Taken from
Issue Number 32
Autumn 1992


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Click on letter, Harold A Ralston.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge
A. I. B. Stewart (1)

A local farm lad who had a considerable impact in America was christened Hugh Breckenridge in the Lowland Kirk on 4th October 1747, the son of John Breckenridge and Margaret Gardner. The leading American biography erroneously gives his father's name as William and the year of his birth as 1748. He did have an older brother William and two sisters, Mary and Isabella.

In the Library of the Kintyre Antiquarian Society is a valuable genealogy of the Breckenridge family. The first of the name was Robert Brakenrigg in Craigs in 1666. Hugh's grandfather, also Hugh, was the first noted in Ballywilline were his son, young Hugh's father John, was born on 25th March 1722.

In 1765 the family emigrated (sic) to America. Tradition has it that on landing in Philadelphia they had to sell their clothes to finance the journey of nearly 100 miles, which they made on foot to York County, Pennsylvania where, on the frontier, it was possible to get a cheap lease. Shortly after their arrival the British army suffered a humiliating defeat near the site of the modern city of Pittsburgh, to the west of York County. In this fight Captain Robert Stewart, son of Charles, Minister of the Highland Kirk and brother of Provost Peter Stewart of Campbeltown, much distinguished himself in command of colonial cavalry and as a result became a close and lifelong friend of Colonel George Washington in charge of the colonial forces.

For long after this defeat the Indians, encouraged by the French, terrorized the frontier settlements instilling in Breckenridge a fierce and lasting hatred of the Native Americans.

Even in this rugged environment this Socts family did not lose its reverence for education. Hugh found a minister who in return for odd jobs gave him a grounding in the classics. And at the weekends he would walk thirty miles to borrow a book.

His most prized possession was his copy of Horace. But one day he left it lying on a tree stump. When he returned he found, as he said, that a literary cow had devoured it. The teacher at the village school of Slate Ridge complained that Hugh's aptitude for learning discouraged the other pupils.

But, the pursuit of knowledge did not enable him to evade farm work and he wrote a verse showing that nature in Pennsylvania provided greater hazards than Burns's mouse:

When of an age to ca' the pleugh, My father used to say "Gae Hugh And louse the horses frae the tether, It's time to yoke." Without a swither, I bided biding, but mayhap, Just lake a man that's ta'en a cup, I doiter'd, minding what I saw, More that the orders; ah, fou' fa'!
A bird's nest or a beastie's bed, Aft turn'd me frae the gate I gaed; Mair, when I saw the thing itsel, And ran to catch it by the tail, As ance a thing just lake a cat, I saw, and what was'd I be at, But try to grip it, a wild pussie And bring it hame to catch a moussie. Before I knew what I was doing, Or mischief that the thing was brewing, A spout o' water frae its tail Came on me: O the smell, the smell.
As fast as I could lift a heel, Ran hame, and said the muckle deil, Or some war thing, alang the fence, Had drain'd its bags at my expense, And rais'd a funk, and made me wet - They ca'd it something, I forgot, That strones upon a man and dug, That tries to take it by the lug, And leaves a scent about the place: That it behoved to change my claes; Sae stripp'd me o' my sark and trouse, And hung them out to get the dews, And bade me tak' mair care again, And keep frae things I did na ken.
There were no skinks of Ballywilline!

At the age of 15 Hugh applied for a job as teacher at the free school across the Mason-Dixon Line at Gunpowder Falls, Maryland. The trustees were no less surprised at the audacity of the applicant than at his qualifications but the latter prevailed and he got the job.

Some of the pupils were older and bigger than he. The first time his authority was defied, "he seized a brand from the fire, knocked the rebel down, and spread terror around him." As bullies will, the culprit complained to authority who completely approved of the actings of their juvenile schoolmaster.

Three years later he had exhausted the intellectual resources of Gunpowder Falls and applied for entry to Princeton University, founded by Dr. John Witherspoon, a Glasgow graduate and later signatory of the Declaration of Independence. He offered to teach grammar school classes in exchange for his college expenses.

Princeton was intended to train students for the Presbyterian ministry but was not under Church control. It was a hotbed of new and revolutionary ideas. Its Presbyterian staff and students carried on the Scottish tradition and were about to be as rude to the Georges as their Scots predecessors had been to the last of the Stewart kings.

