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Francis Hopkinson

Author Kevin Shortsleeve
Air Date 7/8/2003

Francis Hopkinson Transcript

In your studies of the American Revolution, it is unlikely that you spent much time on Francis Hopkinson. Hopkinson was the author of satirical and nonsensical essays that simultaneously delighted his allies and infuriated his enemies. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, he was appointed head of the Navy Board during the war and served as a Congressman while the Constitution was being drafted. In his day Hopkinson was best known for two writings that were spread far and wide during the Revolution. The first was a mock children’s book titled, A Pretty Story.

An allegory of the deterioration of English and American relations, A Pretty Story pits an Old Gentleman (the King of England) and his Steward (the Prime Minister) against the Old Gentleman’s children (the American colonies). The book is set in the New Farm and pays particular attention to one rebellious son, Jack (the city of Boston). After detailing the wrongs that have been done to Jack and the other children, the book ends somewhat ominously, trailing off in mid sentence. Hopkinson writes “These harsh and unconstitutional Proceedings irritated Jack and the other inhabitants of the New Farm to such a Degree that…” and the book ends there. Eight months later we were at war.

In 1778 Hopkinson published his most popular work, The Battle of the Kegs. Hopkinson was involved in a notorious scheme to float kegs of gunpowder down the Delaware River, intending to destroy British ships. When the British troops stationed at the docks of Philadelphia discovered that floating mines were drifting by their ships, they responded with great alarm, shooting for some length of time at absolutely anything that floated by, from small bits of wood to ducks. Highly amused by this news, Hopkinson set about celebrating the British “victory” in lively rhyming verse that even Dr. Seuss would envy.

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

Like a scene from a Keystone Cops film, Hopkinson has the British firing at absolutely everything, including a keg of butter that slips out of the arms of an alarmed old woman.

The canons 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.

While Hopkinson’s writings may appear steeped in childish traditions, his intentions were quite serious. In 1776 he wrote “It is true they break no bones and shed no blood, but they can instigate others to do both; and, by influencing the minds of the multitude, can perhaps do more towards gaining a point than the best rifle gun or the sharpest bayonet.”

Posted in Authors, Literature, Poetry