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Hugh Henry Brackenridge - Our local Founding Father

He was much more than the legislative father of Allegheny County and the University of Pittsburgh

Sunday, January 02, 2000

By James O'Toole, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In 1781, at the end of a journey of weeks across the mountain wilderness, Hugh Henry Brackenridge got his first glimpse of the crude village of log houses scattered at the forks of the Ohio.

A failed publisher who had abandoned his training for the ministry, he came to Pittsburgh to start a new life. He was determined to make his mark in this new land.

He did.

Over the next two decades, he would become the legislative father of Allegheny County and of the University of Pittsburgh. He was instrumental in founding the town's first newspaper. When he quarreled with its publisher, he established a second rival paper. He helped bring roads to the new land, cementing its ties to the nation that had been born on the other side of the mountains. He would play a central and controversial role in the first great challenge to its government.

He wrote the first work of literature published on the frontier. He ended his life as a justice of the state's Supreme Court. Over his protean career, he would be admired, scorned and celebrated.


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The scholar Jean Woods reports that he "[brought] his idiosyncratic nature with him to the bench. He was a powerfully built man with a high, polished forehead, a large nose and a florid face."

Brackenridge was born in 1748, in the tiny Scottish village of Kintyre. With his parents he emigrated to the United States when he was 5 years old. They made their way through Philadelphia to an area in York County called the Barrens. Today, the greatest threat to York County is suburban sprawl. Then, it was very much the frontier. Indian attacks were a constant menace, instilling in Brackenridge his lifelong loathing for American Indians.

As a boy he worked the fields but also, with tutoring from a nearby minister, began his education. An eager, able student, he progressed so rapidly that when he was just 15, he won an appointment as a teacher in a school across the Mason-Dixon line in Maryland.

At 20, he was again a student, entering the College of New Jersey, now Princeton. There, he studied the classics, Greek and Shakespeare while plunging into the political world that would give him distinction, opprobrium and frustration over the coming decades.

The campus was awash in the political currents that would erupt in just a few years in the American Revolution. Brackenridge joined the Whig literary club, intellectual combatants against the campus Tories. On his graduation day in 1771, he recited an ode, "The Rising Glory of America," that he had written with classmate Philip Freneau, who would be remembered as the poet of the Revolution. James Madison, another classmate and member of the Whig society, wrote later that the poem was greeted with wild applause from the Princeton audience.

The next year, Freneau followed Brackenridge to Somerset County, Md., where the Pennsylvanian had been appointed headmaster of a school. News of the first clashes of the Revolution in 1776 prompted him to write "The Battle of Bunker-Hill" (sic), a drama apparently recited by his students. That was followed by "The Death of General Montgomery at The Siege of Quebec," a work celebrating the colonies' unsuccessful invasion of Canada.

The revolutionary ardor reflected in those works led him to join George Washington's army, then encamped in New Jersey, as chaplain. At Princeton, he had been trained -- though not ordained -- as a minister, but his conception of the role of chaplain had little to do with nurturing the troops' souls. Rather, he seemed to have functioned as a propagandist, continuing to extol "the rising glory" of the infant nation while blistering the conduct of Britain.

In one sermon he thundered, "I leave behind me all that is related of the Hun, the Vandal, and the Goth. ... I pass them by and hasten on, because I have an object of greater wickedness in view -- an object of such accomplished fraud, perfidy and murder, that everyone heretofore mentioned is lost and disappears. I mean him of England -- the fierce cruel unrelenting and bloody king of Britain. What has this tyrant done? What has he not done?"

In 1779, the war continued, but the British had ended their occupation of Philadelphia, and Brackenridge moved across the Delaware to establish the United States Magazine, a journal of politics and literature. It aspired to be the chief intellectual publication in the new nation.

By modern standards, Brackenridge's attitude toward African-Americans leaves much to be desired. But compared to many of his contemporaries, he was fairly enlightened on race, in contrast to his closed-minded views on American Indian issues. He scorned the "noble savage" image of Indians advanced in some European literature. Of the original Americans, he once wrote, "And those brown tribes who snuff the desert air, are aunts and cousins to the skunk and bear."

But, in one issue of his magazine, he advocated the emancipation of African-American slaves and suggested they might become colonists in some new Western territory.

Brackenridge succeeded in attracting attention, making a few enemies and collecting at least one invitation to a duel through the contents of the magazine, but overall, the publication proved a bust. It was out of business within a year.

