On December 11, 1781, less than two months after the decisive Battle of Yorktown, a musical work titled “The Temple of Minerva, An Oratorial Entertainment” was performed in Philadelphia. Among those in attendance were Anne-César De la Luzerne, the French Ambassador to the United States; General and Martha Washington and General Nathanael Greene; and Hopkinson, the composer of the work. Originally titled “America Independent,” the work was a “dramatic allegorical cantata,” in the words of musical historian Oscar Sonneck, who called Hopkinson “America’s first poet-composer.”
Set in front of the Temple of Minerva (the goddess of wisdom), the cantata’s three male figures—the Genius of France, the Genius of America, and the High Priest of Minerva—prayed for the goddess to appear and make a prediction about the new nation of Columbia. When she made her entrance in Act II, Minerva predicted that a happy state would repay all of Columbia’s grief, and that if her sons would stand united, “great and glorious shall she be.”
The outcome of the war was still very much in doubt when Hopkinson composed “The Temple of Minerva,” which gave its cautiously optimistic words an even sweeter ring when performed before the victorious generals. But while a review in The Freeman’s Journal the following week said that the performance “afforded the most sensible pleasure,” the Tory response can be gleaned from a parody published in the January 5, 1782 issue of the Royal Gazette: “The Temple of Cloacina: An Ora-whig-ial Entertainment.” In that version—which consisted of a severely pencil-edited copy of the original—the temple was an outhouse. In a lengthy 1976 article for the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, musicologist Gillian B. Anderson described the entire parody as shockingly obscene.
Hopkinson himself told Benjamin Franklin that “The Temple of Minerva” was “not very elegant Poetry, but the Entertainment consisted in the Music & went off very well.” Since the music consisted of works by Handel and other composers as well as his own, he explained, he had to tailor his lines around their works. “In short, the Musician crampt the Poet.”
Whatever the critical assessments of Hopkinson’s music, we know that it sometimes had a strong effect on listeners. When he sent a collection of his popular songs to Thomas Jefferson, then the US Ambassador to France, Jefferson responded that “while my elder daughter was playing [one song] on the harpsichord, I happened to look toward the fire, & saw the younger one all in tears. I asked her if she were sick? She said, ‘No; but the tune was so mournful.’”
Hopkinson later sent a copy of his song book to Washington, with the following comment:
However small the Reputation may be that I shall derive from this Work, I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition. If this attempt should not be too severely treated, others may be encouraged to venture on a path, yet untrodden in America, and the Arts in succession will take root and flourish amongst us.
Washington’s answer was both generous and diplomatic. While he himself could “neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument to convince the unbelieving,” he wrote, he could offer “one argument which will prevail with persons of true taste (at least in America)—I can tell them that it is the production of Mr. Hopkinson.”
Hopkinson’s contributions to the American cause didn’t end with the Revolution. By the crucial year of 1787, he had become a firm Federalist. In that arena, true to form, he’s probably best known for “The New Roof,” the allegorical essay and poem he wrote about replacing the Articles of Confederation with a new constitution. (The poem was originally titled “The Raising: A New Song for Federal Mechanics.”)
The gist of the prose version goes like this: Despite being only 12 years old, the “roof of a certain mansion house” had decayed so badly that it could no longer provide protection from the weather. When a group of “skillful architects” examined it, they found that the “whole frame was too weak”; that its 13 rafters were “not connected by any braces or ties so as to form a union of strength”; that “some of these rafters were thick and heavy, and others very slight”; that the “lathing and shingling had not been secured with iron nails but only wooden pegs,” which would shrink and swell in the sun and rain—causing the shingles to become “so loose that many of them had been blown away by the winds.” Finally, the roof was “so flat as to admit the most idle servants in the family, their playmates and acquaintances, to trample upon and abuse it.”
In order to build a new and better roof, the architects “consulted the most celebrated authors in ancient and modern architecture” and tried to “proportion the whole to the size of the building and strength of the walls.” (The validity of his imagery is still debated; in a recent essay titled “A Roof without Walls: The Dilemma of an American National Identity,” historian John Murrin wrote: “Francis Hopkinson to the contrary, Americans had erected their constitutional roof before they put up the national walls.” But that’s another story.)
“The New Roof” was widely read and well received in its day—though again true to form, Hopkinson’s potshots at the Anti-Federalist camp (too complicated to go into here) sparked some return fire. One opponent called him a “base parasite and tool of the wealthy and great, at the expense of truth, honor, friendship,” and added: “Little Francis should have been cautious in giving provocation, for insignificance alone could have preserved him the smallest remnant of character.”
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