Francis Hopkinson signed the Declaration of Independence, designed the American flag, wrote some biting satire, composed the nation’s first secular music, and got some props for his scientific ingenuity. Not a bad career for the College’s first alumnus.
BY SAMUEL HUGHES
December 16, 1776. War has come to the rebellious American colonies. The Hessian Jäger Corps has marched into Bordentown, New Jersey, a small town on the Delaware River just northeast of Philadelphia. Captain Johann Ewald, the regiment’s commander, enters a handsome brick house known to belong to a prominent rebel. Its library is filled with numerous pieces of “scientific apparatus”—and, of course, lots of books. One, titled Discourses on Public Occasions in America, by the Rev. William Smith—the provost of the College of Philadelphia and a staunch, though nuanced, Loyalist—catches Ewald’s eye, and he plucks it from the shelf. After riffling through the pages he takes a pen and writes, in German and beneath the bookplate of the book’s owner:
“This man was one of the greatest Rebels, nevertheless, if we dare to conclude from the library and mechanical and mathematical instruments, he must have been a very learned Man also.”
The learned rebel was Francis Hopkinson C1757 G1760 Hon1790, a member of the first graduating class of the College of Philadelphia, which would soon become the University of Pennsylvania. Most of the mechanical instruments had been lent to him by the College’s founder, Benjamin Franklin, who would later bequeath them all to Hopkinson and make him an executor of his will.
Being described as “one of the greatest Rebels” must have been quite the compliment to the diminutive, delicate-featured Hopkinson. Consider the description of him by John Adams four months earlier in a letter to his wife, Abigail. Having just met Hopkinson at Charles Willson Peale’s art studio, Adams described him as a “painter and a poet” who had been “liberally educated,” adding:
I have a curiosity to penetrate a little deeper into the bosom of this curious gentleman, and may possibly give you some more particulars about him. He is one of your pretty, little, curious, ingenious men. His head is not bigger than a large apple … I have not met with anything in natural history more amusing and entertaining than his personal appearance; yet he is genteel and well-bred, and is very social.
Adams harrumphed a bit about not having the “leisure and tranquility of mind to amuse myself with these elegant and ingenious arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music,” though he acknowledged that a “taste in all of them is an agreeable accomplishment.” All in all, his tone seems a bit condescending, perhaps, and a bit unfair. Hopkinson would serve his country ingeniously and bravely in the coming years, even if he didn’t carry a musket. Having already signed the Declaration of Independence as a member of the New Jersey delegation to the Continental Congress, Hopkinson would serve as the de facto secretary of the Treasury and the de facto secretary of the Navy (neither of those positions officially existed yet) and as a judge of the Admiralty (a position from which he was impeached and then completely exonerated). He would later be appointed to the federal bench by President George Washington; be called a “man of genius, gentility, & great merit” by Thomas Jefferson; and be praised by Robert Morris, the new nation’s financier-general, as a “Gentleman of unblemished Honour & Integrity, a faithful and attentive Servant of the Public and steadily attached to the American cause.”
While Adams’ suggestion that Hopkinson’s talents were essentially artful is on-target, those artistic contributions were fired by a very real patriotism. His talent for graphic design resulted in such iconic images as the American flag (see p. 53) and (though he wasn’t the main designer) the Great Seal of the United States—not to mention the Orrery Seal for his alma mater.
Hopkinson was also the first American-born composer of secular music. His “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free,” written in 1759, is believed to be the first secular composition in the country (or at least the first written down), while his “The Temple of Minerva,” celebrating the alliance between France and the United States, is considered, in the words of one critic, America’s “first attempt at grand opera.”
Famous in his day for his literary wit, Hopkinson churned out satirical poems and parables like “A Pretty Story” (a sort of colonial American precursor to Animal Farm); “A Prophecy: Written in 1776” (an allegorical response to the Loyalist warnings of Provost Smith); and “The Battle of the Kegs,” a puckish nose-thumbing at the occupying British that went viral, at least by 18th-century standards.
“I have not the abilities to assist our righteous Cause by personal Prowess & Force of Arms,” he would write in a letter to Benjamin Franklin, “but I have done it all the Service I could with my Pen—throwing in my Mite at Times in Prose & Verse, serious and satirical Essays, etc.”
This was no small contribution. Dr. Benjamin Rush, the “father of American psychiatry” who taught chemistry at the College and practiced medicine at Pennsylvania Hospital, put it this way: “the various causes which contributed to the establishment of the Independence and federal government of the United States, will not be fully traced, unless much is ascribed to the irresistible influence of the ridicule which [Hopkinson] poured forth, from time to time, upon the enemies of those great political events.”
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Illustration by David Hollenbach
PODCAST: “The Battle of the Kegs,” by Francis Hopkinson.
Read aloud by Samuel Hughes.