Brackenridge had to make a living. The ministry no longer appealed to him, so he studied law and was admitted to the Philadelphia bar in 1780. But Brackenridge looked elsewhere to nurture his ambitions. Philadelphia held the memory of his failed magazine. And as the largest and most prosperous city in the Colonies, it seemed to offer too much competition for the distinction he craved.

"I saw no chance of being anything in that city, there were such great men before me," he wrote.

Instead, he looked West, beyond the Barrens of his childhood, across the Alleghenies to the tiny village of Pittsburgh.

He arrived in 1781 and established a practice as a frontier lawyer.

"I had a strong interest to offer myself to that place," he wrote later. "My object was to advance the country and thereby myself."

Over the next two decades he would, to a remarkable degree, do both. Still, he never succeeded in molding the new land to the degree that his vast ambitions sought.

He showed political independence from the start. Many Western Pennsylvanians felt estranged from the distant government, many days' ride across the mountains. They felt that the Easterners had done little to protect them from Indian attacks. They chafed at disputes with Eastern speculators who asserted claims to the land they had settled. There was widespread agitation to form a new state extending from Erie down to what would become West Virginia. Brackenridge, then still loyal to his Federalist roots, spoke out strongly against the independence movement.

Within five years of his arrival, his law practice a success, he sought outlets for his political ambitions. He was instrumental in persuading John Scull to carry a printing press and type across the Alleghenies and establish the Pittsburgh Gazette, the first newspaper west of the Alleghenies and the direct ancestor of this paper. Its first issue included an essay by Brackenridge, "An Account of Pittsburgh," that was the first of his many contributions to the paper. In it, he offered a glowing description of the frontier village unburdened by any excessive concern with accuracy. It exaggerated the number of buildings and inhabitants while extolling its climate and topography. On one aspect of his adopted home, he was prescient.

"This town in future will be a place of great manufactory ... indeed the greatest on the continent or perhaps in the world," he wrote in 1786.

The same year, Brackenridge was elected to the state Assembly. He would serve only one term. It was a remarkably productive one, shaping Pittsburgh to this day. By the end of it, he had so alienated his constituents that he was a political pariah.

While already the largest city in Western Pennsylvania, the area around Pittsburgh was then still part of Westmoreland County. Brackenridge promised to campaign for a new county, whose seat would be at the forks of the river. The Assembly passed his bill creating Allegheny County in 1788. In then same session, he pushed through the bill that created the Pittsburgh Academy, an institution that would evolve into the Western University of Pennsylvania and then into University of Pittsburgh. Brackenridge also won support for vital transportation improvements linking Pittsburgh to the East.

But all of that far-reaching legislation meant less to his constituents than Brackenridge's about-face on a measure that would have made it easier for settlers to establish title to their land. Campaigning for the Legislature, Brackenridge had said he supported the proposal. In office, he changed his mind. This was vastly compounded by a report that he had dismissed the public as fools whose opinions he could easily shape by the eloquence of his writings in the Gazette. Whether the report was accurate, the damage was done. In the ensuing months, he continued to try to justify himself in submissions to the Gazette, but, as he later acknowledged, he managed only to compound his unpopularity.

The major national issue before the Pennsylvania lawmakers during Brackenridge's' final months in the Legislature was the proposed ratification of the new federal Constitution. Brackenridge was the only legislator from Western Pennsylvania who supported the call for a state convention to ratify the new government structure.

It was doubly galling to him that when elections were held to select delegates to that convention, William Findley, another Westmoreland lawmaker, was chosen. Not only had Findley been an opponent of the federal Constitution, but he was the source of the Gazette report on Brackenridge's contemptuous attitude toward his constituents. To make matters worse, Findley was Irish, an ethnic group that Brackenridge liberally disparaged.

On June 20, 1788, word reached Pittsburgh that the Constitution had been ratified, the culmination of the hopes he had voiced in his sermons to Washington's troops 10 years earlier. While bonfires blazed, Brackenridge addressed a crowd estimated at 1,500 gathered on Grant's Hill.

"My compatriots; I have great news to give you," Brackenridge exulted. "You are now citizens of a new empire; an empire not the effect of chance; nor hewn out by the sword, but formed by the skills of sages, and the design of wise men."

The crowd applauded the news, but the public's approval didn't extend to the figure who delivered it.

By then, near the end of his single two-year term, Brackenridge was unelectable. His public career seemed over. If it had been, it could justly be remembered as a substantial one. But more chapters and more controversy would follow.

