Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816)
Although a commonly overlooked American literary figure, Hugh Henry Brackenridge was widely known in his time as an “eccentric.” A man of letters who sought to bring knowledge and democracy to the frontiers of western Pennsylvania, a political idealist split between Federalist and Republican ideologies, an advocate for centralized government and the Constitution of the United States, and a supporter of the French Revolution, Brackenridge’s public life (and its seeming contradictions) simultaneously overshadowed and influenced his literary life.
Brackenridge was born in 1748 in Kintyre, Scotland. At the age of five, his family relocated to the “Barrens” — rural farming territory in York County, Pennsylvania. The struggles of Scottish communities on the frontier, including instances of indigenous hostility, remained with Brackenridge throughout his career, impacting his later political and literary endeavors.
Though Brackenridge’s youth was spent laboring, his evenings were devoted to study, and, intending ultimately to go into the ministry, he began college at Princeton in 1768. At Princeton, he befriended classmates Philip Freneau, James Madison, and William Bradford. The young friends began experimenting in satire as members of the Whig Student Society, engaging in debate with the student Tories in a series of poems titled Satires against Tories. Brackenridge and Freneau also collaborated on other literary endeavors. In 1770, the pair co-authored Father Bambo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca, one of the first American novels, and the poem “The Rising Glory of America,” which Brackenridge read at their commencement in 1771.
After college, Brackenridge worked as a schoolmaster in Maryland before returning to Princeton for a Master’s degree. It was at this time that Brackenridge became involved in the Revolutionary War effort as an army chaplain, which further fueled his passion for oratory. According to biographer Daniel Marder, Brackenridge “saw himself as a combination of druid…, of heroic bard, and of propagandist,” and his sermons were characterized by “clever devices of analogy” that “substituted patriotic and civic passions for religious ones” (8). In 1775, Brackenridge wrote his first dramatic narrative The Battle of Bunkers-Hill, which was published the following year.
After the Revolution, Brackenridge moved to Philadelphia, capital of the United States at the time, filled with patriotic idealism and aspirations to publish a newspaper that would, according to Marder, “serve the cause of American independence by fostering a native literature” (9). In late 1778, Brackenridge founded The United States Magazine as an educational vehicle to teach the common man how to engage and participate in democracy responsibly. Most notably, the magazine published his piece “The Cave of Vanhest” in 1779, which tells the story of a highly educated hermit who finds happiness upon removing himself from the frustrations and corruptions of society. Unfortunately, the magazine failed after its first year of publication.
After the failure of The United States Magazine, Brackenridge studied law and was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1780. By 1781, Brackenridge moved to the “backcountry” locale of Pittsburgh where he felt he could make a name for himself and fulfill his educational mission. Although it may be difficult for students to imagine a place like Pittsburgh as “backcountry,” in the late 1700s, the area was rural, undeveloped, and sparsely populated farm country. As an attorney in Pittsburgh, Brackenridge perplexed many because he embodied both eastern and western values. While he thoroughly believed in prioritizing the common good over individual self-interests, he also championed the causes of the frontiersmen’s individual rights and understood their fears about potential indigenous confrontations.
Brackenridge’s split affinities frequently resulted in alienation. In 1785, for example, much uproar surrounded Brackenridge’s defense of an Indian who drunkenly killed an American. While Brackenridge was openly in favor of Indian removal, he still maintained the necessity of rational and objective consideration in the matter. Community members felt betrayed by Brackenridge and threatened to overtake the prison and hang the Indian who awaited trail. Brackenridge dramatized the event in “The Trial of Mamachtaga,” in which the narrator sets aside biases and objectively examines the Indian’s character.
By 1786, Brackenridge successfully brought knowledge to the backcountry by establishing its first periodical publication The Pittsburg Gazette. Its mission, much like that of The United States Magazine, was to promote democratic education and civic responsibility in the West. The success of The Pittsburg Gazette encouraged Brackenridge to run for political office that year, and he was elected to the Pennsylvania State Assembly. His platform included establishing educational facilities and a church for all denominations. His constituents, however, were more interested in obtaining land titles and preventing indigenous attacks. By his second year in the State Assembly, difficulties increased and Brackenridge’s political rival William Findley, who perceived Brackenridge’s blend of eastern and western ideals as two-faced, ensured Brackenridge’s political alienation.
