which he could best attain his lifetime goal of educating Americans for liberty. He completed his training for the ministry, taught for sometime, and served successfully as headmaster of a Maryland academy. The Revolutionary War found him as an army chaplain preaching fiery patriotic sermons to the soldiers. Hoping for a wider sphere of influence, he started the United States Magazine in Philadelphia in 1778, but its lagging subscriptions convinced him to change his profession and location. He took a law degree and moved to the tiny village of Pittsburgh, where he later reflected that his aim in ``offering myself to the place'' was ``to advance the country and thereby myself.''

Soon a distinguished citizen of Pittsburgh and founder of the first western newspaper, The Pittsburgh Gazette, he was elected to the state assembly, where he fought for the adoption of the Federal Constitution and obtained state endowments for the establishment of the Pittsburgh Academy (University of Pittsburgh). Outspoken and uncompromising, he lost a bid for re-election because he followed his conscience and opposed popular sentiment in supporting federal controls; and he also nearly lost his life when he attempted to mediate the Whiskey Rebellion.

During his years as a judge (1799-1814), Brackenridge continued his untiring efforts to instruct the people. In addition to a steady flow of satires, narratives, and published sermons, he devoted himself to his masterwork, Modern Chivalry, a long comic narrative in the tradition of Don Quixote and Tom Jones. Written, he said, as an entertaining lecture on morals and society for ~``Tom, Dick, and Harry of the woods,'' the novel exposes the folly of a people whose ignorance and greed causes them to elect corrupt and hypocritical leaders. Through this work, published in several volumes between 1792 and 1815, Brackenridge finally achieved his goal of reaching a large portion of the people with his moral precepts. His novel was called ``a textbook for all classes of society,'' and his son reported that his name ``became a household word for half a century.''

In recent years modern reprintings of his writings and critical reevaluations have greatly enhanced his literary reputation, placing Brackenridge squarely at the beginning of a democratic tradition in American literature that includes Whitman and Twain. Like them, Brackenridge was often discouraged by the folly of Americans, but he never lost faith in the ultimate possibilities of an educated democratic people.

Emory B. Elliott, Jr.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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