Hugh Henry Brackenridge

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Publisher: Gale
Series: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Document Type: Biography
Length: 4,198 words

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About this Person
Born: 1748 in Campbeltown, Scotland
Died: June 25, 1816 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, United States
Nationality: American
Occupation: Writer
Other Names: Brackenridge, Hugh Henry


  • A Poem, on the Rising Glory of America, by Brackenridge and Philip Freneau (Philadelphia: Printed by Joseph Crukshank for R. Aitken, bookseller, 1772).
  • A Poem on Divine Revelation (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by R. Aitken, bookseller, 1774).
  • The Battle of Bunkers-Hill. A Dramatic Piece, of Five Acts, in Heroic Measure (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by Robert Bell, 1776).
  • The Death of General Montgomery, At the Siege of Quebec. A Tragedy (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by Robert Bell, 1777).
  • Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scripture (Lancaster, Pa.: Printed by Francis Bailey, 1778).
  • Modern Chivalry, part 1, volumes 1 and 2 (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by John M'Culloch, 1792; revised edition in 1 volume, Philadelphia: J. Conrad, 1804); part 1, volume 3 (Pittsburgh: Printed and sold by John Scull, 1793); part 1, volume 4 (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by John M'Culloch, 1797); part 1, volumes 3 and 4, revised edition in 1 volume (Philadelphia & Richmond: Jacob Johnson, 1807); part 2, volume 1 (Carlisle, Pa.: Printed by Archibald London, 1804); part 2, volume 2 (Carlisle, Pa.: Printed by Archibald Loudon, 1805); parts 1 and 2, revised edition in 4 volumes (Philadelphia & Richmond: Johnson & Warner, 1815); parts 1 and 2, revised again in 2 volumes (Pittsburgh: Patterson & Lambdin, 1819).
  • Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794 (Philadelphia: Printed and sold by John M'Culloch, 1795).
  • Law Miscellanies (Philadelphia: P. Byrne, 1814).


During his lifetime, Hugh Henry Brackenridge worked as a schoolteacher, an army chaplain, an editor, a politician, a lawyer, and a judge; and he wrote verse, drama, essays, and prose fiction, achieving widest literary fame for his only novel, Modern Chivalry , published in two parts and a number of volumes from 1792 to 1805, and in two completely revised editions in 1815 and 1819. In many ways a reflection of Brackenridge's lifelong interest in the new democracy, the novel is lengthy and often cumbersome, replete with many essaylike sections which are heavily allusive, digressive, and rambling. But the main pulse of Modern Chivalry, the picaresque journey of Captain John Farrago and his bog-trotter servant Teague O'Regan, both entertains and informs. It is against the backdrop of this journey that Brackenridge targets the humorous attack on the excesses of democracy for which he is celebrated.

Hugh Henry Brackenridge was born in Kintyre, Scotland, in 1748. Motivated by economic hardship and hope for greater financial security in the New World, the family sailed to New York. Once there they sold most of their clothing to raise necessary additional funds and walked, the story has it, most of the way from New York to Pennsylvania. They joined the Scotch-Irish settlement in the frontier region of York County, an area known as the Barrens, and began a life of struggle with farming the land and with Indian raids.

Even while he worked on the farm, young Brackenridge was given every educational opportunity that the area offered. He attended the Peach Bottom Township Slate Ridge School where the program of studies was devoted to the classics. And he later studied with John Blair at Fagg's Manor, walking the thirty-mile distance to meet with the teacher whose brother Samuel Blair had founded the school there in 1739. Samuel Blair was a graduate of the Log College (Rev. William Tennent, Sr.'s school for theological and classical studies in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which was the alma mater of some of the most celebrated ministers of the day), and a leading exponent of New Light Presbyterianism, the evangelical branch of that church.

Brackenridge quickly discovered both his preference for studying over farming and his love for the classics, a love reflected in the frequent classical allusions in his writings. A "Biographical Notice," written in 1842 by Brackenridge's son Henry Marie and reprinted in the 1846 and 1856 editions of Modern Chivalry, reveals how unhappy young Brackenridge was when a "literary" cow destroyed the volume of Horace the boy had left resting on a tree stump in the field. From the same source we learn of Brackenridge's first job, when at fifteen years of age, he became a schoolteacher at a free school in Gunpowder Falls, Maryland, in 1763. Henry Marie Brackenridge reports that his father won the respect of the students and quieted the roughnecks only after he threatened a class bully with a hot firebrand.