Brackenridge felt further political disappointment when Findley was selected for the constitutional ratifying convention. After the ratification of the Constitution in June 1788, Federalists blocked Brackenridge from running against Findley for the first Congress. Brackenridge’s perceptions of Findley as “unqualified” for political office eventually evolved into the essential theme at work in Brackenridge’s master narrative, the massive satiric novel Modern Chivalry, which would take him nearly the rest of his life—over two decades and the span of four American presidencies—to complete.
By the time Brackenridge began work on Modern Chivalry in the early 1790s, he had renounced affiliation with the Federalists and had withdrawn from the political sphere. Disappointed by his political failures, Brackenridge satirized the essential need to educate an ignorant and irrational public to ensure that only “qualified” individuals governed in the public political sphere. Brackenridge still believed that all “unqualified” men had the inherent capacity to think and behave morally and rationally, but they must first see the absurdity of ruling with passions. Such absurdity comes through clearly in Modern Chivalry as readers follow the quixotic travels of the intellectual and idealistic Captain John Farrago and his mischievous and buffoonish Irish servant Teague O’Regan from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and back again. As Teague’s ignorance repeatedly leads him into mishap after mishap with other characters on their journey, Farrago attempts to mediate and resolve miscommunications rationally. Farrago’s mediations, however, frequently end in failure, and the hostility between arguing parties is usually redirected upon Farrago for his efforts. Brackenridge hoped that satire, which exaggerated and parodied the flawed and irrational thinking he saw in the political sphere, would help readers to visualize American problems more clearly and would motivate readers to think and behave differently from the poor models of character exhibited in the novel.
Brackenridge published Volumes I and II of Modern Chivalry in 1792 in Philadelphia. Volume III of Modern Chivalry, published in 1793 in Pittsburgh, was the first work to be written, printed, and sold west of the Allegheny Mountains.
In 1794, Brackenridge’s involvement in the Whiskey Rebellion forced him back into public life. Since eighteenth-century methods of transportation were poor and unreliable, western farmers often converted grain to whiskey to reduce a harvest’s bulk. A tax on whiskey had existed since the colonial era, but attempts to collect were futile. When the new republican government started enforcing the tax, western farmers were outraged, and efforts to collect often turned violent. Westerners also threatened anyone who paid the tax or supported the government’s measures. As a potentially violent insurrection mounted, Brackenridge entered as mediator and was again caught in the middle of political dispute. On one hand, he did not support the whiskey tax and felt sympathetically for westerners, but on the other hand, he was a man with great respect for the law.
Resulting from his attempts at compromise, western frontiersmen saw Brackenridge as a traitor who favored eastern interests. In the East, Alexander Hamilton described Brackenridge as “the worst of the insurrectionists.” Despite the misconceptions about his role, Brackenridge still sought to persuade westerners to agree to an amnesty. The following year, Brackenridge attempted to clarify all misconceptions about his role in the Whiskey Rebellion by publishing Incidents of the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania in the Year 1794. Marder describes the narrative as “a suspenseful drama of individual versus mob psychology, a realistic portrait of a social movement, and a story of individual sensibility” (20). Additionally, Brackenridge presented a satirical take on the Whiskey Rebellion in Volume IV of Modern Chivalry, published in 1797, in which Teague becomes a government appointed tax collector who eventually ends up tarred and feathered by a public mob.
In the late 1790s, between working on Modern Chivalry and dabbling in Scots dialect poetry, Brackenridge became actively involved in Thomas Jefferson’s presidential campaign, promoting Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican ideologies in the West. As a reward for his efforts, Brackenridge received an appointment as judge of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1799 although he later found himself disagreeing with Jefferson’s judicial reform policies. He also established the Jeffersonian newspaper the Tree of Liberty in 1800.
In 1801, Brackenridge left Pittsburgh after twenty years of residence and moved to Carlisle, Pennsylvania where he continued to work on Modern Chivalry. Volumes I and II of Part II of the novel were published in 1804 and 1805 respectively. The final volume of Modern Chivalry was published in a newly revised edition of the collected volumes in 1815. Overall, Modern Chivalry entails a long and complicated publication history, not only because its volumes were serially published over the course of several decades, but also because Brackenridge frequently revised and expanded upon previous volumes before ultimately publishing them as a single text. Students should consult Ed White’s “A Note on the Text” in the Hackett edition of Modern Chivalry for more information on the novel’s publication history.
Brackenridge died in Carlisle in June 1816.
Marder, Daniel. Introduction. A Hugh Henry Brackenridge Reader, 1770-1815, by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, U of Pittsburgh P, 1970, pp. 3-46.
White, Ed. A Note on the Text. Modern Chivalry, by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Hackett, 2009, pp. xxix-xxxi.