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Francis Hopkinson

Signer of the Declaration of Independence


FRANCIS HOPKINSON was born in Philadelphia on October 2, 1737. His father was an English immigrant who had become a successful lawyer and was a friend of Benjamin Franklin. When Hopkinson was only thirteen, his father died. The care of the family fell upon his widow, who was a niece of the Bishop of Worcester, England. Mrs. Hopkinson was a lady of superior intellect and very well qualified to supervise the education of her children. She had early on recognized indications of genius in her son Francis and made every effort despite her limited income to give him the advantages of a superior education. She also had help from her husband's friend, Ben Franklin, who saw him through the College of Philadelphia. His mother lived to see him graduate and become an eminent lawyer.

Hopkinson a lawyer by profession, was more a poet, satirist and musician – he is considered by many to be the first native American composer. He is also credited with designing the United States flag. In 1766, Hopkinson traveled to England to visit he land of his fathers. He was held in such high regard in Philadelphia that the provost of the College of Philadelphia publicly wished him a safe and prosperous voyage.

Hopkinson shunned politics, preferring to use family connections in England to secure posts as collector of customs at Salem, New Jersey, and later as collector of customs at New Castle, Delaware. During this time he had married Ann Bordon of New Jersey, whose well-to-do family had founded Bordentown. It was there that he settled, prospered as a lawyer and was appointed to the prestigious provincial council by Governor William Franklin.

Curiously, while Hopkinson accepted royal favors, he turned out numerous satires against British oppression that he published under a variety of pseudonyms. In early 1776, he wrote "The Prophecy", an allegory that likened royal government to a certain tree, planted by the king in America. 

Hopkinson came to the Second Continental congress representing New Jersey only in time to vote for independence. During the Revolutionary War, a party of Hessians suddenly invaded his residence in Bordentown. The family only had time to escape with their lives before the invaders began to plunder the house. Hopkinson's library contained the most distinguished books of the times and he had a collection of scientific equipment with which he amused himself in his leisure. After the British were driven out of Philadelphia, a book that had been taken from his library by the invading soldiers was given back to him. On a blank page, the officer who had taken the book and written in German an acknowledgment of the theft and declared that although he believed Hopkinson to be an obstinate rebel, the books and equipment of his library were evidence that he was a very well educated man. 

In 1779, he was appointed to succeed Ross as the judge of the admiralty court of Pennsylvania, an office that he held for ten years until the organization of the federal government. Soon after the adoption of the federal constitution, Washington appointed Hopkinson to the office of Judge of the United States, for the district of Pennsylvania. This was an important and dignified position that he was well qualified and suited for, giving stability and dignity to the new national government. During his judicial career Hopkinson conscientiously avoided mingling in politics.   

Hopkinson's life was suddenly terminated on May 8, 1791 at the age of fifty-three. He apparently died of a stroke, which killed him within two hours of its onset. He left a widow and five children. 


THOPKINSON, Thomas, lawyer, born in London, England, 6 April, 1709; died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 5 November, 1751. He was the son of a London merchant, studied law, and emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1731. He became deputy to Charles Reed, clerk of the orphan's court of Philadelphia county, and on the death of Reed was appointed his successor. He was also master of the rolls from 20 June, 1736, till 1741, deputy prothonotary, and afterward prothonotary of Philadelphia county. For several years he was judge of the admiralty, became a member of the provincial council on 13 May, 1747, and two years later a county justice. He participated in all the public enterprises of the time, was one of the incorporators of the library company, one of the original trustees of the College of Philadelphia, and also the first president of the Philosophical society. His attainments in natural philosophy were recognized by Benjamin Franklin, who remarked: "The power of points to throw off the electrical fire was first communicated to me by my ingenious friend, Mr. Thomas Hopkinson."