In 1768, Brackenridge matriculated at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where he gained further exposure to New Light Presbyterianism, continued his studies in the classics, and was introduced to Thomas Reid 's philosophy of Scottish Common Sense Realism, advocated by the college president, John Witherspoon . According to Reid's philosophy, man possesses an inner sense that allows him to perceive certain ideas held in common by all mankind. With his friends Philip Freneau , James Madison , and William Bradford, Brackenridge formed the Whig Society, a literary club whose members wrote verse satires aimed at their Tory rivals who belonged to the Cliosophic Society. And in collaboration with Philip Freneau , Brackenridge wrote two important pieces: "The Rising Glory of America," a commencement poem delivered in 1771 and published under a slightly different title in 1772, and "Father Bombo's Pilgrimage," (written in 1770), a humorous prose fiction account of Father Bombo's adventures on his journey to Mecca. Only a fragment of this second piece is extant, but it is enough to hint of Brackenridge's ability to depict humorously the antics and the language of a low-life Irishman, an ability that came to full flower with the creation of Teague O'Regan, the Sancho Panza figure of Modern Chivalry .

After graduating from the College of New Jersey in 1771 (he later received an M.A. from that school in 1774), Brackenridge became the master of an academy in Somerset County, Maryland, where he stayed for four years. During part of that time, Freneau worked with him there as a teacher. Brackenridge's only two plays were both written at this time. In 1775 he wrote The Battle of Bunkers-Hill (1776) to raise the patriotic consciousness of his students, and he followed that play with The Death of General Montgomery At the Siege of Quebec (1777) to lash out against the British. As his own interest in American independence grew, Brackenridge enlisted as a chaplain in Washington's army, living with the troops in tents and on battlefields and preaching, not against the ways of Satan, but against the ways of British tyranny. Although Brackenridge had never taken holy orders, he had had training in scripture and in oratory in college and was licensed to preach, but he interpreted his role as preacher as secular rather than religious. When he had six of his sermons published in 1778, he entitled them Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scriptures.

As a writer and as a citizen, Brackenridge was also interested in American literary independence from British models, and responding to Philadelphia's wartime need for what he called "a literary coffeehouse of public conversation," he founded the United States Magazine, a journal intended to serve as a forum for political discussion as well as a vehicle for rousing patriotic sentiment and cultivating belles letters. Although the periodical was to be short-lived, both funds and public interest lapsing at the end of a year, it functioned during its twelve issues from January through December of 1779 as a service to young writers. Freneau's "Beauties of Vera Cruz" and "House of Night" and Brackenridge's "Cave of Vanhest" all appeared in the journal.

When the magazine failed, Brackenridge turned to a career in law, and after studying with Samuel Chase in Annapolis, he was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1781. That same year, hoping for a more substantial and challenging practice than the Philadelphia competition would allow, Brackenridge moved to Pittsburgh where, for the next twenty years, he was heavily involved in legal clashes between the interests of the urban and monied East and those of the agrarian and financially insecure West.

In 1785 he married a Miss Montgomery about whom almost nothing is known, celebrating the birth of his son, Henry Marie a year later. Also in 1786, he was elected to the Pennsylvania Assembly, committed, or so his Western supporters thought, to defending their interests. But Brackenridge was to undergo a change of heart, and instead of voting for the certificate bill which would have helped the frontier landowners, he voted against it, himself thus slashing the first rent in the fabric of his political career. His constituents were enraged both at Brackenridge's reputed statement that "The People are fools" and at what they saw as Brackenridge's turncoat vote. "A Farmer" wrote in the 20 January 1787 issue of the Pittsburgh Gazette, a newspaper that Brackenridge had helped found in 1786, that Brackenridge had "sold the good will of his country for a dinner of some stockholder's fat beef."

Instead of capitulating, Brackenridge continued to anger his electorate as he became an outspoken supporter of the new Constitution, which superseded the Articles of Confederation and increased the power of the federal government. He tried to convert the people to his point of view with satiric verses published mostly in the Gazette , but these were countered by numerous attacks on his platform as well as his loyalty. The loudest voice of protest came from William Findley, Brackenridge's onetime fellow spokesman for the West, and the person who defeated Brackenridge in his bid for reelection in 1787, the same year his wife died.

