Hugh Henry Brackenridge

George and Evert Duyckinck, Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 1:302-07.

The democratic politician and judge, eminent for his social wit, and the author of one of the finest political satires which the country has produced, was born in the year 1748 near Campbelton, in Scotland. He was brought by his father, a poor farmer, to America, when he was five years old. The family settled down on a small lease farm, in York county, Pennsylvania, west of the Susquehannah, on the borders of Maryland. The difficulties of his position did not prevent the youth securing a good education, partly from the country school, but mainly from an intelligent and painstaking clergyman of the region, who gave him some lessons in Latin and Greek. The mother encouraged the bookish efforts of her son, who would travel during the Sunday's intermission from work, twenty or thirty miles, to secure a volume or a newspaper. A copy of Horace, of which he came into possession, he left one day in the field, when it was munched by a cow. Meeting with a young man possessed of some knowledge of mathematics, he exchanged with him his Latin and Greek for that acquisition. At the age of fifteen he applied for the situation of teacher at a free school in Maryland, and secured the position. His juvenile years exposed him to some opposition from his older pupils, one of whom resisted his authority by force. Brackenridge "seized a brand from the fire, knocked the rebel down, and spread terror around him." With the small means which he laid up in this employment, he made his way to the college at Princeton, then under the charge of President Witherspoon. He was admitted, and supported himself in the higher classes by teaching the lower. His name appears on the list of graduates in 1771, with Gunning Bedford, Samuel Spring, James Madison, and Philip Freneau. In conjunction with the last, he delivered at the Commencement a poem in dialogue between Acasto and Eugenio, on the Rising Glory of America, which was published the next year in Philadelphia. The part which he wrote is easily separated, since Freneau afterwards published his portion separately in the edition of his poems in 1795. The verse of Brackenridge is smooth and glowing, and is tinctured with a grave religious tone.

Brackenridge continued a tutor in the college after taking his first degree, and studied divinity. He was licensed to preach, though not ordained, and undertook, at a profitable remuneration, for several years, the charge of an academy in Maryland.

His patriotic feeling on the breaking out of the Revolution induced him to prepare a dramatic production, entitled Banker's Hill, which was recited by his pupils. It was published in 1776, with a dedication "to Richard Stockton, Esq., Member of the Honorable the Continental Congress, for the state of New Jersey." It has a Prologue spoken "by a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Continental army," and an Epilogue, "written by a gentleman of the army, supposed to be spoken immediately after the battle, by Lieutenant-Col. Webb, aide-de-camp to General Putnam." The dramatis persona are Warren, Putnam, and Gardiner, for the American officers; Gage, Howe, Burgoyne, Clinton, and Lord Pigot, for the British. There is no lady in the case. Warren opens with an address to Putnam, to which the latter responds in sympathy, and Warren proposes the fortification of Bunker's Hill. Among the British at Boston, Burgoyne chafes over the confinement of the British troops. Gage replies—

This mighty paradox will soon dissolve.
Hear first, BURGOYNE, the valour of these men.
Fir'd with the zeal of fiercest liberty,
No fear of death, so terrible to all,
Can stop their rage. Grey-headed clergymen,
With holy bible and continual prayer,
Bear up their fortitude — and talk of heav'n,
And tell them that sweet soul, who dies in battle,
Shall walk with spirits of the just.

Howe compliments the enemy further—

Not strange to your maturer thought, BURGOYNE,
This matter will appear. A people brave,
Who never yet, of luxury, or soft
Delights, effeminate and false, have tasted.
But, through hate of chains, and slav'ry, suppos'd,
Forsake their mountain tops, and rush to arms.
Oft have I heard their valour published:
Their perseverance, and untameable
Fierce mind, when late they fought with us, and drove
The French, encroaching on their settlements,
Back to their frozen lakes. Or when with us
On Cape Breton, they stormed Louisburg.
With us, in Canada, they took Quebec;
And at the Havannah, these NEW ENGLAND MEN,
Led on by PUTNAM, acted gallantly.