In his first year the farm boy studied Horace, Cicero, Lucian and Xenophon, logic, geography and English grammar and mathematics. In his third year his subjects were mathematics, natural philosophy (as science and particularly physics was then designed), moral philosophy, metaphysics, history, English grammar, advanced composition, criticism and style. In his fourth and final year he read history, ethics, politics, government, eloquence, and Hebrew and French.

In his first and second years he prepared and gave declamations five nights a week and in his third year he gave a public declamation once a week. He still found time, even in his Junior year, to write, with a colleague, an adventure story entitled 'Father Bomba's Pilgrimage to Mecca', which has been called "the earliest example of American prose fiction."

Such was his facility that less gifted or idler students employed him to write their speeches. One grateful client gave him a present of a handsome suit and a cocked hat. On commencement day 1771 he was selected to give the welcoming speech in the morning and in the afternoon to read a 750-line poem entitled 'The Rising Glory of America', which he had written in collaboration with one Philip Freneau.

His classmate James Madison, the future President of the United States, reported that it was received with great applause. The poem, considered the first real poem ever made by an American, was full of revolutionary propaganda.

On commencement day 1774 when he returned to Princeton for his Master's degree he read another epic, entitled 'Poem on the Divine Revelation', again proclaiming the destiny of America.

Brackenridge felt himself deeply moved by early events in the Revolutionary war and wrote plays on the 'Battle of Bunker Hill' and on the 'Death of General Montgomery at the Siege of Quebec'. Both were well received and performed at Harvard and elsewhere.

In 1777 he joined the troops in the field as an army chaplain. He saw his duties more as a political commissar than as a Christian pastor and in his own words, his sermons were intended "To rouse with words and animate with the voice."

He began to have serious doubts about religion and when the British evacuated Philadelphia in 1778 he abandoned his chaplaincy and sought a new career as a writer in that city. There he started 'The United States Magazine', which however folded within the year. He blamed "the people who inhabit the region of stupidity and cannot bear to have the tranquility of their response disturbed by the villainous jargon of a book."

He had heard the distinguished lawyer, Samuel Chase, speaking prior to the outbreak of the war, and off he went to Annapolis to seek out Chase and get a legal training. In April 18781 he was admitted to the bar and set off to the tiny village of Pittsburgh on the remote frontier, where he found "neither house nor street." There he embarked on a political career. He was instrumental in founding Pittsburgh's first newspaper, its first school which eventually became the University and the first Church.

He had hoped that 'Christian' would be a good enough designation for a church but the Minister engineered a change from a non-sectarian to a Presbyterian congregation, and Brackenridge wrote to him: "I had hoped that here on the utmost verge of the inhabited globe you would have taken things on first principles and represented a church like those of the first apostles, distinguished by the name of Christian only and have left it to divines in the future times, to dispute, as they now do, about those of Smyrna and Ephesus, whether you are Presbyterian of Episcopal."

Physically, he was always able to look after himself, but throughout his life he appealed to the power of reason. An irate General knocked up the house in the middle of the night. Looking out of an upstairs window, Brackenridge heard the offended warrior roaring: "Come down here and I'll give you as a good a horsewhipping as any rascal ever received!" Brackenridge replied: "I'm sorry, General. You couldn't tempt me down even if you offered me two such favors."

He wrote to the Pittsburgh Gazette on the matter of dueling, recounting that he had received a letter saying: "Sir, I will thank you to take a walk with a friend and meet me at the back of the graveyard about sunrise tomorrow morning. After what has happened, you know what I mean!" He had replied: "I know very well what you mean. You want to have a shot at me, but I have no inclination to hit you and I'm afraid you would hit me. I pray thee therefore to have me excused." He ended with a sermon based on 2 Samuel c.3 v.13: "Died Abner as a fool dieth."

Like his contemporary Robert Burns, whom he much admired, he was at first an enthusiastic supporter of the French Revolution, and bitterly attacked George Washington for his declaration of neutrality when France declared war on Britain. "Shall Kings combine and republics not unite?" was his theme.

But, like Burns, his zeal subsided with the Terror and the treat of mob rule in Western Pennsylvania.