The eclipse of the public man coincided with shadows over his personal life. Brackenridge had married in 1985, just before his election to the Legislature. His only son, Hugh Marie Brackenridge, was born in 1786, less than two years before his wife died. As singular in his approach to family as to politics, he sent the boy to be raised by a cobbler's family who were his tenants. Widower Brackenridge took apartments at the home of Jean Marie, a French émigré who ran a tavern on Grant's Hill, near the current Grant Street. The boy was neglected in the cobbler's home and his father finally took him back,

Brackenridge took an interest in his son when he began to show evidence of the sharp intellect he would display later in life. He began to teach him himself but was such a stern pedant that he routinely reduced the boy to tears.

In 1790, Brackenridge married Sabina Wolfe, the daughter of a German-speaking Washington County farmer. He promptly sent his new bride to Philadelphia to pick up some of the knowledge and social polish she had missed on the frontier. Pursuing his unsentimental ideas on education, he first sent his young son to live with his step-mother's family, so that he might learn German. Then, when the boy was just 7 years old, he sent him off alone to live with a family in the Louisiana territory so that he could learn French.

Three years later, Brackenridge summoned his son home, a prospect that did not thrill a boy whose memories of his father, "had more in them of terror than of love."

The lawyer sent a workman to greet his son at the riverboat that had taken him back up the Ohio. In a biographical sketch of his father, Hugh Marie recalled that the 10-year-old was led to his father's office. After the three-year absence, the father's greeting was the stern question, "Well boy, can you read French?"

After Hugh Marie read a passage in his newly acquired tongue, his father rendered his verdict.

"Sir, your progress does not meet my expectations."

In spite of that distant attitude, Hugh Marie would become closer to his father over the years and would go on to be elected to Congress, realizing a lifelong unfulfilled ambition of his father.

It was during these wilderness years that Brackenridge began the work that, outside of Pittsburgh, would do the most to preserve his name. He began writing "Modern Chivalry," a rambling satiric novel that would be remembered as the first literary work to be produced west of the Alleghenies. The first two volumes were printed in Philadelphia in 1792, and the third volume was published from John Scull's printing press the following year.

It is the story of the wanderings of Captain Farrago and his dim-witted Irish servant Teague O'Regan. It has been described as a frontier "Don Quixote," an episodic satire on colonial life and politics. Among its targets are the voters and society who spurned the educated Brackenridge in favor of Findley, his Irish rival during his sole term in the state Assembly.

At one point in the narrative, Captain Farrago and Teague O'Regan chance upon a group of villagers in the process of choosing a legislator. To Farrago's surprise and dismay, O'Regan decides that he should run and finds favor with the ignorant villagers.

The fulminating voice of Brackenridge comes through as Farrago upbraids the villagers:

"This servant of mine is but a bog-trotter, who can scarcely speak the dialect in which your laws ought to be written; but certainly he has never read a single treatise on any political subject; for the truth is, he cannot read at all."

"Modern Chivalry" is still remembered, in part for its wit, in part for its historic significance as the pioneering example of the use of the American vernacular at a time when the new nation's literature looked to Europe for its models. While it's no longer widely read, it was well-known in its time. Daniel Marder, a Brackenridge biographer reports that, "John Quincy Adams was so taken with the satire that years after on a visit to Pittsburgh, he sought out the descendants of Brackenridge."

But his literary work couldn't exorcise Brackenridge's impulse to direct political action. He was to find himself, at first enthusiastically but increasingly reluctantly, at the center of one of the first tests of the central government he had championed in the Legislature -- the Whiskey Rebellion. Before it was over he would consider fleeing east to avoid the rebels; fleeing west to escape the army sent to suppress them, and finally find himself distrusted and vilified by both sides.

Brackenridge had identified strongly with the federal government when he first moved to Pittsburgh and through his term in the Legislature. But he found himself increasingly critical of the government on the issue of the tax on whiskey made from the western farmers' corn. As a lawyer, he defended a group of men charged with assaulting a government tax collector. In the pages of The Pittsburgh Gazette, he repeatedly assailed the government's revenue policies.

Brackenridge played no part in the first major violence of the rebellion, the assault on Bower Hill in what is now Scott. On July 16, 1794, insurrectionists led by James McFarlane, who was shot dead during the encounter, attacked and burned the country estate of Gen. John Neville, who had been appointed federal revenue collector. But Brackenridge was drawn into the events set in motion by the attack, playing an ambiguous role in which he defended the rebels rhetorically, but tried to de-escalate the crisis created by their radical tactics. On July 21, at a mass meeting in Mingo Creek, he advised moderation to an angry audience. He was sympathetic with their cause but wanted no part of treason.

The uprising, he wrote, "was a stand of the Democratic, poverty-ridden West against the encroachments of the aristocratic Money Bags of the East; of a people who feel themselves taxed in order to fasten the yokes of Plutocrats about their necks."

