Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Philadelphia, Philadelphia County
A poet, essayist, artist, and composer, Francis Hopkinson served Pennsylvania in many positions and signed the Declaration of Independence as a delegate from New Jersey.
Francis Hopkinson was an 18th century “jack of all trades.” Hopkinson lived from 1737 to 1791 and is most noted for his accomplishments as a poet, essayist, artist, inventor, and composer. Hopkinson was a die-hard patriot and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His literary and artistic works exemplify his patriotic spirit and his enthusiasm for the American cause. Hopkinson’s major achievements are the publication of 40 poems as well as the first American opera and the first American songbook. Hopkinson is also credited with designing the American Flag.
Francis Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on October 2, 1737. His parents were Thomas Hopkinson and Mary Johnson; the couple emigrated from England in 1731. He was a member of the first class to matriculate from the College of Philadelphia, later renamed the University of Pennsylvania, in 1757. Three years after he graduated, Hopkinson earned his MA. He began his professional career as a practicing attorney in 1761 after studying with Pennsylvania’s attorney general Benjamin Chew. However, his legal career was short lived and largely unsuccessful.
Following his brief foray into the legal profession, Hopkinson decided to pursue a career in public service. Less than a year after the completion of his legal education, he altered his career path by becoming the secretary to the Pennsylvania Indian Commission. Following his first success in the arena of public works, Hopkinson became the customs collector for Salem, New Jersey in 1763 and then the customs collector for New Castle, Delaware in 1772. In 1775, he decided to make a second attempt at a law career. Using the experience he had gained in public works, Hopkinson was now prepared to become a successful attorney. In 1774, he was appointed to the Royal Council of New Jersey, and was elected as an associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court in 1776; however, he declined the office.
In 1776, Hopkinson resigned all offices that he held under the Crown’s authority. During this period he became a member of the American Philosophical Society and as the secretary of the Library Company for ten years from 1759-1769; he was a librarian for a year in 1764 and was the director of the Library Company for two years beginning in 1771. He was also active in the Anglican Church throughout his life and also served as a vestryman and warden for Christ Church and St. Peter’s Church.
Hopkinson had already earned a distinguished literary reputation preceding the Revolutionary War. He was most well-known for the publication of his poems and ballads. Throughout the duration of his literary career Hopkinson, published approximately forty poems. Some of his most significant works include “The New Roof,” “A Camp Ballad,” and “The Toast.” The majority of his works of poetry were based on current political events or debates. For example, “The Toast” was an allegorical poem ridiculing the Anti-Federalists by celebrating the election of George Washington.
‘Tis Washington’s health—fill a bumper around,
For he is our glory and pride;
Our arms shall in battle with conquest be crown’d,
Whilst virtue and he’s on our side.
(“The Toast,” 1-4)
The majority of Hopkinson’s poetry follows a similar style. The contents of his poetry are always very melodic, reflecting his musical background, and many of them carry a political message which is very patriotic in nature.
Like many authors of his time, Hopkinson was not afraid to explore different literary genres. Though he is most famous for his ballads and poetry, Hopkinson also published many essays, two music books, and he published the first American opera entitled The Temple of Minerva (1781). Like most of his other works, Hopkinson’s attempted opera also carried a highly political message. The opera celebrated the Franco-American alliance, and was not well-received by all of the American audience; historians today cannot find evidence of it having been performed more than three times.
Hopkinson’s academic pursuits were not limited to literature and music, Hopkinson was also known for his artistic ability. He is credited with the design for the American flag, as well as many other crests. Hopkinson was known for his scientific pursuits as well. In 1790, he was awarded the American Philosophical Society’s Magellanic Prize Medal for the invention of a spring block to assist with navigation.
In 1776, Francis Hopkinson served as a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress from June until November. He was a member of the committee assigned to draft the articles of confederation, and was an avid supporter and signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Hopkinson remained an active member of the community until the years directly preceding his death. In 1788, Hopkinson was appointed as a judge of the U. S. District Court for eastern Pennsylvania, a position he held until his death in 1791. He continued to publish, however as he grew older Hopkinson devoted himself to writing essays and orations on a myriad of different topics which were to be delivered at college commencements. On the ninth of May in 1791, Francis Hopkinson died of apoplexy in his Philadelphia home. Hopkinson’s wide range of talents and staunch patriotism are still admired today, and the banner he created for the United States continues to remind all Americans of his legacy.
“The New Roof: A Song for Federal Mechanics.” In The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings. Philadelphia: Printed by William Dunlap, 1763.
“A Camp Ballad.” In The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings. Philadelphia: Printed by William Dunlap, 1763.
“The Battle of the Kegs.” In Specimens of American Poetry. N.p.: Printed by Carter, Hendee and Babcock, 1829.
“The Toast.” In The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings. Philadelphia: Printed by William Dunlap, 1763.
A Pretty Story Written in the Year of Our Lord 2774. Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap. 1774
Collection of Plain Tunes with a Few from Anthems and Hymns. Philadelphia: Published by Benjamin Carr, 1763.
Temple of Minerva. Philadelphia: Published by Benjamin Carr, 1781.
Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano. Philadelphia: Printed by T. Dobson, 1788.
American Poetry Database. The Pennsylvania State University Libraries. 2006. 30 Jan. 2006.
Anderson, Gillian B. “‘The Temple of Minerva’ and Francis Hopkinson: A Reappraisal of America’s First Poet-Composer.” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 120.3 (1976): 166-177.