Henry Marie Brackenridge was born on May 11, 1786, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Brackenridge's varied career as a lawyer, judge and diplomat would take him to locations throughout the Western Hemisphere and led to contacts with many notable politicians of his day. Henry Marie's travels began early when his father, writer and judge, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, sent him to Louisiana to receive a French education. Taking after his father, Henry Marie pursued an education in law, eventually returning to his hometown to attend the Pittsburgh Academy. After gaining admittance to the bar in 1806, Brackenridge worked as a lawyer in Baltimore, Maryland; Somerset, Pennsylvania; and St. Louis, Missouri.
Brackenridge returned to Louisiana in 1811 as district attorney general for the Orleans Territory. When Louisiana entered the Union the following year, he helped shape the new state's legal code. During the War of 1812, Brackenridge provided intelligence to the Madison administration concerning developments in Louisiana. He later wrote a book on the subject,
History of the Late War, between the United States and Great Britain, published in 1816.
In 1817, President James Monroe selected Brackenridge to participate in a fact-finding mission to South America, in order to report on the rebellious Spanish colonies. The Monroe administration hoped the mission would help decide the matter of whether or not to officially recognize any independent governments that should form after these conflicts. Brackenridge's resulting publication on the trip,
Voyage of South America, Performed by Order of the American Government in the Years 1817 and 1818, expressed views largely in favor of the colonies establishing their independence. The work found an ardent supporter in Speaker of the House Henry Clay and explored ideas that are thought to have influenced what would later become known as the Monroe Doctrine.
Upon returning to the United States, Brackenridge was elected to the Maryland State Legislature. Along with another representative, he introduced a bill that would grant Jews the right to vote. The proposed legislation proved unpopular but revealed Brackenridge's belief in the importance of the separation between church and state.
A chance meeting with Andrew Jackson in 1821 led to Brackenridge's employment as the general's Spanish translator and secretary for a mission to the Florida territories. Through Jackson's influence, Brackenridge was appointed judge of West Florida. He presided over the region during its transition from a Spanish holding to a United States territory. In 1827, Brackenridge married Caroline Marie, a family friend whom he had known since childhood. The difficulties of frontier life and the potential for outbreaks of yellow fever kept the couple apart, with Caroline remaining in Pennsylvania while Brackenridge continued his tenure in Florida.
Following his dismissal as judge of West Florida in 1832, Brackenridge wrote a series of public letters criticizing the Jackson administration. Jackson responded, and the dispute continued in various newspaper editorials. Brackenridge argued that Jackson had replaced him with a political ally of the administration and accused the president of radically expanding the powers of the executive branch.
Brackenridge returned to Pennsylvania and settled into his wife's land near Pittsburgh, where the family established the towns of Natrona and Tarentum. In 1840, he was elected as a Whig to the United States Congress, replacing Richard Biddle. His attempt at re-nomination failed, but he was later elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. Brackenridge continued to write and express his views until his death in 1871.