Once again Dr. Boli has contributed an introduction to a worthy, though mostly forgotten, work of literature.
It also has the advantage of being a suspense thriller with a sense of humor—the Alfred Hitchcock sort of suspense thriller. Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a famous wit, and time and again his sense of humor pulls him out of a tough scrape.
It is not really necessary to know the history of the Whiskey Rebellion to enjoy the story: Brackenridge will tell you as much as you need to know. Whiskey was the staple crop in the west country of Pennsylvania; it was a way of making grain portable so that it could be sold at a good profit across the mountains in the East. When the federal government, looking for sources of revenue to pay off the debts from the Revolution, placed an excise tax on distilled spirits, Westerners mostly refused to pay it. It would eat up all their profits and make it impossible to compete with the Eastern farmers, they said.
Two things happened in 1794 to bring things to a head. First, a U. S. marshal came through the west country serving writs on distillers who had evaded the tax. Second, John Neville, a wealthy plantation owner (he was a Virginian, and his plantation included slaves, since slavery was not yet banned in Pennsylvania) accepted a commission as revenue collector. When a mob surrounded his house, shots were fired, people died, and the rebellion was on.
Now it was impossible not to take a side, and there was only one safe side. “Tom the Tinker” sent threats to anyone who paid the tax, and anyone who cooperated with revenue collectors had better leave the country.
Now, what was Brackenridge’s role in all this? Like most men of sense (we hear very little of women in this book), he saw that open rebellion could lead only to disaster. He also saw that the flood was rolling and could not be dammed. The best he could hope to accomplish was to turn it into harmless channels.
His chief weapon was the joke. He tells us so repeatedly. A man who was laughing with him was a man who was, for the moment, not killing him. Not to be killed immediately was not enough for him, however: he hoped for a life in which he could stop worrying about being killed. If the insurrection continued, it would be civil war, and that would mean constant worry. Therefore the insurrection must end.
So began his tightrope walk: he must seem to be in sympathy with the insurgents, while at the same time keeping them from destroying themselves and him with them. Naturally he earned enemies on both sides. But there is good reason to think that he may have prevented a civil war.
A scrupulous historian might ask, How much of this narrative is true? That it is self-serving Brackenridge would be the first to admit. The Nevilles and Craigs continued to form a powerful cabal in Pittsburgh, and in the next generation Neville Craig would write the first substantial history of Pittsburgh, in which Brackenridge is portrayed as an unscrupulous villain. It provoked a response from Henry Marie Brackenridge, Hugh Henry’s equally literary son, who relied much on the evidence in his father’s book.
The long train of depositions and affidavits at the end of the book is meant to answer the question of whether the Brackenridge version deviates from the truth. After such a mound of evidence, it would require an intricate conspiracy theory to insist that Brackenridge had falsified the facts. In the main his account is verified. The only question is about his motive—the quo animo, as Brackenridge the legal scholar calls it. Of course we have no evidence but his word as a gentleman for that.
It is worth noting that Brackenridge flourished in the years after the Insurrection. He was made a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 1799. He published two more parts of his novel Modern Chivalry with considerable success, and he constantly tinkered with the book for new editions up to 1815, the year before he died.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge was a curious literary phenomenon. He was admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania in 1780—before the Revolution was won—and moved to the frontier town of Pittsburgh, a small pond where he could be a big fish. He set himself up there in a law practice; but literature was his first love. Finding no literary outlet in Pittsburgh, he put up the money for John Scull to have a press hauled over the mountains in 1785. Thus the Gazette was born—today, as the Post-Gazette, the second-oldest metropolitan newspaper in the United States. Brackenridge filled its columns with sophisticated wit that would shame many of the Eastern papers. In 1787, he arranged for the founding of the Pittsburgh Academy, now the University of Pittsburgh. He began writing the first substantial novel in America, Modern Chivalry, and published two parts that sold well and made a permanent contribution to American literature. Brackenridge gave Pittsburgh a sheen of sophisticated Eastern culture—which the country people hated.
Pittsburgh was already a substantial town in 1794. The population of the town itself was probably less than a thousand, but it served as the center of commerce and government for the whole of Western Pennsylvania. Though to an Easterner like Brackenridge it was no more than a village, to the country people it was the big city, the new Sodom, an outpost of the Eastern civilization they despised. Throughout our story the constant—and entirely justified—fear in the town is that the country people will loot what is portable and burn the place to the ground. It is clear that the whiskey tax is only the latest ingredient in a long-simmering stew of resentments. Give the country people any pretext, and they will burn the town just for being the town. Extraordinary measures must be taken to avoid giving them any pretext.
This bitterness has never quite subsided. A glance at the map of Pennsylvania shows that Philadelphia has absorbed its surroundings out to the county line, but Pittsburgh remains confined to very narrow borders, with the rest of Allegheny County divided into a riot of small independent jurisdictions—129 of them, far more than any other county in the Commonwealth. This book will help explain that jealous jurisdictionalism.
Brackenridge is also a keen student of human nature. Has anyone ever so thoroughly or so shrewdly analyzed the psychology of insurrections? Brackenridge observes that the leaders are seldom leading at all; in fact they are men who fear the results of their own actions, but have more to fear from the wrath of the mob. Yet many among the most wrathful in the mob are also acting out of fear of the rest of the mob, and privately wish that the whole affair could just evaporate. They must be seen to be enthusiastic supporters of what they know to be a disastrous course, or the mob will turn against them. And they must join the mob in turning against any of their neighbors who seem insufficiently fanatical, or risk being suspected of insufficient fanaticism themselves. The doubters may be in the majority, but the mob is still unified in its fanaticism.
As history and as psychology, then, this is a useful book. But it is also a very entertaining book. Brackenridge was a master entertainer. A review of an 1847 edition of Modern Chivalry tells us this story of Brackenridge and President Washington:
Judge Brackenridge was accounted a great wit in the days of Washington, whom he endeavored to entertain with his stories upon one occasion at a public dinner, but without effect, the Presidential decorum not relaxing a muscle; but at night when the Father of his Country was laid aside with the buff and blue, the humorist had the satisfaction of hearing the bottled-up laughter of the day explode with many a gurgle through the thin partition which separated their bed-rooms. Such was the prudence of Washington, and such the humor of Brackenridge.1
In spite of his acknowledged haste in scribbling the book, Brackenridge has the master’s instinct for telling a good story. He knows how to build tension, how to tug at our human sympathy, and how to set up a punch line. If you have no interest in the Whiskey Rebellion, you will still find yourself enjoying the book. Books that still entertain us after more than two centuries are rare. This is one of them.
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