His political career in shreds, Brackenridge turned to the written word as a way to articulate his views. From the Hudibrastic satires (satiric verses written in octosyllabic couplets) he wrote against Findley came the germs for his verse satire The Modern Chevalier (written in 1788-1789) which in turn gave rise to Brackenridge's best known work, Modern Chivalry. In the Hudibrastic satires the reader meets Traddle the Weaver, a parody of William Findley. Traddle reappears in Modern Chivalry as the prototype of excessive and unreasonable ambition. In one of the poems, Brackenridge asks, "But why aloft did Traddle rise, / As if he wanted wasps or flies? / A cellar was the proper place, / to hide himself in his disgrace."

Brackenridge continued to attack excessive ambition in his narrative poem The Modern Chevalier , where a hazily drawn knight wanders the countryside, pointing out the flaws he sees in local society and government. But only in Modern Chivalry does the full force of Brackenridge's satire against demagoguery emerge. It is here, in a novel that is part picaresque tale, part tall tale, part satire, part philosophical essay, that Brackenridge offers his most complete and most compelling vision of the dangers that can beset the new democracy.

The central narrative follows the random adventures of Captain John Farrago and the bog-trotter Teague as they travel from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and back, the narrator telling us that the captain is setting out "to see how things were going on here and there, and to observe human nature." These picaresque adventures are routinely interrupted by frequent and lengthy digressions in which the omniscient narrator, speaking for Brackenridge, reflects on human nature and the democratic process. It is important to note that in spite of Brackenridge's sometimes heavy-handed satire, he never questions that democracy is the best method of government. In fact, he praises it over and over again, arguing it is "beyond all question the freest government." He also makes clear, however, that it is fallible, and he shows with countless examples that the chief source of this fallibility is "preposterous ambition." In Brackenridge's mind, it is imperative that "the cobler stick to his last," and to support this thesis, Brackenridge uses various humorous techniques.

Brackenridge wrote the first three volumes of part 1 of Modern Chivalry during 1790-1793, a quiet period in his life. He no longer held a political office, and with his new wife, Sabina Wolfe, whom he married in 1790, and his son Henry Marie, he settled into a domestic pattern of life.

In these first volumes, the foolish ambitions of Teague and the foolish people who would support him in those ambitions occupy center stage. Teague is a caricature of the illiterate servant, often described in terms of animal metaphors. Farrago, his "master" and "trainer," explains that Teague had been captured on the bogs and tamed, and that Farrago himself is attempting to refine the bog trotter. The captain frequently offers one-line observations to suggest Teague's animal bent. He remarks, for example, that Teague "has no more religion than my horse," "is about as much a Major as my horse," "understands about as much law, as my horse," and "was no more fit for a general than my horse." He dubs him a "great bear," bids him to "trot along side" and explains that he should be "rubbed down," and adds that he should have been put "under the care of a person skilled in breaking oxen." When Teague is sent to the workhouse and to dancing school to pursue his "education," he fails in both "schools," retaining, even at the end of the novel, his animallike stance.

The irony is that he never hesitates to seek an office for which he is not qualified, and the people never hesitate to support his ambition. In rapid sequence, the bog trotter who can neither read nor write aspires to be a senator, a clergyman, a philosopher, a treaty maker, the escort of a fine lady and a general. Each of these episodes shares essentially the same pattern and the same predictable outcome. Typically, in each, Farrago and Teague come into the midst of a group of people who are in a turmoil about filling a vacant post; Teague applies for the job and without much ado, he is selected. Fully aware of Teague's inadequacies, ("I question much if he could tell you how many moons there are in the year"), Farrago is aghast at the bog trotter's presumptions and steps in to warn the people of the dangers of appointing Teague. But instead of heeding his advice, the people double their support for the beastlike Teague, refusing to see his limitations.

It is left to Farrago to persuade Teague to withdraw from the post. But just as Teague cannot anticipate the problems he would encounter in an office for which he is unqualified, neither can he respond to a logical argument. On the one occasion that Farrago argues in rational terms, hoping an explanation of the virtues of humility and self-denial and the evil of ambition will draw Teague away from accepting an appointment as a judge, he admits to having forgotten he is talking to a bog trotter and completes his homily by telling Teague that the bench will cause him to suffer cholic, jaundice, yellow eyes, green cheeks, blistered feet, and broken shins.

