Francis Hopkinson Biography
Francis Hopkinson was a native of Pennsylvania, and was born in the city of Philadelphia, in the year 1737. His father, Thomas Hopkinson, was an Englishman, who emigrated to America, but in what year is unknown to the writer. A short time previous to his emigration, he became respectably connected by marriage, with a niece of the bishop of Worcester.
On his arrival in America, he took up his residence in the city of Philadelphia, where he honorably filled several offices of distinction, under the government of his native country. Mr. Hopkinson was distinguished for his scientific attainments. He was intimate with that distinguished philosopher, Benjamin Franklin, by whom he was held in high estimation. The intimacy which subsisted between these gentlemen, seems to have arisen from a similarity of taste, particularly on philosophical subjects. To Mr. Hopkinson is attributed the first experiment of attracting the electric fluid, by means of a pointed instrument, instead of a blunt one. This experiment he had the pleasure of first exhibiting to Dr. Franklin. Its practical importance consisted in preventing the severe explosion, which always takes place in the passage of the electric fluid, upon a blunted instrument.
Upon the death of Mr. Hopkinson, which occurred while he was in the prime of life, the care of his interesting and numerous family devolved upon his widow. Fortunately, Mrs. Hopkinson was a lady of superior mental endowments, and well qualified to superintend the education of her children. At an early period, discovering indications of genius in her son, the subject of the present memoir, she resolved to make every sacrifice, and every effort in her power, to give him the advantages of a superior education. Her income was comparatively limited, but a mother can relinquish every enjoyment for her children. This Mrs. Hopkinson did with the greatest pleasure; and to the practice of self-denial for her son, she added, for his benefit, the most admirable precepts, and the most excellent example. Her efforts were crowned with singular success. She lived to see him graduate with reputation, from the college of Philadelphia, and become eminent in the profession of law. He possessed talents of a high order. His genius was quick and versatile. He penetrated the depths of science with ease, and with grave and important truths stored his capacious mind. But he by no means neglected the lighter accomplishments. In music and poetry he excelled, and had some knowledge of painting. Few men were more distinguished for their humor and satire.
In the year 1766, Mr. Hopkinson embarked for England, for the purpose of visiting the land of his fathers. Such was the estimation in which he was held in his native city, that he received a public expression of respect and affection, front the board of trustees of the college of Philadelphia, which the provost of that institution was desired to communicate to him, and wish him, in the behalf of his Alma Mater, a safe and prosperous voyage.
After a residence of more than two years in England, be returned to America, soon after which he became settled in life, having married a Miss Borden, of Bordentown, in the state of New-Jersey. His acknowledged talents soon drew the attention of the royal government, under which he received the appointment of collector of the customs, and executive counselor.
These offices, however, he did not long enjoy, being obliged to sacrifice them in the cause of his country. He entered with strong feelings into the public measures which preceded the revolutionary contest, and having taken up his residence in New Jersey, his abilities and patriotism pointed him out as a proper person to represent her in congress. Accordingly, in the year 1776 he received this appointment, and in this capacity he voted for the declaration of independence, and subsequently affixed his signature to the engrossed copy of that memorable instrument.
On the retirement of Mr. Ross, in 1779, the judge of the admiralty court of Pennsylvania, the president of that state nominated Mr. Hopkinson as his successor; an office to which he was unanimously appointed, and the duties of which, for ten years, until the organization of the federal government, he continued to discharge with honor to himself, and benefit to his country.
Soon after the adoption of the federal constitution, General Washington, with the advice and consent of the senate, appointed Mr. Hopkinson to the office of Judge of the United States, for the district of Pennsylvania. This was, an important and dignified station, for which he was admirably fitted, and in which capacity he assisted in giving stability and dignity to the national government.
During the period of his judicial career, be conscientiously avoided mingling in party, or occasional politics. He employed his powers, however, when occasion required, in promoting the public good. He contributed in no small degree in rousing the feelings of the people, during the war of the revolution. The chief means by which he accomplished this, was the employment of his powers of satire, which he possessed in an uncommon degree. His occasional productions were quite numerous, and were well adapted to the state of the country at that time. They rendered the author justly popular at that day, and will continue to interest and amuse, while the memory of these times shall remain.
Mr. Hopkinson published several poetical pieces. His chief merit as a poet consisted in an easy versification. His poetical productions were chiefly designed to amuse. This object they effected. They attracted no small attention, throughout the country; but none was more popular than the humorous and well known ballad, called "The Battle of the Kegs."
The life of Mr. Hopkinson was suddenly terminated, while in the midst of his usefulness, on the eighth of May, 1791, in the fifty-third year of his age. He died of an apoplectic fit, which, in two hours after the attack, put a period to his mortal existence. In stature, Mr. Hopkinson was below the common size. His countenance was extremely animated, though his features were small. In speech he was fluent, and in his motions he was unusually quick. Few men were kinder in their dispositions, or more benevolent in their lives. He was distinguished for his powers of taste, and for his love and devotion to science. He possessed a library, which contained the most distinguished literary productions of the times; and in his library room was to be found a collection of scientific apparatus, with which he amused himself in his leisure hours, and added greatly to his stock of knowledge, The following anecdote furnishes evidence of the estimation in which he was held, as a philosopher, and a man of letters. Sometime during the revolutionary war, Bordentown, the place where Mr. Hopkinson and family resided, was suddenly invaded by a party of Hessians. The family had hardly time, to escape before the invaders began the plunder of the house. After the evacuation of Philadelphia, by the British, a volume, which had been taken from the library of Mr. Hopkinson, at the above period, fell into his hands. On a blank leaf, the officer, who took the book, had written in German an acknowledgment of the theft, declaring that although be believed Mr. Hopkinson to be an obstinate rebel, the books, and philosophical apparatus of his library were sufficient evidence, that he was a learned man.
Mr. Hopkinson, at his decease, left a widow and five children. The eldest of these, Joseph Hopkinson, who still lives, strongly resembles his father, in the endowments of his mind, and the brilliancy of his genius. He occupies an enviable rank among the advocates of the American bar.
SOURCE: Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence, 1829
by Rev. Charles A. Goodrich