03 March 2012

Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence representing New Jersey - Part 3


Francis Hopkinson by Robert Edge Pine

Francis Hopkinson may be the most accomplished of the signers of the Declaration of Independence from New Jersey.  Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on September 21, 1737,[1] Hopkinson became an author and poet; a song-writer and musician; a lawyer and judge; an artist and Congressman.  As an ardent Patriot, he played a role in the founding of the United States politically and culturally - he is credited with having a hand in the design of the first American flag and the designs of the seal of the State of New Jersey and the Great Seal of the United States.[2]
Francis’ father, Thomas, was a merchant, lawyer and judge in Pennsylvania, as well as a friend of Benjamin Franklin.  In the latter capacity, Thomas also dabbled in electrical experiments.  He founded the Academy of Philadelphia (which later became the College of Philadelphia, and later the University of Pennsylvania) as well as the Library Company, and he was the first President of the American Philosophical Society.[3]   It is no wonder then, that before his death in 1751, Thomas enrolled fourteen-year-old Francis in the College of Philadelphia.  With his mother Mary’s blessing, Francis continued his education after his father’s death, earning his degree in 1757.
It appears that Hopkinson began composing music before his graduation from college - an Ode to Music was composed in 1754.[4]  After graduation, though, while still composing and writing, Hopkinson studied law under Benjamin Chew, the attorney general of Pennsylvania. During this time he wrote “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” (1759), thought to be the first secular music composition in America. In 1761 he joined the bar and in 1763 was appointed customs collector at Salem, New Jersey.  Between 1757 and 1763, Hopkinson was busy with his pen, contributing essays, poems and satirical writings to various periodicals.  In 1766, Hopkinson traveled to England for a year-long stay in which he met a number of prominent individuals, including Benjamin Franklin, Lord North and the painter Benjamin West.  Upon his return to North America, Hopkinson married Ann Borden in 1768.  She was the daughter of Colonel Joseph Borden, a leading merchant from Bordentown, New Jersey.  The couple would have five children.[5]
            In 1772, Hopkinson was appointed customs collector at New Castle, Delaware, though he was settled and practicing law in Bordentown by 1774.  In the same year, he was selected to be a member of the Provincial Council of New Jersey.  Pamphlets that he wrote during this time were filled with attacks on the British and on loyalists in the colonies.  In 1776, Hopkinson was elected an associate justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey, but he declined that office and instead accepted appointment to the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia.  Sometime before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Hopkinson wrote “The Prophecy,” an essay predicting the formal break of the colonies from England.[6]  While serving in the Congress from 22 June to 30 November 1776, Hopkinson also served on the Navy Board.
            During the winter of 1777 - 1778, an inventor by the name of David Bushnell caused quite a stir on the Delaware River.[7]  Bushnell filled barrels with gunpowder which were set to explode upon touching anything.  These he set afloat on the Delaware River north of Philadelphia, with the hope that as they fell downriver among the British ships, they would strike and damage or destroy the shipping.  Though some of the barrels did explode, the experiment did not have the desired effect.  The event did cause much excitement and anxiety among the British in Philadelphia, however.  A satirical letter was published in the Pennsylvania Ledger on 11 February 1778, and is believed to be written by Hopkinson.  The account is as follows:

Both officers and men exhibited the most unparalleled skill and bravery on the occasion; whilst the citizens stood gazing as solemn witnesses of their prowess. From the Roebuck and other ships of war, whole broadsides were poured into the Delaware. In short, not a wandering chip, stick, or drift log, but felt the vigour of the British arms. The action began about sun-rise, and would have been compleated with great success by noon, had not an old market woman coming down the river with provisions, unfortunately let a small keg of butter fall over-board, which (as it was then ebb) floated down to the scene of the action. At the sight of this unexpected reinforcement of the enemy, the battle was renewed with fresh fury–the firing was incessant till the evening closed the affair. The kegs were either totally demolished or obliged to fly, as none of them have shewn their heads since. It is said his Excellency Lord Howe has dispatched a swift sailing packet with an account of this victory to the court of London. In a word, Monday, the 5th of January, 1778, must ever be distinguished in history, for the memorable BATTLE OF THE KEGS.”[8]

The Battle of the Kegs from the UPenn archives

At a later date, Hopkinson also wrote a ballad of the event, to be sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle.

