Founding Father
Early American Renaissance Man
Declaration of Independence Signer

*--Designer of the Stars and Stripes--*

Colonial Beginnings

Talk about your brotherly and otherly love, what you need is Motherly love.

In 1737 Francis Hopkinson was born in the colony of Pennsylvania in the providential city of Philadelphia. His father was an Englishman, Thomas Hopkinson. Thomas had come to America at sometime unknown with his prominently connected wife, the niece of the Bishop of Worchester. Thomas was a scientist and a friend of Benjamin Franklin, (who actually introduced to Franklin the pointed instrument for less explosively attracting 'electric fluid'). After his father Thomas died in his prime, his intelligent learned mother was able, though with some financial burden, to educate the children, while she especially realized her son's tremendous potential talents. Her diligent and sacrificial efforts to made sure Francis was well rounded succeeded and he finished at the Academy of Philadelphia. Afterwards he entered the new College of Philadelphia from which he was head of his class in that first one to graduate and earn a degree in 1757. (The College of Philadelphia is now the University of Pennsylvania.)

Literary, Musical, Art Sidelines


Francis revised and wrote music during his last year for his college's 1757 presentation of Thomson's and Mallets' Alfred, a Masque. while harpsichordist and leader of his city's Musical Society. He also wrote hymns, and he was organist for Christ Church in Philadelphia as well.

Early Writings

Francis showed his proclivity in writing that started while in college. He wrote poems that investigated his home land and one examined its indigenous peoples in his 1761 "The Treaty". The next year's work gushed a wonderful and hopeful glimpse of years ahead for his college in his "Exercises" and "Science."

Career Moves

He successfully studied law, passed the bar in 1761, and landed a position in 1763 as royal customs collector in Salem, New Jersey. Not too long after serving there, he took passage to the Mother country, England in 1766, (he must have been BMOC enough to be sent off at dockside from his old college associates), to pursue political ambitions, trying to get preferences from a relative, Lord North, but when that did not materialize after two year's stay, he returned to New Jersey. There in Bordentown he married a town's founding daughter, Miss Borden, and continued his legal career and resumption of working for the Crown's collectors and he become executive counselor.

Political Grooves

As talk of independence loomed, Francis was ready to lend his varied talents. In 1772 he wrote the humorous, "Dirtilla", while contributing to the Pennsylvania Magazine Addisonian essays discussing a range of topics such as education, or even marriage. He became aware of the increasing inequities and in 1774 he wrote poems and essays to help the cause such as his sarcastic parody in the style of Dr. Arbuthnot, A Pretty Story. In that famed year, 1776, he wrote critiqued the Mother Country in "Letters of Cato in A Prophecy. After leaving the British end of governmental service, he became the New Jersey delegate to the First Continental Congress of 1776 and proudly voted for and signed that most famous of documents, the Declaration of Independence.

First Lyricist

He wrote songs, allegedly the first American in this regard, some quite romantic, and many times set to others' tunes and most noteworthy --humorous poems-- giving us an inside glimpse like his 1775:

The Wasp

Wrapt in Aurelian filth and slime,
   And infant wasp neglected lay
Till, having dozed the destined time,
   He woke, and struggled into day.

Proud of his venom bag and sting,
   And big with self-approved worth,
"Mankind," he said, and stretched his wing,
   "Should tremble when I sally forth."

"In copious streams my spleen shall flow,
   And satire all her purses drain--
A critic born--the world shall know
   I carry not a sting in vain."

This said, from native cell of clay
   Elate he rose in airy flight,
Thence to the city changed his way
   And on a steeple chanced to light.

"Ye gods, he cried, "what horrid pile
   Presumes to rear its head so high?
This clumsy cornice--see, how vile!
   Can this delight a critic's eye?"

With pois'nous sting he strove to wound
   The substance firm--but strove in vain;
Surprised he sees it stands its ground,
   Nor starts through fear, nor writhes with pain.

Away th'enragèd insect flew;
   But soon, with aggravated pow'r,
Against the walls his body threw,
   And hoped to shake the lofty tow'r.

Firm fixed it stands, as stand it must,
   Nor heeds the wasp's unpitied fall;
The humbled critic rolls in dust,
   So stunned, so bruised, he scarce can crawl.

And here is his best remembered piece about a Revolutionary War incident where skittish British troops fired haphazardly upon anything floating on the Delaware River in January of 1778. Earlier the 'Bluecoats' had vainly sent kegs filled with powder as improvised mines that had been placed in the water. Here is the complete poem, quite popular in its time:

Battle of the Kegs

Gallants attend and hear a friend
   Trill forth harmoniously ditty,
Strange things I'll tell which late befell
   In Philadelphia city.

'Twas early day, as poets say,
   Just when the sun was rising,
A soldier stood on a log of wood,
And saw a thing surprising.