The assault is made, and Warren falls. This is a portion of his dying speech:—

Weep not for him who first espous'd the cause
And risking life, have met the enemy,
In fatal opposition. But rejoice—
For now I go to mingle with the dead,
Great Brutus, Hampden, Sidney, and the rest,
Of old or modern memory, who liv'd,
A mound to tyrants, and strong hedge to kings;
Bounding the indignation of their rage
Against the happiness and peace of man.
I see these heroes, where they walk serene,
By chrystal currents, on the vale of Heaven,
High in full converse of immortal acts,
Achiev'd for truth and innocence on earth.
Meantime the harmony and thrilling sound
Of mellow lutes, sweet viols and guitars,
Dwell on the soul, and ravish ev'ry nerve.
Anon the murmur of the tight-brac'd drum,
With finely varied fifes to martial airs,
Wind up the spirit to the mighty proof
Of siege and battle, and attempt in arms.
Illustrious group! They beckon the along,
To ray my visage with immortal light,
And bind the amaranth around my brow.
I come, I come, ye first-born of true fame;
Fight on, my countrymen; BE FREE, BE FREE.

Appended to the Poem are the two following Lyrics:—


Sung and acted by a Soldier, in a Military Habit, with his Firelock, &c., in the same Measure with a Seapiece, entitled the Tempest.

"Cease, rude BOREAS, blustering railer."

You bold warriors, who resemble
Flames upon the distant hill;
At whose view the heroes tremble,
Fighting with unequal skill.
Loud-sounding drums, now with hoarse murmurs,
Rouse the spirit up to war;
Fear not, fear not, though their numbers,
Much to ours superior are.
Hear brave WARREN, bold commanding:
"Gallant souls and vet'rans brave,
See the enemy just landing,
From the navy-cover'd wave.
Close the wings — advance the centre—
Engineers point well your guns—
Clap the matches-let the rent air
Bellow to Britannia's sons."

Now, think you see three thousand moving,
Up the brow of BUNKER'S HILL;
Many a gallant vet'ran shoving
Cowards on, against their will.
The curling volumes all behind them,
Dusky buds of smoke arise;
Our cannon-balls, brave boys, shall find them,
At each shot a hero dies.
Once more, WARREN, 'midst this terror,
"Charge, brave soldiers, charge again;
Many an expert vet'ran warrior
Of the enemy is slain.
Level well your charged pieces,
In direction to the town;
They shake, they shake, their lightning ceases;
That shot brought six standards down."

Maids in virgin beauty blooming,
On Britannia's sea-girt isle,
Say no more your swains are coming,
Or with songs the day beguile.
For sleeping found in death's embraces,
On their clay-cold beds they lie;
Death, grim death, alas, defaces
Youth and pleasure, which must die.
"March the right wing, Gard'ner, yonder;
The hero spirit lives in thunder;
Take th' assailing foe in flank,
Close there, serjeants, close that rank.
The conflict now doth loudly call on
Highest proof of martial skill;
Heroes shall sing of them, who fail on
The slipp'ry brow of BUNKER'S HILL."

Unkindest fortune, still thou changest,
As the wind upon the wave;
The good and bad alike thou rangest,
Undistinguish'd in the grave.
Shall kingly tyrants see thee smiling,
Whilst the rave and just must die;
Them of sweet hope and life beguiling
In the arms of victory.
"Behave this day, my lads, with spirit,
Wrap the hill top as in flame;
Oh if we fall, let each one merit
Immortality in fame.
From this high ground, like Vesuv'us,
Pour the floods of fire along;
Let not, let not numbers move us,
We are yet five hundred strong."

Many a widow sore bewailing
Tender husbands, shall remain,
With tears and sorrows, unavailing,
From this hour to mourn them slain.
The rude scene striking all by-standers,
Bids the little band retire;
Who can live like salamanders,
In such floods of liquid fire?
"Ah, our troops are sorely pressed—
HOWE ascends the smoky hill;
Wheel inward, let these ranks be faced,
We have yet some blood to spill.
Our right wing push'd, our left surrounded,
Weight of numbers five to one;
WARREN dead, and GARD'NER wounded—
Ammunition is quite gone."

See the steely points, bright gleaming
In the sun's fierce dazzling ray;
Groans arising, life-blood streaming,
Purple o'er the face of day.
The field is cover'd with the dying,
Free-men mixt with tyrants lie,
The living with each other vieing,
Raise the shout of battle high.
"Now brave PUTNAM, aged soldier:
Come, my vet'rans, we most yield;
More equal match'd, well yet charge bolder,
For the present quit the field.
The God of battles shall revisit
On their heads each soul that dies;
Take courage, boys, we yet shan't miss it,
From a thousand victories."


