Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816)

Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1748-1816)

Hugh Henry Brackenridge was born in a small village in western Scotland near Cambeltown. His family emigrated to Philadelphia around 1753 and settled in York County, Pennsylvania. He made determined efforts to educate himself, with the help of a local pastor, and by 1768 he was able to enter Princeton, where he was a classmate of James Madison. After graduation he studied divinity and headed an academy in Maryland. During the Revolution he wrote patriotic literature and served as a chaplain. He later gave up the ministry, having never been ordained, and took up the law under Samuel Chase in Maryland. In 1781 he journeyed to Pittsburgh to begin a practice. There he became active in community affairs, including the beginnings of the first Pittsburgh newspaper, bookstore, and most importantly, in 1787, the Pittsburgh Academy which was eventually to become the University of Pittsburgh.

In politics, he became involved with the Whiskey Rebellion, in such balanced measure that he stirred the suspicions of the rebels amongst whom he lived as well as the Federal representatives engaged in restoring order to the West. Nevertheless, he was a loyal Republican and Governor McKean appointed him to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1799. Two years later, he left Pittsburgh and settled in Carlisle.

While in Carlisle, he became interested in the welfare of the fledgling Dickinson College and joined its board of trustees in 1803, serving until his death. Perhaps his major service to the College came in 1803, after the calamitous destruction of the institution's new building, "New College." Assisting first with appeals for funds -- many donations for which came from members of the new Jefferson Administration -- and then by personally securing the services of the country's leading young architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Latrobe provided the plans for the rebuilding of "New College," now standing as "Old West."

As a member of the small group of trustees who met regularly in Carlisle, and therefore dominated College affairs, Brackenridge more than fulfilled his reputation as a brilliant, iconoclastic, and eccentric man. By now he abhorred religion, drank whiskey enthusiastically, and ran afoul of the rising tide of religious orthodoxy in American affairs that was being played out in the Dickinson of Jeremiah Atwater. The bringing of the notorious Thomas Cooper to the College to become Atwater's great rival was largely the doing of Brackenridge and his friends on the Board.

Brackenridge had married twice; his first wife died in 1788, leaving him a son, Hugh Marie Brackenridge. He married again in 1790 to Sabina Wolfe, the young daughter of a Washington County farmer. They had at least two children; a daughter Cornelia and a son Alexander. Till the end of his life, his free eccentricity and his caustic wit remained with him. Though fashions moved on, the old Judge was famous for adhering to the knee britches, flannel frock coat and cocked hat of his younger days. He died on June 25, 1816 in Carlisle, and is buried in the Old Graveyard in the town. His daughter Cornelia, who died in 1823, lies beside him.

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Dickinson College Archives
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