The Hopkinson House is currently a privately owned building
located at 101 Farnsworth Ave. in Bordentown, NJ.

            In 1776 and 1777, the British stationed in Bordentown raided and plundered Hopkinson’s Bordentown home.  Hopkinson was not to be found, however, and in 1778 he was again elected a member of the Congress and served as Treasurer of the Continental Loan Office.  In 1779 and 1780, Hopkinson served as a judge on the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania.  During this time, Hopkinson was also at work designing or assisting in the design of, among other things, the Board of Admiralty seal, the Treasury Board seal, the seal of the state of New Jersey, the Great Seal of the United States and the flag of the United States, though in the case of the latter two some speculation remains.  Hopkinson’s design for the Great Seal was the second one submitted to Congress, which did not grant its approval.  A third committee, with the assistance of Congressional secretary Charles Thomson, created a third design, which was finally accepted and is still in use today.[9]  Thomson’s design borrowed key elements from Hopkinson’s design, including the striped shield and the field of stars.  As for the design of the flag of the United States, the only surviving record of any kind comes from a letter dated 25 May 1780, from Hopkinson to the Continental Board of Admiralty, where he mentioned “the Flag of the United States of America” among the many other patriotic designs he had completed over the course of the previous three years.  There is no mention of the exact design, but neither is there any mention in the historical record of any other person coming forward to claim ownership of the creation.[10]

Click on image to enlarge.
            Following the end of the Revolutionary War, Hopkinson remained active in the politics of the new nation.  He continued to serve on the Admiralty Court until 1787, when he became a member of the Constitutional Convention which ratified the Constitution of the United States.  In 1789, President Washington appointed Hopkinson as a judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, where he remained until his death on 9 May 1791.  Hopkinson, possibly the most artistic signer of the Declaration of Independence, is buried in Christ Church Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

[1] United States Congress. Hopkinson, Francis, (1737 - 1791). n.d. http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=H000783 (accessed March 3, 2012).

[2] University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center. Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791). 2012. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/hopkinson_thos.html (accessed March 3, 2012).

[3] University of Pennsylvania University Archives and Records Center. Thomas Hopkinson (1709-1751). 2012. http://www.archives.upenn.edu/people/1700s/hopkinson_thos.html (accessed March 3, 2012).

[4] Library of Congress. Francis Hopkinson, 1737-1791. August 10, 2006. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200035713/default.html (accessed March 3, 2012).

[5] Cunningham, John T. Five Who Signed. Trenton: NJ Historical Commission, 1975; 20.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] For more information on Bushnell and his inventions, see my post, “David Bushnell”: http://dansamericanrevolutionblog.blogspot.com/2009/06/david-bushnell-is-credited-with.html.  Hopkinson’s essay regarding this event can be found in the Bushnell article, but has also been reprinted here.

[8] Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 11. ed. Michael J. Crawford. Department of the Navy, Washington, DC, 2005; 78.

[9] The first design was submitted by a committee consisting of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, and was the work of a Swiss-born painter named Pierre Eugene du Simitiere.  The committee working with Hopkinson was appointed on 25 March 1780 and was composed of James Lovell (from Massachusetts), John Moris Scott (New York) and William Churchill Houston (NJ).  The third committee consisted of Arthur Middleton (South Carolina), John Rutledge (South Carolina) and Elias Boudinot (New Jersey).  William Barton, a Philadelphia lawyer and scholar, then edited Thomson’s design.  This committee’s design was accepted on 20 June 1781.

[10] Leepson, Marc. Flag: An American Biography, New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2005; 30-31, 33.

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