When Dr. Boli said that he was looking for rare works by Hugh Henry Brackenridge, the sort of thing he was hoping to find was this:

This is a collection of miscellaneous pieces Judge Brackenridge wrote for the Gazette and other publications in Pittsburgh. Some of them are dreary pamphlets that lost all their interest when the political issues they discussed became irrelevant; some are Hudibrastic satirical poems, and it must be said that Judge Brackenridge fares much better in prose. But some of the pieces are clever bits of satire that shine as bright now as they did when they were sent down to Mr. Scull to be printed.

Judge Brackenridge was a firm supporter of the new Constitution; but in the columns of the Gazette he took both sides of the question under various names. He did not, however, feel obliged to give the opposition the best possible arguments. And his parody of anti-Federalist rhetoric is very comforting to us today.

We always tend to believe that we live in an age of uniquely debased political rhetoric: that we have descended from the high ideals of previous generations. Of course, that is because previous generations have passed down only the tiny fraction of their political rhetoric that stood up to high ideals, and thrown the rest into the compost heap where it belongs.

Dr. Boli was too young to vote in the 1800 election, but he vividly remembers the Adams camp circulating broadsides warning that Jefferson would burn your house and rape your daughters if he won. The horrors of the French Revolution would come to our shores, and the only way to prevent them was to vote Federalist. These, you must remember, were our sainted Founding Fathers. We have no right to say that our political rhetoric is uniquely debased.

Read this short excerpt from one of Judge Brackenridge’s pseudonymous contributions to the Gazette, written in the voice of a strident opponent of the Constitution.

The house of representatives is so large that it can never be built. They may begin it, but it never can be finished. Ten miles square! Babylon itself, unless the suburbs were taken into view, was not of greater extent.…

The rights of conscience are swept away. The Confession of Faith, the Shorter Catechism, and the Pilgrims Progress are to go. The Psalms of Watts, I am told, is the only thing of this kind that is to have any quarter at all.…

I would submit it to any candid man, if in this constitution there is the least provision for the privilege of shaving the beard? or is there any mode laid down to take the measure of a pair of breeches?…

Neil MacLaughlin, a neighbour of mine, who has been talking with ———, says, that under this constitution all weavers are to be put to death. What have these innocent manufacturers done that they should be so proscribed?

Do not our political arguments sound very much like this today? And is it not comforting to know that, though we were no better two and a quarter centuries ago, yet we have survived to the present day?


  1. The good doctor will doubtless remember a little dispute back in 1861, unless he had the good fortune to be elsewhere at the time. Some of those political squabbles had some unhappy side effects. But he is certainly correct that in general neither editorials nor news reporting were intended to be balanced analyses of the truth.

    It probably predates you somewhat, but if I may trust the translation of the Constitution of Athens (I do not read Greek), Solon had an arresting proposal that seems to suggest that balanced analyses of truth were scarce then also:

    “And seeing that the state was often torn by faction, and that some of the citizens from indifference stood aloof, of his own motion he passed a law specially directed against them as follows—that anyone who, when the state was divided into parties, did not take up arms and side with one or the other, should be deprived of his political rights, and have no part in the state.”

    • Dr. Boli says:

      No one would deny that our party squabbles have had ill effects—which is precisely the comfort. Whenever we are tempted to believe that we are uniquely depraved, we need only remember that there was a time when we had literal civil war between Republicans and Democrats. Our political landscape is considerably sunnier than that.

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