There is a mystery about his early domestic life. It is said that he married a Miss Montgomery, but there appears to be no record of the marriage. However, his son Henry Marie Brackenridge was born on 11th May 1786, just three days before Robert Burns in far away Scotland said farewell to the Campbeltown lass Mary Campbell. It may be that the boy's mother was a Madam Marie with whom he lodged. If so, it is possible that her daughter Caroline Marie, was the half sister of Brackenridge's son Henry Marie whose wife she became. Henry Marie appeared to have no one to look after him and the infant was lodged with a cobbler who lived in a cottage on the Brackenridge property. When he was two, his father saw him imitating the minister and repeating some words of the sermon. He asked him what he could do. The boy replied that he could make shoes and suiting the action to the word proceeded to go through the motions he had seen in the cobbler's house.

Realizing the two-year-old had some ability, he took him in hand and gave him a horn book to learn his spelling. In later years Henry Marie recounted the terror his father inspired in him at that early age.

In 1788 Henry married Sabina Wolfe, daughter of a Dutch (ie. German) farmer. The circumstances of his courtship are recounted by a Virginian visitor to his home:

"Mr Brackenridge on his way from Washington Court, called in to have his horse fed and escape a rain that was then descending. The horse was fed, the rain had subsided and Mr Brackenridge, to avoid wet feet ordered his horse brought to the door. Miss Wolfe was ordered to perform that office.
Nut brown were her locks, her shape was full strait
Her eyes were as black as the Sloe;
Milk white were her teeth, full smart was her Gait,
And sleek was her skin as a Doe.
These allurements made a deep impression…and before he had gone a Sabbath day's journey…he turned short about and revisited Mr. Wolfe and made an application to the old gentleman for his daughter."

Having convinced the father he was serious, the old farmer pointed out that his daughter by her labors saved him at least 10 dollars a year. Suitable compensation having been made, Brackenridge obtained the girl's consent, married her, and sent her off to Philadelphia.

"where she is now under the Governance of a reputable female character, whose business will be to polish Manners, and wipe off the Rusticities which Mrs Brackenridge had acquired whist a wolfe."

The new stepmother found it inconvenient to look after Henry Marie who was packed off to her father's house. When he returned his father thought that the patois of the Pennsylvania Dutch which he had learned to speak was good German so at the age of seven he was packed off to Louisiana, perhaps 1000 miles away, to learn French, and there he stayed for three years.

The education of the three children whom the new Mrs Brackenridge bore was not neglected. The older boy at fourteen was translating Latin and Greek masters, the younger at six was mastering Latin and French and the three year old daughter was reading the newspapers.

Brackenridge himself as I have indicated to took up politics. He served a term in Senate but his attempts to introduce culture and civility to the Davy Crocketts of the frontier met with no success and he was soundly defeated at the next election.

He built up a sound legal practice but lost it all through his belief in justice and fair dealing. In 1794 the Government introduced a Whiskey Tax. He bitterly opposed the tax but equally bitterly opposed the civil disobedience which followed its imposition. Despite his opposition to violence he vigorously defended twelve individuals charged with tarring and feathering an exciseman and also some seventy distillers who had refused to enter their stills for registration.

Believing himself to be in danger of his life he wrote a sketch which he later expanded into a narrative called "Incidents of the Rebellion in Western Pennsylvania in the year 1794."

But his denunciation of violence had made him hated by the common herd. Similarly, though having a hatred of the Indians and their cruelty he insisted on defending a warrior charged with murder, thus again enraging the populace.

He cherished all his life things Scottish; his father had a collection of the vernacular poets and at the time of the Whiskey Rebellion he carried on a controversy in the columns of the Pittsburgh Gazette. A fellow Scot, David Bruce, had written a poem 'To Whiskey':

"Great Pow'r that warms the heart and liver
And puts the blind a' in a fever
If dull and heartless I am ever
A blast o' thee."

Brackenridge under the nom de plum Aquavitae replied, and complained of the quality of the verse:

"But's nae you faut my canty callan
That ye fa' short of the Auld Allan
There's neither Hielanman nor Lallan
That's here the same
But finds him scrimpit o' the talen'
He had at hame."

Bruce agreed:

"What's here to gie the mind a leese
Deil het ava' but lang green trees
Nae flow'ry haughs or bonny braes
To please the een
Nor beating flocks up o' the leas
Are heard of seen."

Bruce accused Brackenridge of over indulgence in the malt, and he replied:

"It may be true, but there is Burns
Wha gars us laugh and greet by turns
Wad tak' a drink; alack ower muckle
But wha'e'er gied him ower the knuckle
For that which made the bard sae canty
An' gied us a' his saup sae dainty."

