Hugh Henry Brackenridge Biography | Poet
Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816) was an American writer, lawyer, judge, and justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A frontier citizen of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he founded both the Pittsburgh Academy, now the University of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh Gazette, still operating today as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
He was raised in York County, Pennsylvania, near the Maryland border, then a frontier, where his parents had immigrated in 1753 from Scotland when he was 5. At age 15 he was head of a free school in Maryland. At age 19 he entered the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University, where he joined Philip Morin Freneau, James Madison, and others in forming the American Whig Society to counter the conservative Cliosophic, or Tory, Society. (Today these are conjoined as the American Whig-Cliosophic Society.) Freneau and Brackenridge collaborated on a satire on American manners that may be the first work of prose fiction written in America, Father Bombo's Pilgrimage to Mecca in Arabia . They also wrote The Rising Glory of America, a prophetic poem of a united nation that would rule the North American continent from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Brackenridge recited it at the commencement exercises of 1771.
After his graduation, Brackenridge remained another year to study divinity. In 1772 he became headmaster of an academy in Somerset County, Maryland, with Freneau as his assistant; went back to Princeton for a Master's degree; and then served in George Washington's army as a chaplain, preaching fiery patriotic sermons to the soldiers of the Revolutionary War. He started the United States Magazine in Philadelphia in 1778, where he published poems by his friend Freneau, but its lagging subscriptions convinced him to change his profession. He took a law degree, studying under Samuel Chase in Annapolis, and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia in 1780 at age 32. Of Philadelphia he wrote, "I saw no chance for being anything in that city, there were such great men before me." Four months later he struck out for the frontier, 300 miles to the west, over the Appalachian Mountains.
In 1781 Pittsburgh was a village of 400 inhabitants, most Scots, like himself, Scots-Irish, and Germans. His aim, he wrote, in "offering myself to the place" was "to advance the country and thereby myself."
In Pittsburgh he helped establish the first western newspaper, the Pittsburgh Gazette, in 1786; was elected in 1786 to the Pennsylvania state assembly, where he fought for the adoption of the federal Constitution; and obtained state endowments in 1787 for the establishment of the Pittsburgh Academy (University of Pittsburgh), modeled on Benjamin Franklin's Academy of Philadelphia (University of Pennsylvania). He also played a role in the little known Westsylvania dispute, siding with Pennsylvania that the western lands should not become a 14th state. He lost a bid for re-election because he opposed popular sentiment in supporting federal controls; and he also nearly lost his life when he attempted to mediate the Whiskey Rebellion. He ran for the United States Congress, but was soundly defeated by Albert Gallatin. The formation of Allegheny County is largely due to Brackenridge's efforts. In December 1799 Governor Thomas McKean appointed him a justice of the Pennysylvania Supreme Court.
In 1815 he completed Modern Chivalry, his rambling satirical novel. Widely considered the first important fictional work about the American frontier and called "to the West what Don Quixote was to Europe," the third and fourth sections of the book appeared in 1793 and 1797, and a revision in 1805, with a final addition in 1815. Henry Adams called it "a more thoroughly American book than any written before 1833."
Brackenridge died June 25, 1816 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
The Allegheny County borough of Brackenridge, Pennsylvania is named for his son, the lawyer, judge, and writer Henry Marie Brackenridge (1786-1871).
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