With the Independence Day deluge of patriotic music rapidly approaching, let us remember a composer who actually signed the Declaration of Independence. Francis Hopkinson, who represented New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress, was also, in his spare time, an accomplished harpsichordist and songwriter. His 1759 song “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” was probably the first penned by an American-born writer; a set of eight songs published in 1788 were dedicated to George Washington.
“I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument to convince the unbelieving, but I have, however, one argument which will prevail with persons of true taste (at least in America),” Washington replied: “I can tell them that it is the production of Mr. Hopkinson.”
Hopkinson was a lawyer and judge by trade, a cultured polymath by inclination; his judicial opinions and poems were posthumously published in the same volume. Thoroughly aristocratic, Hopkinson’s sympathies were, nevertheless, with the rebellion. He wrote satirical articles in support of the revolution, beginning with “A Pretty Story” in 1774, a fable recasting the colonies as, shades of Orwell, a mismanaged farm.
He also, in all likelihood, designed the American flag, for which he vainly sought credit, eventually petitioning the new government for the recompense of “a Quarter Cask of the public wine.” A congressional investigation admitted Hopkinson’s authorship, but political enemies still blocked the vinous payment.
Hopkinson might have ruefully recalled one of his revolutionary sarcasms, a supposed dispatch from an imaginary loyalist. “Who would have thought that the peaceful plains of America would be desolated,” Hopkinson’s fictional Tory marveled, “because the inhabitants will not believe that two and two make five, when their good king and his wise parliament require them so to do.”