Brackenridge, though never again standing for political office, continued to take an active part in politics. He was a strong supporter of Thomas Jefferson. He predicted the Civil War and argued that the Western country should hold the balance as between the industrial East and the aristocratic South.

In due course, as a reward for political services, he was appointed a judge in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. His judicial office did not inhibit his political interests. The Pittsburgh Gazette which he had founded had become a propaganda sheet and a good deal of its editorial abuse was directed at himself. He launched another newspaper called Tree of Liberty and in it published his opinion of the Gazette's "blackguard journalism". That paper responded with a sensational expose of the new judge of a drunken spree expressing indignation that "a Supreme Judge and sapient philosopher too, will so far lose sight of the reverence due to himself - to his station - and society as to be seen almost 'stark naked and nearly stark mad' from too much tipple in the face of open day." Since Brackenridge had hired a Jewish editor there followed an anti-Jewish harangue.

Even in the somewhat more relaxed atmosphere of the American courts Brackenridge's behavior was somewhat eccentric. On the bench he wore a rusty black coat. His waistcoat and shirt were almost the same colour. Even in the coldest weather he sat with his breast exposed, his beard unshaven, his hair uncombed and his cravat twisted like a rope. He frequently delivered judgement alongside his learned breather with his boots off and his feet on the bench. Once he was seen riding through the rain stark naked. His one suit was safely folded under the saddle.

"The storm would spoil my clothes" he explained "but it wouldn't spoil me."

Despite all this his judgements were treated with respect and he made several valuable contributions to the legal literature of the day.

From 1792 onwards till his death at Carlisle, Pennsylvania on 25th June 1816 he wrote and published what is generally considered to be his greatest contribution to American literature - the monumental work of 'Modern Chivalry', based on the style of Don Quixote and which started off as a satire on his political adversary the demagogue William Findlay who had defeated him at the polls.

His biographer suggests that Teague O'Regan, the ignorant Irish politician, is the first fully developed character in American literature. He and Captain Farrago, a gentleman of the old school, well versed in the classics, travel together to Philadelphia and undeterred by his complete illiteracy O'Regan decides to stand for office. He is much preferred by the mob to the learned rhetoric of Captain Farrago.

He paints a vivid picture as to how the blarney of the ignorant Teague bewitched the populace. In Washington, where he poses as Major O'Teague, he has the ladies swooning.

Brackenridge himself wrote:

"I shall have accomplished something if this book should keep some honest man from lessening his respectability by pushing himself into public trust for which he is not qualified."

It is worth mentioning that the third volume published in Pittsburgh in 1793 was the first literary work to be published west of the Allegheny Mountains.

One critic placed the book high among minor American classics because "it not only throws light on the beginnings of American democracy but also stands as a permanently valid commentary of persistent problems."

Shortly before his death he boasted that five printers had made fortunes from the book and that in Pennsylvania there existed scarcely a parlour window without "Modern Chivalry".

So at least the rebellious lad from Ballywilline had some pleasure in his achievements at the end of the day.

But American interest soon turned further west and for a century Brackenridge was forgotten and it is only recently that it has been realized that he is one of the fathers of American literature.

It only remains to mention that his son Henry Marie Brackenridge was known as "the comic son of a comic father". Having studied law in Baltimore and spent some time in the West he returned to Louisiana where he became a deputy attorney general and district judge in his early twenties. In 1817 when the question arose of recognizing as separate nations the South American colonies which had revolted against Spain and Portugal he wrote a pamphlet 'South America, a letter on the present state of that Country'. This was sent to his friend James Monroe who six years later as President Monroe published the Monroe doctrine based on these ideas, which is still the basis of American foreign policy in relation to south America and the non-intervention of Europe on the American continent.

His marriage to Caroline Marie in 1827 brought him a huge estate of four thousand acres on the banks of the Allegheny River. He lived in the family's beautiful mansion there till his death in 1871.

I have relied on Hugh Henry Brackenridge by Professor Daniel Marden, being No. 114 of Twayne's "United States Authors" Series, and on papers on the Brackenridge family prepared by Roger Carroll Breckenridge of Apple Valley, Minnesota, kindly supplied to me by Miss Grace Ralston of Tallahassee, Florida, a lady well known in Kintyre, the land of her fathers.

(1) As explained, he was baptised plain Hugh Breckenridge. He changed the spelling to Brackenridge "because I found the bulk of the same stock spelt it so", and for no known reasoninserted "Henry" as a middle name.

Copyright belongs to the authors unless otherwise stated.

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