As in amaze he stood to gaze,
   The truth can't be denied, sir,
He spied a score of kegs or more
   come floating down the tide, sir.

A sailor too in jerkin blue,
   This strange appearance viewing,
First damned his eyes, in great surprise,
   then said some mischief's brewing.

These kegs, I'm told, the rebels bold,
   Packed up like pickling herring;
And they're come down t' attack the town,
   In this new way of ferrying.

The soldier flew, the sailor too,
   And scared almost to death, sir,
Wore out their shoes, to spread the news,
   And ran till out of breath, sir.

Now up and down throughout the town,
   Most frantic scenes were acted;
And some ran here, and others there,
   Like men almost distracted.

Some fire cried, which some denied,
   But said the earth had quakèd;
And girls and boys, with hideous noise,
   Ran thro' the streets half-naked.

Sir William, he, snug as a flea,
   Lay all this time asnoring,
Nor dream'd of harm as he lay warm,
   In bed with Mrs. L---g.

Now in a fright, he starts upright,
   Awaked by such a clatter;
He rubs both eyes, and boldly cries,
   For God's sake, what's the matter?

At his bed-side he then espied
   Sir Erskine at command, sir,
Upon one foot, he had one boot,
   And th' other in his hand, sir.

"Arise, arise," sir Erskine cries,
   "The rebels--more's the pity,
Without a boat are all afloat,
   And ranged before the city.

"The motley crew, in vessels new,
   With Satan for their guide, sir,
Packed up in bags, or wooden kegs,
   Come driving down the tide, sir.

"Therefore prepare for bloody war,
   These kegs must all be routed,
Or surely we despised shall be,
   And British courage doubted."

The royal band, now ready stand
   All ranged in dread array, sir,
With stomach stout to see it out,
   And make a bloody day, sir.

The cannons roar from shore to shore,
   The small arms make a rattle;
Since wars began I'm sure no man
   E'er saw so strange a battle.

The rebel dales, the rebel vales,
   With rebel trees surrounded;
The distant wood, the hills and floods,
   With rebel echoes sounded.

The fish below swam to and fro,
   Attack'd from ev'ry quarter;
Why sure, thought they, the devil's to pay,
   'Mongst folks above the water.

The kegs, 'tis said, tho' strongly made,
   Of rebel staves and hoops, sir,
Could not oppose their powerful foes,
   The conqu'ring British troops, sir.

From morn to night these men of might
   Displayed amazing courage;
And when the sun was fairly down,
   Retir'd to sup their porrage.

An hundred men with each a pen,
   Or more upon my word, sir,
It is most true would be too few,
   Their valour to record, sir.

Such feat did they perform that day,
   Against these wicked kegs, sir,
That years to come, if they get home,
   They'll make their boasts and brags, sir.

He is attributed with adding verses to the tune of what might be considered America's first 'popular' song, Yankee Doodle, whose musical derivation is disputed as originating in an English, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, Dutch or Hungarian tune.

The Pen is Mightier

In 1776 Hopkinson had written a biting comical Two Letters that was supposedly a Tory's admission of their misinformation, and he also made up a fake advertisement of a retiring King's Printer, Rivington because of the defeat of Cornwallis. He wrote Letter Written by a Foreigner On the Character of the English Nation in 1777 and on its heels was his 'Camp Ballad,' A Political Catechism, and Answer to General Burgoyne's Proclamation. He followed that "Battle of the Kegs" with a satirical epic poem on a naughty son (King George) and his ruining of the family to paupers in 'Date Obolum Bellisario.' He was brutal to "treacherous" Tories in his 1778 Letter to Joseph Galloway

His Honor

He was Chairman of the Continental Navy Board from 1776-8, and in 1778 until 1781 he was treasurer of loans. In 1779 he was unanimously appointed successor to Judge Ross of the Admiralty court of Pennsylvania. He was instrumental in helping draft the Articles of Federation that provided the new United States with some national government. He held this position of Judge of Admiralty for Pennsylvania for the decade until the formation of the new Federal Government. There at the July 4, 1786 Constitutional Convention celebration, after the final state, Virginia, ratified that great document he was lifted to Marshall of that event.

The Hessians are Coming!

Mr. Hopkinson had a large library with a variety of books, and a Revolutionary War tale emerged from his distinguished and learned life. His house in Bordontown was besieged by those German mercenaries for the English, the Hessians in the end of 1776, and after they ransacked and looted the house upon he and his families' return when the 'Redcoats' had left Philadelphia, he was repatriated with a favorite gift and author-signed book that had been stolen, Discourses on Public Occasions in America published by William Smith, D.D. in London, 1762. What makes this so interesting, is that this 'enemy' soldier, I. Ewald wrote on the inside cover that he acknowledged their previous military actions and confessed to taking the book, but after realizing from the contents of his library this 'rebel' was a good and educated man saw to it in Philadelphia it would be returned.

