|Hopkinson was just 14 when his father died in November 1751. Thomas Hopkinson had been a founder and trustee of the Academy of Philadelphia (the secondary-school precursor of the College), and earlier that year he had enrolled Francis as its first student. The senior Hopkinson had been a good friend of Franklin, who mourned his passing in The Pennsylvania Gazette and looked after his family for many years. He took a particular interest in Francis, and despite the age difference, the two would be friends until the end of their lives. (In congratulating Hopkinson on his appointment as treasurer of loans during the Revolution, Franklin wrote: I think the Congress judge’d rightly in their choice, as Exactness in accounts and scrupulous fidelity in matters of Trust are Qualities in which your father was eminent, and which I was persuaded was inherited by his Son …)
Two of Hopkinson’s classmates in that first College class would become his brothers-in-law. One sister married Jacob Duché (class valedictorian, professor of oratory, Anglican minister, and eventual turncoat—see p. 54); another married John Morgan, who organized the medical department of the College and served as director general and physician-in-chief to the general hospital of the Continental Army.
Hopkinson was apparently one of Provost Smith’s star pupils, and became, along with Duché, part of a poetic group that called themselves the Swains of the Schuylkill. In November 1754 he gave a public address titled “On Education in General,” noting that “whether the Design be to preserve a good Constitution … or to mend a bad One, and secure it against all Dangers from without, it is only to be done effectively by the slow, but sure Means of a proper education of youth.”
A bad constitution in need of mending might seem to suggest the stirrings of a young revolutionary, but Hopkinson, like most people affiliated with the College in those days, was still quite loyal to the British Crown. He contributed an essay to a book published by Smith titled The Reciprocal Advantages Arising From Perpetual Union Between Great Britain and Her American Colonies, and at the Commencement of 1762 delivered an “Ode on the Accession of His Present Gracious Majesty, George III,” which might charitably be described as blandiloquent.
Less than a year later, he published some caustic verses ridiculing a Latin grammar that had been written by his former Latin professor, John Beveridge. To make things worse, the printing of the grammar had been overseen by Vice-Provost Francis Alison. “Errata, or the Art of Printing Incorrectly” included the following lines: “When Mr. Beveridge took his Pen in hand/ What for to write he did not understand/ He then invok’d his Muse in plaintive strain,/ His Muse obey’d & fill’d his plodding Brain/ The Time of Labor comes—but then alas!/ The filthy Offspring proves to be an Ass/.” When Beveridge wrote a satirical reply in Latin; Hopkinson fired off another poetic salvo.
The offending verses, noted Thomas Haviland in The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, “directly resulted in action by the vice-provost and the Latin professor which prevented Hopkinson—a steady contributor of music and odes for some time after his graduation—from taking part in the Commencement of 1763, to the consequent impoverishment of those festivities.”
But the College soon relented. In May 1765 the trustees wrote that “as the first scholar in this seminary at its opening, and likewise one of the first who received a degree, [Hopkinson] has done honor to the place of his education by his abilities and good morals, as well as rendered it many substantial services on all public occasions.” Therefore, they added, “the thanks of this institution ought to be delivered to him in the most affectionate and respectful manner.”
Throughout his life Hopkinson had a keen interest in scientific matters, and in 1762 he dedicated his lengthy poem “Science” to the trustees, provost, and faculty of the College. He would later collaborate with David Rittenhouse on “An Account of the Effects of a Stroke of Lightning on a House Furnished with Two Conductors,” and receive the first Magellanic Prize from the American Philosophical Society for his invention of a “spring-block designed to assist a vessel in sailing.”
“I have your Gimcrack Instruments in safe Preservation, & they afford me great Amusement,” Hopkinson told Franklin in 1781. “I have many new Ideas floating in my Brain, in Consequence of the Experiments I make; but have not Time, or what is more likely, not Genius sufficient to form them into a System for your Amusement.”
For all his interest in Gimcrackery and the arts, Hopkinson needed a day job, and for most of his life that would involve the law. (That he had no illusions about the profession is clear from a couplet he dashed off in Chester: “Attorneys and clients here lovingly meet,/ The one to be cheated, the other to cheat.”) After studying under Benjamin Chew, Pennsylvania’s attorney general, Hopkinson hung out his shingle in 1761. That year he was appointed to a new Indian Commission charged with making a treaty with eight tribes of Native Americans. He transmuted his experiences at the treaty conference in Easton, Pennsylvania into “The Treaty,” a long poem that sounds like something out of The Sot-Weed Factor. (“See from the throng a painted warrior rise,/ A savage Cicero, erect he stands,/ Awful, he throws around his piercing eyes,/ Whilst native dignity respect commands.”)
Hopkinson’s romantic streak showed itself before he started writing rhapsodic love poems to Ann Borden, whom he would marry in 1768, and with whom he would have five children. (One of his sons, Joseph Hopkinson C1786 G1789, attended the College, served as a trustee, became a federal judge and a US Congressman, and wrote the lyrics to “Hail Columbia.”) In 1764 Hopkinson and several other gallant fellows helped a young woman named Betty Shewell escape from the Philadelphia room where her brother had locked her up for accepting a marriage proposal from the painter Benjamin West, who was then living in England. After descending by rope ladder, she was taken by a waiting carriage to Chester, where she boarded a ship for London. Hopkinson’s co-conspirators, incidentally, were an unlikely group: Benjamin Franklin, the future Bishop William White (then 18), and—according to some accounts—Provost Smith, who later complained that West had never thanked him or acknowledged his role in the escapade.
When Hopkinson traveled to Britain two years later, he stayed with West (a friend since his College days) and his bride. That trip prompted the first hint of a social consciousness in Hopkinson, who was shocked by the appalling conditions of the Irish peasantry: “All along the road are built the most miserable huts you can imagine of mud & straw, much worse than Indian wigwams, & the miserable inhabitants go scarce decently covered with rags—the poor are numerous & very indigent indeed.” While no one among the “lower class in Pennsylvania” lacks the comforts of life “who hath health & industry,” he added, “many of the poor here cannot obtain the necessities of it.”
Hopkinson was unable to secure a sinecure in England despite a glowing letter to the Bishop of Worcester from Franklin, who described him as a “very ingenious young man” and praised his “good Morals & obliging Disposition.” When he returned to Philadelphia he opened up a dry-goods business that also offered “choice Port wine,” and in 1772 Lord North appointed him Collector of the Customs for New Castle, Delaware. (Hopkinson already had a similar post for Salem, New Jersey.) That patronage did not stop him from penning increasingly pointed anti-Tory essays and allegories, however. Eventually, despite the need to provide for his young family, he would resign from those jobs.
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