Hugh Henry Brackenridge and the Founding Of the University of Pittsburgh
Hugh Henry Brackenridge, a prominent American writer, lawyer, judge, and justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, played a significant role in shaping the cultural and intellectual landscape of Pittsburgh, PA during the frontier era. Born in Campbeltown, Scotland, in 1748, Brackenridge’s family emigrated to York County, Pennsylvania, when he was just five years old. His passion for learning and his commitment to advancing the country led him to establish the Pittsburgh Academy (now the University of Pittsburgh) and the Pittsburgh Gazette, which still operates today as the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Early Life and Education
Brackenridge’s early years were marked by the challenges and dangers of frontier life. After migrating to Pennsylvania, his family settled in York County, where Brackenridge survived the “Indian terrors” that followed General Braddock’s defeat. Despite his humble background as the son of a poor farmer, Brackenridge’s passion for learning set him apart. His mother recognized his intellectual pursuits and ensured he received a thorough education. By the age of thirteen, Brackenridge was well-versed in Latin and had begun studying Greek under the guidance of Reverend John Blair.
At the age of fifteen, Brackenridge started teaching at the free school in Gunpowder Falls, Maryland. In 1768, he embarked on a new educational journey by enrolling at the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University). Brackenridge’s time at Princeton allowed him to study a wide range of subjects, including Greek, Latin, French, philosophy, moral science, history, geography, public speaking, natural philosophy, and mathematics. It was during this period that he formed friendships with notable figures like Philip Freneau and James Madison, who would continue to shape his literary and political endeavors.
Early Collaborations and Literary Contributions
Brackenridge’s literary career began to flourish during his time at Princeton. In 1769, he collaborated with Philip Freneau on a prose tale titled “Father Bombo’s Pilgrimage to Mecca.” This work, which may comprise the first prose fiction in America, reflected Brackenridge’s concern for preserving cultural values in a democracy. The partnership between Brackenridge and Freneau also produced a prophetic poem titled “The Rising Glory of America,” which celebrated the nation’s manifest destiny and its future triumphs in science, trade, and the arts.
After graduating from Princeton in 1771, Brackenridge stayed on to study divinity. However, his passion for writing and his desire to make a broader impact led him to change course. In 1772, he became the headmaster of Somerset Academy in Maryland, where he continued to collaborate with Freneau. During this period, Brackenridge wrote a patriotic drama titled “The Battle of Bunker Hill” and another play called “The Death of General Montgomery at the Siege of Quebec.” These works showcased his admiration for American courage and his condemnation of British inhumanity.
Transition to Law and Journalism
In 1777, Brackenridge’s involvement in the Revolutionary War took a new turn when he served as a chaplain in George Washington’s army. Despite not being officially ordained, he believed his speeches could inspire patriotic zeal among the soldiers. Brackenridge also found time to write plays and composed two notable works: “The Battle of Bunkers-Hill” and “The Death of General Montgomery.” These plays celebrated American heroism and shed light on British atrocities during the war. Additionally, Brackenridge delivered a series of sermons titled “Six Political Discourses Founded on the Scriptures,” which further expressed his political beliefs.
In 1780, Brackenridge decided to pursue a legal career and was admitted to the bar in Philadelphia. However, he soon realized that the city was saturated with lawyers, prompting him to open his law practice on the frontier in Pittsburgh. Despite advocating for the development of the frontier in his magazines, Brackenridge was disappointed by the rowdy and disorganized nature of the settlement. He felt that his literary talents were not properly appreciated in this environment.
Contributions to Education and Journalism
Brackenridge’s commitment to education and journalism remained steadfast throughout his life. In 1786, he played a key role in establishing the Pittsburgh Gazette, which later became the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, the first newspaper on the Pennsylvania frontier. The newspaper served as a platform for advocating the interests of the frontier and promoting Brackenridge’s political ambitions. He wrote numerous articles supporting the advancement of Pittsburgh and successfully helped establish the Pittsburgh Academy, later known as the University of Pittsburgh. Brackenridge also played a crucial role in opening Pittsburgh’s first book store.
In 1786, Brackenridge was elected to the Pennsylvania State Assembly, where he fought for the adoption of the federal Constitution and secured state endowments for the Pittsburgh Academy. However, his refusal to vote in accordance with the wants and needs of his constituents led to his defeat in the 1788 election. Undeterred, Brackenridge founded the Tree of Liberty as a rival to the Pittsburgh Gazette, which had become a Federalist paper. This period also saw Brackenridge remarrying and having three children.
Literary Achievements and Legal Career
Between 1792 and 1797, Brackenridge published his most famous work, “Modern Chivalry.” This satirical novel, often compared to Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” was unique for its depiction of life on the American frontier. Brackenridge’s experiences as an activist for the adoption of the Federal Constitution and his term in the State Legislature at Philadelphia heavily influenced the book. The novel, published in four volumes, showcased comical human behavior amidst the challenges and bloodshed of developing America.
In 1795, Brackenridge published “Incidents of the Insurrection in Western Pennsylvania,” a book that chronicled his involvement in the Whiskey Rebellion. As a staunch opponent of the excise tax on whiskey, he defended some of the actors in the rebellion during their prosecution. Brackenridge’s book shed light on his struggles to support the federal government while also opposing the whiskey tax, leaving him caught between “treason on the one hand and public odium on the other.”
Political Engagement and Judicial Appointment
In 1798, Brackenridge became a leader of Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party in Western Pennsylvania. A year later, he was appointed as a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by Governor Thomas McKean. Brackenridge’s tenure on the court was marked by two significant events. Firstly, he fought for the independence of the judiciary when efforts were made to impeach the judges. Secondly, in 1814, he published “Law Miscellanies,” an influential work that engaged with the debate over the place of English common law in the American legal system.
Despite his professional accomplishments, Brackenridge’s personal eccentricities often overshadowed his judicial career. Described as “reserved and misanthropic,” he cared little about his appearance and was known to arrive at court unshaven with uncombed hair. Yet, his contributions to the development of the law and his defense of judicial independence left a lasting impact on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s contributions as a writer, educator, lawyer, and judge were significant in shaping the cultural, educational, and legal landscape of frontier-era Pittsburgh. Through his literary works, such as “Modern Chivalry” and his involvement in journalism, Brackenridge highlighted the challenges and triumphs of the American frontier. His dedication to education led to the establishment of the Pittsburgh Academy, later evolving into the University of Pittsburgh.
Brackenridge’s legal career and role as a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court demonstrated his commitment to justice and the independence of the judiciary. Although remembered for his eccentricities, his efforts to defend the principles of the law were commendable.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge passed away on June 25, 1816, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, leaving behind a legacy that continues to inspire and shape the cultural and intellectual heritage of Pittsburgh and beyond. His contributions as a frontier citizen, influential writer, and advocate for education and justice remain a testament to his enduring impact on American history.