Words like that earned him the enmity of the federal army marching over the mountains. But Brackenridge was at the same time arguing against more radical steps advocated by some leaders of the rebellion. Many of the irate farmers were in favor of an attack on Pittsburgh, which, in contrast to the western countryside, was perceived as a center of Federalist sentiment. The march was set for Aug. 1. Brackenridge, according to his account, argued successfully in favor of a show of force rather than more violence. In an account of the events, and a defense of his role, written the following year, Brackenridge said he told the restive crowd:

"The people of Pittsburgh wish to see the army and you must go through it ... it will convince the government we are no mob, but a regular army, and can preserve discipline, and pass thro' a town, like the French and American armies in the course of the last war, without doing the least injury to person or property."

And that's what happened in a rowdy but generally peaceful march through the town. Brackenridge was among those who welcomed the marchers with barrels of whiskey.

"I thought it better to be employed in extinguishing the fire of their thirst, than of my house," he wrote.

In the coming weeks, an increasingly nervous Brackenridge hastened to make his loyalty clear to the three commissioners that President George Washington sent to defuse the insurrection. But, though some Westerners found him insufficiently radical, his reputation in the East was that of a ringleader of sedition.

He heard a report that the approaching troops were invoking his name as their archenemy. In response, he had handbills printed, pleading his case, hoping in vain that they would be distributed through the army.

The rebellion had largely run out of steam by the time the federal forces arrived in Pittsburgh in the fall. But Brackenridge's balancing act had left him teetering on the brink of arrest and trial for treason. He considered avoiding possible prosecution by fleeing into the western territories but finally decided to stay and await his fate. In an informal hearing that stretched over two days, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton quizzed Brackenridge on his actions before finally clearing him of the threat of arrest.

That colloquy was the seed of an episode in a later volume of "Modern Chivalry," in which Captain Farrago is unjustly accused of treason after trying to instruct frontiersmen in lawful ways to oppose unjust laws. In the novel, an "examiner of sense," clears Brackenridge's alter ego.

Hamilton couldn't clear him of his neighbors' suspicions, however, and he was shunned by many in the town's establishment who had felt mortally threatened by the events of the summer.

After that controversy, law and literature occupied him for the next few years. In 1795, he published "Incidents of the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania in the Year 1794." In 1797, he published a fourth volume of "Modern Chivalry."

But he would never be able to stay away from politics and by 1798 had become the Western Pennsylvania leader of Thomas Jefferson's Republican Party, the ancestors of today's Democrats. State Supreme Court Justice Thomas McKean was the Republican candidate. He faced James Ross, a Federalist from Pittsburgh, who, with Brackenridge, was one of the original nine members of the Allegheny County Bar after Brackenridge's legislation created the new county.

McKean won and one of the spoils of his victory was Brackenridge's appointment as an associate justice of the state Supreme Court. The relatively lofty position apparently did little to tame his iconoclastic nature.

One scholar observed that, "He was not above kicking off his boots while on the bench and delivering his charge to the jury with bare feet propped on the bar of justice."

The judge's interest in whiskey does not appear to have been purely political.

At another point, Woods, recounts, "He stomped into the tavern in Canonsburg, damned the tavern-keeper 15 times, and, to the amazement of onlookers, disrobed himself."

The Pittsburgh Gazette carried an account of the same incident, remarking that, "A supreme court judge and a sapient philosopher too, will so far lose sight of the reverence due to himself and to his station, as to be seen almost stark naked and nearly stark mad, from too much tipple in the face of the open day."

That the newspaper once so identified with his views would criticize Brackenridge was not surprising. Scull and the Gazette had remained loyal to the Federalist Party as Brackenridge veered increasingly toward the Republican views. So complete was the breach that Brackenridge, who had once helped lure Scull to Pittsburgh, established The Tree of Liberty, a new Pittsburgh paper and a Jeffersonian rival to Federalist leanings of the Pittsburgh Gazette.

Brackenridge's Supreme Court appointment, at a salary of 600 pounds a year, was for life -- which was just as well for him, given his penchant for picking quarrels. Indeed he became increasingly critical of Republican politics as the years went by. He continued to write, publishing both legal commentaries and revisions of "Modern Chivalry," a work whose never-completed plot was to have ended with Teague O'Regan's appointment as ambassador to the Court of St. James.

Shortly after his appointment to the bench, he left Pittsburgh to move to Carlisle, Cumberland County. He made his last visit to Pittsburgh and Allegheny County in 1811 and died in Carlisle in 1815.

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