1856 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Hopkinson

George and Evert Duyckinck, in Cyclopedia of American Literature (1856; 1875) 219-21.



HOPKINSON, the author of The Pretty Story, and the famous ballad, The Battle of the Kegs, was one of the prime wits of the Revolution, and may be ranked alongside of Trumbull for his efficiency in the cause. The genius of the two men may be readily distinguished. They had wit and humor in different combinations. The author of M'Fingal had more of the former, Hopkinson a larger proportion of that gentle quality which plays around the heart. The one had the advantage in verse, the other in prose. The works of both remain eminent ornaments of the literature of their country. We have had nothing better in their way since.

Francis Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia in 1738. His father, Thomas, was an Englishman, who emigrated to that city, having secured, it is said, government patronage through his marriage with the niece of the Bishop of Worcester. He assisted Franklin in his discoveries in electricity, and actively promoted the liberal improvements of the day. Upon his death his widow directed the education of the son who was sent to the College, since the University of Pennsylvania. He afterwards studied law. In 1761 he served as secretary in a conference held on the banks of the Lehigh, between the government of Pennsylvania and several Indian nations. One of his articles, The Treaty, celebrates the event. In 1765 he was in England, remaining there two years, and passing his time between town and country. On his return to America he resided at Bordentown, New Jersey, where he married. Miss Ann Borden of that place. His Pretty Story, written in the fashion of Arbuthnot's John Bull, though in a milder vein, was published with great success in a pamphlet in 1774. It represents England as a nobleman, possessed of a valuable farm, and with a great number of children and grandchildren, for the government of whom he had entered into various compacts. Parliament is represented as his wife, chosen for him every seven years by the family. The fortunes of the American settlers are depicted, and the encroachments of parliament none the less forcibly presented in the humorous description. The chapters end with a broken prophetic sentence: "These harsh and unconstitutional proceedings of the overseer so highly irritated Jack, and the other families of the new farm, that ******. Cetera desunt." The author's Prophecy, in 1776, and Political Catechism in 1777, helped to work out the sequel. The latter is a set of queries and answers respecting Lord North and the conduct of the war, ending with a tribute to Washington. "Who has the chief command of the American army?" "His Excellency General Washington!" "What is his character?" "To him the title of Excellency is applied with peculiar propriety. He is the best and the greatest man the world ever knew. In private life he wins the hearts and wears the love of all who are so happy as to fall within the circle of his acquaintance. In his public character he commands universal respect and admiration. Conscious that the principles on which he acts are indeed founded in virtue and truth, he steadily pursues the arduous work with a mind neither depressed by disappointment and difficulties, nor elated with temporary success. He retreats like a General, and attacks like a Hero. Had he lived in the days of idolatry he had been worshipped as a God. One age cannot do justice to his merit; but a grateful posterity shall, for a succession of ages, remember the great deliverer of his country." Hopkinson represented New Jersey in the general Congress of 1776, and signed the Declaration of Independence. His Battle of the Kegs, written about this time, and celebrating an actual incident, has been the most popular of American Revolutionary ballads. His humorous handling of Rivington, the royal printer at New York, is among his best political squibs.

When the war was concluded, a new general government was to be established and local difficulties overcome. Hopkinson's pen here achieved some of its greatest triumphs in exposing the dissensions and absurdities of state politicians. His New Roof, an allegory, containing in substance the arguments of the debate in the Convention of Pennsylvania in 1787, met to consider the Constitution of the United States, is a masterly production, and his song on the subject has happily preserved its spirit in verse.

His sharp raillery in his essays did much to mitigate the excessive litigation and newspaper controversies of the day. In his Typographical Mode of Conducting a Quarrel he anticipated Southey's fashion of telling his Bear story in the Doctor, by gradations of type. The paper made two belligerents of the day, a merchant and a lawyer, who were oppressing the public in the newspapers, ridiculous. It proposed a new style of printing for different degrees of abuse and invective — various type, from five line pica to minion, through French canon downwards. "There is no looking," says he, "at the first page of the Daily Advertiser, without imagining a number of people hollowing and bawling to you to buy their goods or lands, to charter their ships, or to inform you that a servant or a horse hath strayed away. For my part, I am so possessed with this idea, that as soon as I take up the paper of the day, I turn over to articles of intelligence as quick as possible, lest my eyes should be stunned by the ocular uproar of the first page." His Thoughts on the Disease of the Mind; with a scheme for purging the moral faculties of the good people of Pennsylvania, proposes that a weekly and daily newspaper should be expressly set apart and acknowledged as receptacles for all the filth and scandal of the town. The treatment is rather Swiftian, in occasional coarseness, but the satire is truthful. He compares the humors of the mind to the secretions of the body: "A sarcasm is nothing more than spitting, — and so it is usual to say, 'he has spit his spite.' A crude attempt at humor is parallel with blowing one's nose, for such humors are apt to collect in cold constitutions; and a young poetaster may be put into a considerable perspiration by the scorching flames of love." Hopkinson was a reformer in the cause of education, and wrote various papers laughing at its grammatical, metaphysical, and scientific perplexities. His Modern Learning: exemplified by a specimen of a collegiate examination, in which a salt-box is put through the various categories of the sciences, is the best of his papers of this class. In his sketches of the minor morals and manners of the day, he was equally happy. His Essay on White-Washing was mistaken for the composition of Franklin, and published among his writings. His friend, Dr. Rush, was a great admirer of his genius in these productions.

Hopkinson took pride in his share in planning the grand Fourth of July Federal Procession at Philadelphia, in 1788; a minute account of which he prepared and has left in his writings. In 1779 he was made Judge of the Admiralty of Pennsylvania. His decisions while in office were collected by him for the edition of his writings. In 1790 he was appointed by the President, Judge of the District Court. He died the following year, May 9, of an apoplectic fit. Before his death he had prepared the carefully arranged collection of his literary productions for the press, which was published by Dobson in Philadelphia, "in the dress in which he left them," in three octavo volumes in 1792, bearing the title: The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq. A more finished and accomplished work has never issued from the American press.

The prose of Hopkinson is quite unique and original; simple in style, and ingenious in thought and invention; always neat and elegant in expression, and perfect in its gentle playfulness. His poetry is of an agreeable turn, his L'Allegro and Il Penseroso being familiar adaptations of Milton. His constant sensibility frequently becomes eloquent; and his verses have many ingenious passages. Many of his poems are occasional addresses to the fair, in which the charms of Delia and Rosalinda have ever attention paid to them.

In person, Hopkinson is described as a lively man, a little below the common size, with small but animated features. He had many general accomplishments, in music, painting, and conversation. As a kindly trait of his character, it is told that he had a pet mouse which would come to him at table, and that his familiar pigeons were quite famous. He corresponded on novelties in science, for which he had a decided taste, with Franklin and Jefferson. His portrait, from which our vignette is taken, is painted by Pine.

His son, Joseph Hopkinson, wrote the song, Hail Columbia.