Sons of valor, taste the glories
Of celestial LIBERTY;
Sing a triumph o'er the Tories,
Let the pulse of joy beat high.

Heaven, this day, hath foil'd the many
Fallacies of George their king;
Let the echo reach Britany,
Bid her mountain summits ring.

See yon navy swell the bosom
Of the late enraged sea;
Where-e'er they go we shall oppose them,
Sons of valour must be free.

Should they touch at fair RHODE-ISLAND,
There to combat with the brave;
Driven from each hill and high-land,
They shall plough the purple wave.

Should they thence to fair VIRGINY
Bend a squadron to DUNM0RE;
Still with fear and ignominy,
They shall quit the hostile shore.

Should they next advance their fame,
This land of heroes shall disgorge the
Sons of tyranny and shame.

Let them rove to climes far distant,
Situate under Arctic skies,
Call on Hessian troops assistant,
And the savages to rise

Boast of wild brigades from Russia,
To fix down the galling chain;
Canada and Nova Scotia
Shall discharge these hordes again.

In New York state, rejoined by CLINTON,
Should their standards mock the air,
Many a surgeon shall put lint on
Wounds of death, received there.

War, fierce war, shall break their forces,
Nerves of Tory men shall fail,
Seeing Howe with alter'd courses,
Bending to the western gale.

Thus, from every bay of ocean,
Flying back, with sails unfurl'd;
Trot with ever-troubl'd motion,
They shall quit this smiling world.

Like Satan, banished from HEAVEN,
Never see the smiling shore,
From this land so happy, driven,
Never stain its bosom more.

On going to Philadelphia in 1776, Brackenridge supported himself by editing the United States Magazine, a periodical of which an anecdote of his editorship is given by his son. "At one time the magazine contained some severe strictures on the celebrated General Lee, and censured him for his conduct to Washington. Lee, in a rage, called at the office, in company with one or two of his aides, with the intention of assaulting the editor; he knocked at the door, while Mr. Brackenridge, looking out of the upper story window, inquired what was wanting? 'Come down,' said Lee, 'and I'll give you as good a horse-whipping as any rascal ever received.' 'Excuse me, general,' said the other, 'I would not go down for two such favors.'"

Like Dwight and Barlow, Brackenridge was a chaplain in the Revolutionary army, preaching political sermons in the camp. Six of them were published at the time in a pamphlet, which had a large circulation. He delivered an oration on the 4th July, 1778, in honor of those fallen in the war, in the Dutch Reformed Church in Philadelphia.

The bent of his mind was not formed for the Scotch Presbyterian theology, so he relinquished the pulpit for the bar, and studied law with Samuel Chase, at Annapolis. His son tells us, in his biographical notice, that "although licensed to preach, he was never ordained nor formally consecrated to the ministry. As he grew older he became convinced that his natural temperament called him to the scenes of active life. Besides, he found himself unable to yield a full assent to all the tenets of the church in which he had been educated. He declared that for two whole years he laboured most sincerely and assiduously to convince himself, but in vain; and he could not think of publicly maintaining doctrines, in which he did not privately believe. On one occasion, in conversation with a Scotch clergyman, he stated his difficulties. The other replied to him that he was pretty much in the same predicament. 'Then, how do you reconcile it to your conscience to preach doctrines of whose truth you are not fully convinced?' 'Hoot, man,' said he, 'I dinna think much about it — I explain the doctrine, as I wud a system o' moral philosophy or metaphysics; and if I dinna just understand it noo, the time may come when I shall; and in the meantime I put my faith in wiser men, who established the articles, and in those whose heads so are sufficiently clear to understand them. And if we were tae question but ane o' these doctrines, it wud be like taking a stane out o' a biggin; the whole wa' might fa' doon.'"

In 1781, Brackenridge crossed the Alleghanies and established himself at Pittsburg — from which region he was sent to the State Legislature. His subsequent participation with Gallatin in the Whiskey Insurrection brought him into general notice in the agitations of that period. As a western man he thought the excise law which the rioters attempted to put down, oppressive. It was impossible not to engage to some extent in their movements, while he exerted his powers to regulate and restrain the actors from the commission of treason. When that affair was over he took pains to vindicate his conduct by procuring letters from the most eminent parties in reply to a circular letter, and by the publication of his Incidents of the Insurrection in the Western Parts of Pennsylvania in 1794, which was published the following year at Philadelphia.

