1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Francis Hopkinson

Charles D. Cleveland, in Compendium of American Literature (1858) 56-57.



FRANCIS HOPKINSON, the son of Thomas Hopkinson, an English gentleman who emigrated to the colonies in the early part of the eighteenth century, was born in Philadelphia in 1737. His father dying when he was quite young, his education devolved upon his mother, who is said to have been a woman of more than common powers of mind, and who took every pains to foster the genius and to cultivate the talents which she saw her son possessed, as well as to instruct him in the pure principles of Christian morals. From school he was sent to the College of Philadelphia, afterwards the University of Pennsylvania, and then commenced the study of law, and, after the usual period, entered upon its practice. In 1766, he went to England, where he remained two years. On his return he married Miss Ann Borden, of Bordentown, N.J., in which place he established himself in his profession. His legal attainments, general knowledge, and ardent patriotism soon acquired for him a high reputation, and in 1776 he was chosen by the State of New Jersey as one of her representatives in Congress, and, in this capacity, he signed the Declaration of Independence. In 1779, he succeeded George Ross as judge of the Admiralty of the State of Pennsylvania, which he held for ten years, until the organization of the Federal Government, when he received from General Washington a commission as Judge of the United States, which office he hold till the day of his death, which took place on the 9th of May, 1791.

Great as Judge Hopkinson's reputation was as an advocate while at the bar, and distinguished as he was for his learning, judgment, and integrity when upon the bench, he was, perhaps, still more known as a man of letters, of general knowledge, of fine taste, but above all, for his then unrivalled powers of wit and satire. Dr. Rush, after speaking of his varied attainments, says: "But his forte was humor and satire, in both of which be was not surpassed by Lucian, Swift, or Rabelais. These extraordinary powers were consecrated to the advancement of the interests of patriotism, virtue, and science." This praise, however strong, is not, in my estimation, the language of exaggeration, for I hardly know where to find papers of more exquisite humor than among the writings of Francis Hopkinson. His paper on the Ambiguity of the English Language, to show the ridiculous mistakes that often occur from words of similar sounds, used the one for the other on White Washing; on A Typographical Method of Conducting a Quarrel, which made friends of two fierce newspaper-combatants; The New Roof, an allegory in favor of the Federal Constitution; the Specimen of a Collegiate Examination, to turn some branches, and the mode of studying them, into ridicule and The Battle of the Kegs, are all papers which, while they are fully equal to any of Swift's writings for wit, have nothing at all in them of Swift's vulgarity.