--His son, Francis Hopkinson, signer of the Declaration of Independence, born in Philadelphia, 21 September, 1737; died 9 May, 1791, was educated at, the College of Philadelphia, studied law under Benjamin Chew, and was admitted to the bar in 1761. In that year he acted as secretary at a treaty with the Indians, which he commemorated in "The Treaty," a poem, published soon afterward. From February, 1764, till May, 1765, he was librarian and secretary of the Philadelphia library. In May, 1766, he sailed for Europe, and after spending a few weeks in Ireland went to London, where he remained for a year, with the exception of occasional visits to his cousin, the Bishop of Worcester. In London he was associated with John Penn, Benjamin West, Lord North, and others of distinction, and endeavored, without success, to secure an appointment as one of the commissioners of customs for North America.

After his return to Philadelphia he resumed the practice of law, and also kept a store for some time. He was a member of the two societies which united in 1769 to form the American philosophical society at Philadelphia, was a director of the library company from 1771 till 1773, and in March, 1772, became collector of customs at New Castle, from which office he was afterward removed owing to his republican principles. He was for several years a resident of Bordentown, New Jersey, was a member of the provincial council of that state from 1774 until the Revolution, and in June, 1776, was chosen one of its delegates to the Continental congress, he served on the committee of that body to draft articles of confederation, voted in favor of declaring the colonies independent, and was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Under the newly established government he was appointed the head of the navy department, and was also treasurer of the Continental loan office.

In January, 1778, he wrote "The Battle of the Kegs," a humorous ballad, descriptive of the alarm that was caused by an attempt of patriots in Bordentown to destroy the British shipping at Philadelphia by means of torpedoes enclosed in kegs and floated down the Delaware. During the war he supported the patriot cause by various productions in prose and verse, and powerfully influenced public sentiment in favor of independence. He was judge of admiralty for Pennsylvania in 1779-'89, and was United States district judge for that state from 1790 till his death. He was impeached by the assembly of Pennsylvania for alleged misdemeanors while acting as judge of admiralty, but was acquitted of all charges. Mr. Hopkinson was not only familiar with science as it then existed, but was also skilled in painting and music, and composed airs for his own songs.

The most important of his political writings are "The Pretty Story" (Philadelphia, 1774); "The Prophecy" (1776); and "The Political Catechism" (1777). His poems include "The New Roof, a Song for Federal Mechanics," and among his best essays are "The Typographical Mode of conducting a Quarrel" and "Thoughts on Diseases of the Mind." After his death appeared "The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson" (Philadelphia, 1792).

--Francis's son, Joseph Hopkinson, jurist, born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 12 November, 1770; died there, 15 January, 1842, was graduated at the University of Pennsylvania in 1786, and was afterward a trustee of that institution. He studied law, and began practice at Easton, Pennsylvania, in 1791, but soon afterward returned to Philadelphia. He was leading counsel for Dr. Benjamin Rush (q. v.) in his suit against William Cobbet in 1799, and was also one of the counsel for the defendents in the insurgent trials before Judge Samuel Chase in 1800. Subsequently, when the latter was impeached before the United States senate, he chose Mr. Hopkinson to conduct his defence.

He was a Federalist politically, and was elected in 1814 a representative in congress from Philadelphia, serving one term, and approving the re-chartering of the United States bank. In 1823 he resumed the practice of law, and in 1828 he was appointed by President John Quincy Adams United States judge for the eastern district of Pennsylvania, which office he held until his death. He was a member of the convention of 1837 to revise the constitution of Pennsylvania, and, as chairman of its committee on the judiciary, contended unsuccessfully for the life tenure of the judges. He was for many years president of the Academy of fine arts and vice president of the American philosophical society, was long a confidential friend of Joseph Bonaparte, who then resided at Bordentown, and managed Bonaparte's affairs during his absence.

Mr. Hopkinson was the author of various addresses and articles on legal and ethical subjects, but he is best known as the author of the national song, "Hail, Columbia," which he wrote in the summer of 1798 for the benefit of an actor and former school mate named Fox, to an air entitled "The President's March," composed in 1789 by a German named Feyles. This song, inciting national pride, probably helped to avert entanglement in the European conflict.




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