The scenes which he passed through, and his experience of political life, gave him the material for his Modern Chivalry, or the Adventures of Captain Farrago, and Teague O'Regan, his Servant, the first part of which was published in 1796 at Pittsburgh. The second portion was issued after an interval of ten years. The whole of Modern Chivalry, with the last corrections and additions of the author, was published in two volumes at Pittsburgh in 1819, a book which is now exceedingly rare. The Philadelphia edition of 1846, illustrated by Darley, contains only the contents of the first volume of the former edition. It was edited by the author's son, H. M. Brackenridge, with a preface and biographical sketch. It is there remarked that this work "is believed to be entirely unknown in Europe, and that it has never been noticed by any review." We may quote from the editor's preface an anecdote of the author and his reputation in the West:—

"The author used to relate an incident which occurred to him at a place where he was detained a day, in consequence of having missed the stage, and feeling ennui, asked the landlord whether he had anything amusing to read. 'That I have,' said he, at the same time opening a little desk in his bar, and producing a torn volume of 'Modern Chivalry.' 'There,' said he, 'is something will make you laugh; and the man that wrote it was no fool neither.' When the author's descendants or relatives happen to be travelling, the first question almost invariably asked of them is, 'Are you related to the author of Modern Chivalry?' One of them having landed on the Mississippi, with the intention of going to St. Louis, a distance of two hundred miles by land, on making inquiries for some mode of conveyance, was addressed by a stranger in these words 'I understand, sir, your name is Brackenridge. Are you related to the author of Modern Chivalry?' And on being answered in the affirmative, immediately offered his horse, telling him to keep him until an opportunity should offer of returning him."

In the West, Modern Chivalry is, or deserves to be, regarded as a kind of aboriginal classic. It has the rough flavor of the frontier settlement in its manly sentiment, and not particularly delicate expression. Brackenridge was an eccentric man in his manners, though of vigorous sense. This book shows his humors in perfection, and so far as his ways of thinking go is autobiographic. It exhibits a warm, generous nature, and a man of much reading and reflection. The story, with its few incidents, is modelled upon Hudibras and Don Quixote, and productions of that ilk. The humor is after Sterne and Fielding, whose example would have been nothing without the natural ability if the writer to profit by it.

Captain Farrago is a type of the author; his servant Teague O'Regan is a humorous invention which does capital execution with the demagogues, sciolists, and other pretenders of the day. The work had an object to sow a few seeds of political wisdom among his fellow citizens, then little experienced in the use of political power, and its lessons in this way are profitable still. The Captain is the representative of Don Quixote, a clear-headed man, whose independent way of looking it things, from living out of the world, has gained him the reputation of eccentricity. He is withal a practical wag, setting out with his Irish servant in quest of adventures. The gist of his observation and experience lies in this, that the duties and responsibilities of a new state of society have been thrust upon a race of men so suddenly, that, unused to their new democratic privileges, they are very much in the way of abusing them. Without political knowledge they are ready to send the weaver to Congress; without learning the leatherheads rush in as members of the philosophical society, and appoint, after the manner of Dr. O'Toole, a native Irishman to a Greek professorship. Teague O'Regan is constantly in danger. He is in momentary risk of being decoyed from his master, made a clergyman of, elected to the philosophical society, or spirited away to the legislature. After awhile Teague learns to tell one foot from another by the aid of a Philadelphia dancing master, is introduced at the President's levee, and gets the appointment of Collector of the Excise in the Alleghanies. This leads to a tarring and feathering, which was doubtless drawn front the author's reminiscences of the Whiskey Insurrection. In the meanwhile the Captain has procured a Scottish servant, Duncan, whose dialect is better sustained than that of his Irish predecessor. Brackenridge's law learning, his College reading, his schoolmaster's acquisition, his roughly acquired knowledge of the world, are all displayed in this book. His explanation of his use of the character of the Irish clown is curious, and the remarks which follow are a truthful plea for fiction.

"It has been asked, why, in writing this memoir, have I taken my clown from the Irish nation? The character of the English clown, I did not well understand; nor could I imitate the manner of speaking. That of the Scotch I have tried, as may be seen, in the character of Duncan. But I found it, in my hands, rather insipid. The character of the Irish clown, to use time language of Rousseau, 'has more stuff in it.' He will attempt anything.

The American has in fact, yet, no character; neither the clown, nor the gentleman; so that I could not take one from our own country; which I would much rather have done, as the scene lay here. But the midland states of America, and the western pants in general, being half Ireland, the character of the Irish clown will not be wholly misunderstood. It is true the clown is taken from the aboriginal Irish; a character not so well known in the North of that country; nevertheless, it is still so much known, even there, and amongst the emigrants here or their descendants, that it will not be wholly thrown away.

On the Irish stages it is a standing character; and our the theatre in Britain it is also introduced. I have not been able to do it justice, being but half an Irishman myself, and not so well acquainted with the reversions, and idiom, of the genuine Thady, as I could wish. However, the imitation, at a distance from the original, will better pass than if it had been written, and read, nearer home. Foreigners will not so readily distinguish the incongruities; or, as it is the best we can produce for the present, will more indulgently consider them.

I think it the duty of every man who possesses a faculty, and perhaps a facility of drawing such images, as will amuse his neighbour, to lend a hand, and do something. Have those authors done nothing for the world, whose works would seem to have had no other object but to amuse? In low health; after the fatigue of great mental exertion on solid disquisition; in pain of mind, from disappointed passions; or broken with the sensibilities of sympathy and affection; it is a relief to try not to think, and this is attainable, in some degree, by light reading. Under sensations of this kind, I have had recourse more than once to Don Quixote; which doubtless contains a great deal of excellent moral sentiment. But, at the same time, has much that can serve only to amuse. Even in health, and with a flow of spirits, from prosperous affairs, it diversifies enjoyments, and adds to the happiness of which the mind is capable. I trust, therefore, that the gravest persons will not be of opinion that I ought to be put out of church for any appearance of levity, which this work may seem to carry with it.

"I know there have been instances amongst the Puritans, of clergymen, degraded for singing a Scotch pastoral. But music is a carnal thing compared with putting thoughts upon paper. It requires an opening of the mouth, and a rolling of the tongue, whereas thought is wholly spiritual, and depends not on any modification of the corporeal organs. Music, however, even by the strictest sects, is admissible in sacred harmony, which is an acknowledgment, that even sound has its uses to soothe tire mind or to fit it for contemplation.

"I would ask, which is the most entertaining work, Smollet's History of England or his Humphrey Clinker? For, as to the utility, so far as that depends upon truth, they are both alike. History has been well said to be the Romance of the human mind; and Romance the history of the heart. When the son of Robert Walpole asked his father, whether he should read to him out of a book of history; he said, 'he was not fond of Romance.' This minister had been long engaged in affairs; and from what he had seen of accounts of things within his own knowledge he had little confidence in the relation of things which he had not seen. Except memoirs of persons' own times; biographical sketches by cotemporary writers; Voyages, and Travels, that have geographical exactness, there is little of the historical kind, in point of truth, before Roderick Random, or Gil Blas.

"The Eastern nations in their tales pretend to nothing but fiction. Nor is the story with them the less amusing because it is not true. Nor is the moral of it less impressive, because the actors never had existence."

In the second volume of the work the style is more didactic but not less genial. It contains the material of a rare volume of Essays, fresh, independent in thought, quaint in humor and expression.

When Governor McKean secured the democratic ascendency by his election in 1799, Brackenridge was one of his appointments as Judge in the Supreme Court of the State, where he presided with ability till his death in 1816. Brackenridge deserves to be better known through his writings. His numerous miscellanies, scattered in old pamphlets, periodicals, and newspapers, if collected would form a pleasing and instructive commentary on his times. He had wit, humor, and a sound judgment. His judicial decisions were celebrated for their integrity and independence.

Hildreth, no friend to his party, admits — "Even Brackenridge, whatever his eccentricities and faults as a man or a politician, proved, in his judicial character, no disgrace to the bench."

His social talents must have been of a rare order. There is a capital anecdote narrated by Paulding, of his efforts to overcome the gravity of Washington. The judge, as he relates it, "on a particular occasion, fell in with Washington at a public-house, where a large company had gathered together for the purpose of discussing the subject of improving the navigation of the Potomac. They supped at the same table, and Mr. Brackenridge essayed all his powers of humor to divert the General; but in vain. He seemed aware of his purpose, and listened without a smile. However, it so happened that the chambers of Washington and Brackenridge adjoined, and were only separated from each other by a thin partition of pine boards. The General had retired first, and when the judge entered his own room, he was delighted to hear Washington, who was already in bed, laughing to himself with infinite glee, no doubt at the recollection of his stories."