The balance of Farrago's appeals are similarly humorous--and similarly effective. Fear that he might be boiled like a terrapin, that he might be forced to catch bears by the tail, and that he might have to clean the stars on a windy night keeps Teague from an alliance with the philosophers; fear that satan will one day unleash his vengeance on him, making him squeal like a pig and kicking him like a cat, keeps Teague from accepting a religious appointment; fear of losing his scalp to a crooked knife keeps him from trying to negotiate a treaty with the Indians, and the fear that if he were fortunate, he might escape with only a few bullets in his belly keeps him from accepting the commission as a major general.

Each of these similar episodes ends when Teague responds not to reason but to fear of a distant evil, preposterous though that evil may be, and temporarily lays aside his ambition. But the thrust of the satire is never directed at Teague alone; Brackenridge is also ridiculing the people who permit and encourage such unfounded ambition, warning them over and over again how dangerous and how frequent are the temptations to ignorance and presumption in the new democracy.

In 1794, tension mounted between the federal government and the farmers of western Pennsylvania over the excise tax on whiskey: the farmers felt the tax was unfair; the government felt they had a right to enforce the law. Enraged when revenue officers came to the frontier, the farmers, organized in democratic societies fashioned after the French Jacobin societies, would often unleash their anger. For example, in July 1794 they burned down the house in which tax collector Gen. John Neville was staying.

Although siding with the farmers' opposition to the tax, Brackenridge knew the dangers of treason and cautioned the farmers against committing criminal acts. When the farmers organized a militia and marched on the Pittsburgh garrison, it was Brackenridge who diffused their anger and prevented an attack. Both sides, however, interpreted his position as traitorous: the farmers saw his commitment to them as incomplete; the government saw him as siding with the farmers. There was much speculation about Brackenridge's real sentiments, and in some camps feeling ran so high against him that he grew frightened; when he was summoned to court to give testimony, he sought out Alexander Hamilton to ask for his help in establishing and making public the truth of his case. The secretary of treasury's careful examination revealed that Brackenridge had indeed been misrepresented, and he was publicly exonerated. His defense of his conduct was published in 1795 as Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania, in the Year 1794.

Uncertain of his reputation with the people, Brackenridge retreated to private life and writing, continuing his work on Modern Chivalry. In volume 4 of part 1, published in 1797, he fictionalized some of the activities of the insurrection. Teague receives a presidential commission to be an excise officer, and he is sent out to work in the frontier. Leveling his satire both at the government's appointment of unqualified persons to official posts and at Teague's joy of hearing of his appointment, Brackenridge is here demonstrating, and probably expressing his solidarity with, the anger of the Pennsylvania farmers who, in rebellion against the excise tax, often made the work of the tax collector difficult, if not impossible.

When a mad crowd advances upon Teague, they shout at him, "Liberty, and no excise law. Down with all excise officers." They seize the one-time bog trotter, tar and feather him, and cart him about the village as a spectacle, eventually releasing him but ordering him not to return. Resembling "a wild fowl of the forest," Teague retreats to a forest and hides in a tree. This episode, although exaggerated and fantasylike, nonetheless suggests the mood that prevailed in Western Pennsylvania in 1794.

Contrary to what would have seemed likely given his earlier failures, Brackenridge eventually returned to the political front and to republicanism, playing such an active role in Thomas Jefferson 's Republican party (which was later called the Democratic party) that in 1799, Governor Thomas McKean appointed him justice of the supreme court of Pennsylvania, a post he held until his death in 1816.

Among the anecdotes about Brackenridge's eccentricities are several related directly to his judgeship. Horace Binney, who wrote the six volume Reports of Cases Adjudged in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (1809-1815), records, "I once saw him charge a jury with his coat and jacket off, standing in his bare feet, with his boots beside him, for he had no stockings at that time." And David Paul Brown, a Philadelphia law student, said that Brackenridge rode naked through a storm, confident that the rain would do less harm to his body than to his clothes.

Even while serving on the bench and writing his Law Miscellanies, published in 1814, Brackenridge continued to write additional volumes of his already lengthy novel. The first volume of what we know as part 2 appeared in 1804; it was followed by a second volume in 1805. In the tradition and style of the earlier sections, these too condemn the excesses of democracy, but fewer of the episodes follow a rigid formula and much of the satire is pointed at specific historical abuses. And while Teague's ambition remains unabated, Brackenridge also seems to focus less on his offenses and more on the sins of the people.