More significant was that this strange autograph was near his families' bookmark, that was made up of three six pointed stars with their motto, Semper Paratus (Always Ready), and there was an echo of hope for the infant nation in this reunion.

Red Stripes, Red Ink

Whose bright stars and bright stripes...

Not only did Francis Hopkinson dabble in poetry, philosophy, propagandizing pamphlets, scientific study, music, and other similar endeavors, but was a painter as well. He put his talents to use designing, in his capacity on the Continental Navy Board in 1776 the basic Stars and Stripes motif for the United States Flag. His stars, in the original, however, were in the staggered quincuncial arrangement (a repetition of five units) and the familiar parallel rows of stars prevailed. The contribution of this other pattern, as sewn by Betsy Ross might have been why Hopkinson in 1780 had to complain to congress for compensation, and political reasons also delayed his payment for this and other artwork, especially the Great Seal of the United States, that had come to adorn many Federal government documents and coins, additionally. Though he did not even receive as he termed it, the "Quarter Cask of the public wine" for a reward, there never was a denial that he was the Flag's architect by all the government bureaucrats that shuffled the request into oblivion. He resigned his government post, Treasurer of Loans over the impasse

On Stage

1781 was the premiere of his oratorio, The Temple of Minerva, a 'dramatic allegorical cantata' that celebrated with overture, ensembles, choruses, and arias the alliance of France with the fledgling Americans. This event was performed 'in Presence of His Excellency General Washington and his Lady.'

Later Writings

After the United States was established, he supported the Federalist cause in his continued writing. He also wrote essays on education including his satirical stab at the use of 'novel' ideas in his 1784 "Modern Learning Exemplified," or a look at Newspaper's feuds in "A Plan for the Improvement of the Art of Paper War" in 1786. He became a paid editor in his later years for the The Columbian Magazine, or the Monthly Miscellany.

His musical compositions earned him the honor of being the first native born to have music published, Seven Songs, for the Harpsichord or Forte-Piano in 1788 (which actually was eight pieces).

Gone Too Soon

Mr. Hopkinson's stature was big only in his multifarious abilities, not in his physical demeanor. He died in 1791 only 54 years old, but left behind with his widow, five children. The oldest, Joseph went on to follow in his footsteps, and penned, Hail Columbia.

A couple more examples of his poems follow, both love poems, the first, though started in 1766, was finished in 1792, and the second was from 1788:

To Myrtilla

Soon, Myrtilla, must thy friend
   Hasten to a distant shore,
May propitious gales attend,
   May they waft him safely o'er!

When in pensive joys inclined
   Thro' my native groves I stray,
Thy dear image to my mind
   Soothing pleasures shall convey.

Fancy, oft, in airy flight,
   Will direct her course to you,
Bringing scenes of past delight
   Back to my enraptured view.

Oft shall Schuylkill's rocky shore,
   With her waving woods around,
Thy fond name repeating o'er,
   Strive to swell the pleasing sound.

Thus, with friendship most sincere
   Shall my faithful bosom glow;
All thy virtues I'll revere
   With such love as angels know.

Hoping still, tho' far from thee,
   I've a place in thy regard--
which delightful thought shall be
   My firm constancy's reward.

Song VII


My gen'rous heart disdains
   The slave of love to be;
I scorn his servile chains
   And boast my liberty,
     This whining,
     And pining,
   And wasting with care
   Are not to my taste--be she ever so fair.


Shall a girl's capricious frown
Sink my noble sp'rits down?
Shall a face of white and red
Make me droop my silly head?
Shall I set me down and sigh
For an eyebrow or an eye;
For a braided lock of hair
Curse my fortune and despair?
  My gen'rous heart disdains, etc.


Still uncertain is to-morrow,
Not quite certain is to-day--
shall I waste my time in sorrow,
Shall I languish life away,
All because a cruel maid
Hath not love with love repaid?
  My gen'rous heart disdains, etc.

Francis Hopkinson, Independence National Historic Park, online biography.
Francis Hopkinson: The Flag of the United States; The Stars and Stripes, U.S. Embassy in Sweden--
James D. Hart, The Oxford Companion to American Literature, Oxford University Press: NYC; 1965.
Martin S. Day, History of American Literature: From the Beginning to 1910, Vol I, Doubleday: Garden City; 1969.
Page Smith, The Shaping of America; A People's History of the Young Republic, McGraw-Hill: NYC; 1980.
Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager, The Growth of the American Republic, Oxford University Press: NYC; 1962.
Hazel Meyer, The Gold in Tin Pan Alley, J.B. Lippincott Co.: Philadelphia; 1958.
Carl Bode, Leon Howard, & Louis B. Wright, ed. American Literature: The 17th and 18th Centuries, Washington Square Press: NYC; 1966.

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