Founding Fathers - Francis Hopkinson

Francis Hopkinson

Born: October 2, 1737 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

Died: May 9, 1791 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)

I assure you that my decision to select this week's subject had nothing to do with his birthday, despite the fact that the timing seems appropriate in light of that detail.  As the oldest of eight children born to Thomas and Mary Hopkinson, Francis Hopkinson enjoyed a privileged upbringing and displayed a wide range of interests at a very young age.  Although his father died when Francis was just 14, his mother made sure he was able to attend the school her late husband had helped found alongside Benjamin Franklin, the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania).  As a member of the very first class, Francis began writing music during his spare time and completed his first work, Ode to Music, soon after enrolling.  He received his B.A in 1757 followed by an M.A. three years later, and in between is credited with composing the first original American secular song in 1759, named "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free".  Upon leaving the school he took the opportunity to use his poetic skills to write verses that ridiculed a member of the faculty, which drew a sharp rebuke.  Francis then studied law with Pennsylvania's attorney general, Benjamin Chew, before being admitted to the bar in 1761.

With a strong education and varied interests, it nevertheless took Francis Hopkinson a few years to establish himself.  He attempted both business and legal ventures in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and held various government positions, including as a secretary to a commission that established treaties with Indian tribes and as a customs collector.  None of these proved especially lucrative, however, so in 1766 Hopkinson sailed for London in the hopes that he could benefit from being a close relative to the Bishop of Worcester, James Johnson.  Although he was unable to secure a position as customs commissioner, he did spend time with the Prime Minister, Lord North, as well as the famous artist Benjamin West.  Hopkinson sailed home the following year without accomplishing the goal he had set, but armed with a stronger understanding of international business and government, as well as improved painting skills.  He married a resident of Bordentown, New Jersey named Ann Borden in 1768 and the couple eventually had nine children together.  Over the following years he established himself in social circles as a competent musician and inventor, often collaborating with friends such as Benjamin Franklin.  He acted as a church organist and wrote a number of hymns and other works to be performed at Philadelphia's Christ Church, while also growing his legal practice and continuing to pursue public office.  After spending two years as a customs collector in New Castle, Delaware, he settled in his wife's hometown of Bordentown and was soon elected to New Jersey's Royal Provincial Council.

The political views of Francis Hopkinson were never in question as the split between Britain and the colonies began to widen.  In 1774 he penned a patriotic satire named "A Pretty Story" that analyzed the strained relationship, and was named to the governor's executive council the same year.  He was authorized to argue before the New Jersey Supreme Court and was elected to a position there, but  instead declined and resigned all of his royal positions in early 1776.  Hopkinson was sent to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Second Continental Congress in June of that year, arriving shortly before the vote was taken for independence.  He left Congress just four months after signing the document and served on the Navy Board in Philadelphia.  While there he is credited by many with developing the style of the Stars and Stripes flag, as well as serving as a consultant for the design of the Great Seal of the United States.  During the war, while serving as a judge on the Admiralty Court in Philadelphia, Hopkinson exchanged several letters with his friend George Washington, largely about music and art, and composed a number of works for and about him.  He continued to ridicule supporters of the British through satire, while memorializing fallen patriots with odes and poetry.  At the conclusion of the war he became the curator for the American Philosophical Society and wrote what is considered to be the first American opera, entitled The Temple of Minerva, about the newly-independent nation.  When the Constitution was drafted Hopkinson was an adamant supporter and encouraged all of his connections throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware, and New Jersey to join his efforts to see it ratified, which all three states did before the end of 1787.  President George Washington, shortly after his election, appointed his artistic friend as a judge on the US District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania.  Hopkinson served in that role for two years until his death in 1791 from an apoplectic seizure at the age of 53.

The signature of Francis Hopkinson can be found as the seventh signature on the fifth column beneath the Declaration of Independence.


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