Last reviewed: June 2018
Scottish-born American novelist.
June 25, 1816
Hugh Henry Brackenridge was born on the Kintyre peninsula in Scotland, near the village of Campbeltown, in 1748. He was brought to the United States in 1753, at the age of five. His family settled in western Pennsylvania, where Brackenridge grew up on the frontier. He entered Princeton University in 1768. At his graduation in 1771, he recited A Poem on the Rising Glory of America (published 1772), which he cowrote with classmate Philip Freneau. (Brackenridge and Freneau had, along with James Madison and others, helped cofound the American Whig Society at Princeton.) Epic in intention, the poem is an important contribution to early nationalism. For a brief period, Brackenridge was the head of an academy in Maryland. During the American Revolution, in addition to serving as a chaplain, he published two plays that praised the heroism of American troops, designed for private performance, as well as Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scripture (1778), a collection of sermons exhorting the troops to carry on bravely. Portrait of Hugh Henry Brackenridge.
Portrait of Hugh Henry Brackenridge.
After studying law in Annapolis, Brackenridge moved to Pittsburgh in 1781. He made many contributions to the cultural life of that frontier community, and it was there that he wrote Modern Chivalry (1792–97), the book for which he is best remembered. This picaresque novel, fashioned after Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605, 1615), satirizes incompetence and corruption in the workings of democratic government. By ridiculing the weaknesses of democracy, Brackenridge hoped to strengthen it.
Despite the fact that he satisfied neither side during the Whiskey Rebellion, Brackenridge was sufficiently well thought of politically to win an appointment to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1799. He moved to Carlisle in 1801. There he wrote Law Miscellanies (1814), his principal contribution to legal literature, and there he died on June 25, 1816.