Affronted by the blackguard journalism of Peter Porcupine , Farrago tries to open the eyes of the people and dupe the quill-throwing journalist by setting Teague up as the editor of a rival press. Amazed and alarmed by the people who distrust scholarship and learning and want to destroy the nearby college, Farrago works to convince them that there is nothing to be gained by burning a building. And frightened by the popular distrust of the law and its officials, Farrago tries to persuade the people that even when not perfect, a legal code has its merits, and even when long-winded, lawyers can do good.

All the people's excesses pale, however, next to their plan to give suffrage to the animals. Captain Farrago, appointed governor of the newly established settlement, is able to dissuade them from creating a "republic of beasts" only by arguing that the animals would abandon common law and trial by jury and that in the resultant chaos, "scratching and scrambling would be the way of everyone." This prediction, coupled with Farrago's discussion of equal privileges, is an example of his skill in defeating an issue not by direct attack but by introducing untoward effects or complicating side issues. Even the staunchest supporters of animal suffrage and equality would not have wanted to pull a cart.

This picture Brackenridge draws of the new democracy may be dark and chaotic; its membership may include Teague who "like Achilles claimed everything for himself"; it may include the demagogues who unbalance the democratic power; it may include the "swinish multitude" who try to overturn the law and order. But in spite of his burlesque of this ignorance and ambition, Brackenridge is, at the core, celebrating the common people and the new government even as he calls for moderation and balance in its operation.

When the first collected edition of Modern Chivalry, which contained all of the earlier material as well as some new chapters, appeared in 1815, Brackenridge was so certain that "Tom, Dick and Harry," the people to whom he addressed his book, were responding to its warning, that on one of the last pages, he himself wrote, "The people of Pennsylvania are so sensible of the use that it has been in this state, that there is scarce a parlour window without a Modern Chivalry . Five booksellers have made a fortune by it."

Thanking Wilson McCandless for a gift copy of Brackenridge's novel, John Quincy Adams wrote in 1847, "The reappearance of this work, as a second edition, since the author's death, more than half a century after its first publication, well warrants the prediction that it will last beyond the period fixed ... for the canonization of poets, a full century."

In fact, Modern Chivalry has an established reputation as a minor literary classic. If Brackenridge errs at times on the side of long-windedness, he succeeds overall in helping the reader understand the dangers that were ever present with the new system of government. The reader may laugh at the antics of Teague but at the same time hear Brackenridge saying that "the great moral of this book is the evil of men seeking office for which they are not qualified."

Not surprisingly, critical studies of Brackenridge focus largely on his role as a satirist and as a political activist. Writers celebrate his humorous characterizations, language, imagery, and episodes. Thus far, however, only slight attention has been paid to the link between this humor and the philosophical underpinnings of Brackenridge's thought. It is well known that he studied with John Witherspoon , and it is easy to hear echoes of Witherspoon and Thomas Reid 's philosophical system throughout Modern Chivalry. In chapter 12 of the 1815 section, "In the Manner of Montaigne," these echoes are especially clear. Here Brackenridge agrees with the Common Sense philosophers that the citizens at large are intuitively gifted with what Witherspoon calls "plain common sense," and it is to these men that Brackenridge entrusts the new democracy. It is at the exceptions, the Teagues and the madcap members of the multitude, that the novelist aims his satire. But this acknowledges only some of what appears to be Brackenridge's debt to the philosophy of John Witherspoon . As contemporary scholars more fully explore the influence of Scottish Common Sense Realism on eighteenth-century American thought. Hugh Henry Brackenridge will, no doubt, merit further study.




  • Charles F. Heartman, A Bibliography of the Writings of Hugh Henry Brackenridge (New York: Franklin, 1968).


  • Henry Marie Brackenridge, "Biographical Notice of Hugh Henry Brackenridge, Late of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania," in Modern Chivalry (Philadelphia: Getz, Buck, 1846).
  • Daniel Marder, Hugh Henry Brackenridge (New York: Twayne, 1967).
  • Claude M. Newlin, The Life and Writings of Hugh Henry Brackenridge (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932).


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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1200000789