HOPKINSON, FRANCIS. (1737–1791). Signer, writer, artist. Pennsylvania. His father, an English lawyer, immigrated to Philadelphia in 1731 and became a member of the governor's council as well as of numerous civic and social organizations. Francis was the first graduate (1757) of the College of Philadelphia (later the University of Pennsylvania). He studied law under Benjamin Chew and was admitted to the bar in 1761, but for the next twelve years he tried a variety of careers. In 1763 he was named customs collector in Salem, New Jersey. In 1766–1767 he made an unsuccessful trip to England for political preferment. After becoming a shopkeeper, he was named customs collector at New Castle, Delaware (about forty miles below Philadelphia). Returning to the law, he set up practice at Bordentown, New Jersey, and was an immediate success. In 1774 he was named to the governor's council, but in that year he published an allegorical political satire, A Pretty Story, in which he expressed his ardent Whig convictions. Another similar type of story, called A Prophecy, anticipated the Declaration of Independence. Elected to Congress from New Jersey in June 1776, he was one of the Signers. A few months after adoption of the Flag Resolution of 14 June 1777, he was appointed one of three commissioners of the Continental Navy Board. As chairman and secretary he served capably for almost two years before Congress elected him treasurer of loans. A year later, while still holding the latter post, he became judge of the Pennsylvania Admiralty Court. Ten years later in 1789, the court was dissolved and Hopkinson became judge of the U.S. district court of eastern Pennsylvania for the last two years of his short but memorable life.
Hopkinson designed, or had a part in designing, seals of the American Philosophical Society, the State of New Jersey, and what became the University of Pennsylvania. On 25 May 1780 he wrote the Board of Admiralty that he was pleased they liked his design for their seal; he also requested recognition for this work and a number of other "devices." At the top of the list he claimed to have created the Stars and Stripes, later valuing this work at £9 cash or £540 paper money. Congress decided on 23 August 1781 that too many others had worked on design of the flag for Hopkinson to deserve credit for being its originator. Meanwhile, a serious quarrel had resulted in his resignation as treasurer of loans.
Among his wartime writings were A Letter to Lord Howe, A Letter Written by a Foreigner, and An Answer to General Burgoyne (all in 1777). A Letter to Joseph Galloway and his famous Battle of the Kegs appeared in 1778. In 1781 he wrote words and music of a cantata, The Temple of Minerva, celebrating the French alliance. In his later years he invented a ship's log and a shaded candlestick, among other things. He continued to write, producing political essays, general social criticism, satire, and verse. Among his musical compositions was a collection, Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano (1788). His son Joseph followed in his footsteps as a politician, jurist, and composer; Joseph wrote Hail Columbia.
Sonneck, Oscar G. T. Francis Hopkinson, the First American Poet-Composer, 1737–1791. New York: Da Capo, 1967.
revised by Harry M. Ward
Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791), the first native American composer, was also a literary satirist, jurist, and inventor.
Francis Hopkinson was born on Oct. 2, 1737, in Philadelphia. He studied at the academy there and then attended the recently opened College of Philadelphia (later University of Pennsylvania), graduating at 19. In 1759 he composed his first song, "My days have been so wondrous free." Hopkinson read law under the attorney general of the Pennsylvania province and was admitted to the bar in 1761. He was a member of an Indian treaty commission in 1765, the same year he translated the Dutch Psalter and opened a conveyance service in Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin characterized the young dilettante as "very ingenious, " of "good Morals & obliging Disposition." Hopkinson visited Franklin in London in 1766, vainly seeking royal preferment. Back home, he opened a dry-goods shop.
Hopkinson married Ann Borden, of Bordentown, N.J., on Sept. 1, 1768. In 1772 he was an organist at Christ Church in Philadelphia when England's prime minister Lord North appointed him customs collector for Newcastle, Del. Apparently dissatisfied with this position, he moved to Bordentown, resumed practicing law, and in 1774 rose to the governor's council. Also in 1774, he wrote A Pretty Story, a satirical anti-British nursery tale.
In 1776 Hopkinson was sent by New Jersey to the Continental Congress, which made him chairman of the naval board and, later, treasurer of loans. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1778 he wrote his famous Revolutionary poem, The Battle of the Kegs, a jeering ballad commemorating a British "victory" over American mines on the Delaware River.
Hopkinson's Temple of Minerva, a gala "oratorical entertainment, " was presented in 1781. His pro-Constitution satire, The New Roof, appeared in 1787. In 1788 he composed his charming book of music, Seven Songs. Also a scientist and inventor, he designed a floating lamp, a spring block to assist sailboats, and a better method of gassing ascension balloons. He is also said to have designed the American flag.
Hopkinson served as an Admiralty judge from 1779 to 1789, when President Washington appointed him a federal judge. He died in Philadelphia on May 9, 1791, survived by his wife and six children.
Hopkinson's Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings (3 vols., 1792) is the basic collection of his literary production. Much of Hopkinson's most engaging writing is found in his correspondence, particularly to Jefferson. The best secondary source is George Everett Hastings, The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson (1926). It provides a guide to the originals in the Miscellaneous Essays and contains manuscript and published articles not included therein. Benson J. Lossing reprinted the original version of A Pretty Story, retitled The Old Farm and the New Farm: A Political Allegory (1857). O. G. Sonneck, Francis Hopkinson: The First American Poet-Composer (1905), discusses Hopkinson's musical life. □
Hopkinson, Francis, American statesman, writer, and composer; b. Philadelphia, Sept. 21, 1737; d. there, May 9, 1791. By profession a lawyer, he was deeply interested in music. He learned to play the harpsichord, and also studied theory with James Bremner. Hopkinson was a member of an amateur group in Philadelphia who met regularly in their homes to play music, and also gave public concerts by subscription. He was the composer of the first piece of music written by a native American, Ode to Music, which he wrote in 1754, and of the first original American song, My days have been so wondrous free (1759). At least, this is the claim he makes in the preface to his 7 Songs[actually 8, the last having been added after the title page was engraved] for the harpsichord or forte piano, dated Philadelphia, Nov. 20, 1788, and dedicated to George Washington: “I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first Native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition” Hopkinson wrote an Ode in Memory of James Bremner (1780) and some songs. He also wrote the text for and arranged the music of the “oratorical entertainment” America Independent, or The Temple of Minerva (1781), the music by Handel et al. Hopkinson’s music was couched in the conventional English style, modeled after pieces by T. A. Arne, but he possessed a genuine melodic gift. He also provided Benjamin Franklin’s glass harmonica with a keyboard, introduced improvements in the quilling of the harpsichord, and invented the Bellarmonic, an instrument consisting of a set of steel bells. He was probably the compiler of A Collection of Psalm Tunes with a Few Anthems, etc. A MS book of songs in his handwriting is in the possession of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Hopkinson’s son, Joseph Hopkinson, wrote the words to Hail Columbia.
O. Sonneck, F. H., The First American Poet-composer (1737–1791) and James Lyon, Patriot, Preacher, Psalmodist (1735–1794): Two Studies in American Music (Washington, D.C, 1905); H. Milligan, The First American Composer: 6 Songs by F. H. (Boston, 1918); G. Hastings, The Life and Works ofF. H. (Chicago, 1926).
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire