Joseph Hopkinson, Joseph Bonaparte’s Great Friend
A 19th-century lawyer, musician, writer, politician and judge, Joseph Hopkinson was one of Joseph Bonaparte’s closest friends and neighbours in the United States. He also composed America’s unofficial national anthem. Hopkinson’s wife Emily had a sharp wit and a talent for art and writing.
A bright young lawyer
Joseph Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia on November 12, 1770. His father was Francis Hopkinson, a lawyer, writer, musician and patriot who signed the Declaration of Independence and may have designed the American flag. His mother was Nancy (Ann) Borden, the daughter of Joseph Borden, a prominent New Jersey judge. In 1774, Francis and Ann moved to Bordentown, New Jersey. The town was named after Ann’s grandfather. Young Joseph spent a lot of time there and later inherited the family home.
After attending his father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, Joseph Hopkinson studied for the bar. In 1791, he began practicing law in Philadelphia.
On February 27, 1794, Joseph Hopkinson married Emily Mifflin (b. 1774), the daughter of Pennsylvania Governor Thomas Mifflin and his wife Sarah Morris. Emily was a brilliant young Philadelphian, with talent as an artist and as a writer. The marriage cemented the couple’s place in America’s top political and social circles. Between 1794 and 1816 they had 14 children, of whom nine lived to adulthood: Thomas, Francis, Elizabeth, John, Alexander, James, Oliver, Edward and Joseph.
As a young lawyer, Hopkinson established his reputation in some of the most famous trials of the day. In 1795 he defended the men charged with treason in the Whiskey Rebellion. In 1799 he successfully represented Founding Father Benjamin Rush in a libel suit against journalist William Cobbett (whom Joseph Archambault later worked for). Cobbett accused Dr. Rush, an avid practitioner of blood-letting, of killing more patients than he saved. In 1805 Hopkinson defended Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase during his impeachment trial, argued before the United States Senate.
Joseph Hopkinson and “Hail Columbia”
One of the things Joseph Hopkinson was renowned for during his lifetime was writing “Hail Columbia.” This was the de facto national anthem of the United States for most of the 19th century. It remained a contender until 1931, when “The Star-Spangled Banner” officially gained the title. “Hail Columbia” is now the official Vice Presidential anthem. Set to the music of “The President’s March,” which had been composed by Philip Phile for George Washington’s first inauguration in 1789, “Hail Columbia” debuted at Philadelphia’s New Theatre on April 25, 1798, sung by Gilbert Fox. In 1841, Hopkinson described how the song came to be.
It was written in the summer of 1798 when war with France was thought to be inevitable. Congress was then in session in Philadelphia, deliberating upon that important event, and acts of hostility had actually taken place. The contest between England and France was raging, and the people of the United States were divided into parties for the one side or the other, some thinking that policy and duty required us to espouse the cause of republican France, as she was called; while others were for connecting ourselves with England, under the belief that she was the great preservative power of good principles and safe government….
A young man belonging to [the theatre], whose talent was as a singer…[whom] I had known…when he was at school…called on me one Saturday afternoon, his benefit being announced for the following Monday. His prospects were very disheartening; but he said if he could get a patriotic song adapted to the tune of the ‘President’s March,’ he did not doubt of a full house; that the poets of the theatrical corps had been trying to accomplish it, but had not been successful. I told him I would try what I could do for him. He came the next afternoon; and the song, such as it is, was ready for him. The object of the author was to get up an American spirit, which should be independent of, and above the interests, passions, and policy of both belligerents: and look and feel exclusively for our own honour and rights. No allusion is made to France or England, or the quarrel between them: or to the question, which was most in fault of their treatment of us: of course the song found favour with both parties, for both were Americans; at least neither could disavow the sentiments and feelings it inculcated. Such is the history of this song, which has endured infinitely beyond the expectation of the author, as it is beyond any merit it can boast of, except that of being truly and exclusively patriotic in its sentiments and spirit. (1)
You can listen to “Hail Columbia” here:
Emily Hopkinson’s wit
Though she adopted a traditional wifely role, Emily shared her husband’s interests in politics, art, music and literature. She had a sarcastic wit, which annoys Napoleon in Napoleon in America. Under the pseudonym Beatrice, Emily became a correspondent to the Philadelphia political and literary magazine The Port Folio (which Nicholas Biddle later edited). Here is a sample from one of her letters to the editor in 1802.
Mr. Oldschool, I was really amused and I hope instructed in perusing the profound observations of your correspondent Leander…upon the insensibility of the ladies of Philadelphia. He appears so admirably calculated, from his nervous and energetic style, to call forth all our sex’s tender sensibilities, that I ardently wish he will continue his literary productions for our special benefit….
By the bye, dear Mr. Oldschool, we ladies did expect now and then to see something else besides our faults portray’d in your paper, and did hope to have found in you somewhat of a champion, as well as monitor. But alas! you permit us to be essay’d, riddled, rebussed and epigrammatized: ridiculed by dull wits, and snarled at by sullen ones, without once taking up our cause and defending our venial follies. To be sure, your Lounger now and then gives a lash to the fashionable and current absurdities of the other sex, but still I perceive an evident partiality to the beaux. As the lion said to the man, let us be the carvers, and we will make the woman superior to the man. One would imagine you to be a rusty, musty old bachelor, that have in your time experienced the effects of some cruel beauty’s inconstancy, and are secretly enjoying all the malignant spleen of your Leanders, &c. &c. …
I have half a mind, Mr. Oldschool, to invite you myself to one of those ridiculous entertainments, called tea parties, where you can judge for yourself on which side the deficiency of entertainment lies. (2)
Both Emily and her husband wrote poetry, which appeared in The Port Folio. They hosted a lively Philadelphia salon and mentored artists and writers. An avid supporter of the arts, Joseph Hopkinson served for many years as the president of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He was also vice president of the American Philosophical Society and a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.
Joseph Bonaparte’s friend
In addition to their home in Philadelphia, the Hopkinsons had a small farm in Bordentown. It was here that they got to know Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte during his exile in the United States. Joseph Bonaparte shared Joseph Hopkinson’s love of art and his interest in literature and politics. They became close friends. In Joseph’s letters of introduction for Hopkinson’s children when they visited Europe, he speaks of Hopkinson as “a great friend and neighbor of mine, and my nearest neighbor in the country.” (3) When Bonaparte returned to Europe in the 1830s, he left Hopkinson in charge of his affairs in the United States and maintained a frequent correspondence with him.
In June 1836, Emily wrote in her diary of Joseph Bonaparte’s (the Count’s) departure for England:
Friday, 24 – … Joe and Elizabeth went over to take leave of the Count – he gave some more parting keepsakes to them. Mr. H came up, brought Judge Baldwin to visit the Count; they went over, received some autographs of Napoleon; all left us in the 3 o’clock boat for town. Mr. H went over at 6 to dine with his friend; a box of wine sent from the Count – every day brings proof of his kindness and liberality….
Sunday, 26th. … Tom…went (raining hard all day) to see our good friend once more; he received us very kindly – talked of the late affray of his young nephews at Rome with great feeling – said if he had not taken his passage and packed up, he would not have gone, at least for some months, until the excitement had subsided…. I took leave of him, not expecting to see his benevolent face again in this world.
Monday, 27th. … The Count took my hand, kissed my cheeks and repeated over and over: ‘I will come back, I will come back.’ …
Tuesday, 28 – … No Point Breeze to go [to] – for the master spirit has fled. (4)
The following month, Hopkinson wrote to Bonaparte:
I am convinced that you will not be able to live in the midst of a nation, however inconstant and harsh their customs, without commanding the respect and the good will of all intelligent and honest men. A man whose life and fortune have always been employed in acts of charity and generosity must be respected and cherished unless the human race becomes universally selfish and perverted.
I have nothing in particular to tell you about us. We continue that quiet and comfortable existence which offers neither variety nor savor enough to those who are accustomed to the excitements of London or of Paris, but which suits us perfectly, and which at the end of the year will procure us probably as many days of contentment, of reasonable satisfaction as the more artificial existence in the European capital would. (5)
In July 1837, Bonaparte sent Hopkinson a book
a copy, which I have found here, of a work printed more than thirty years ago, in which the author expresses himself concerning me in a way which will seem the truth to you, whose indulgent friendship has often expressed itself thus about me…. I thought that you would like…to keep the book, both for its own sake and a little to strengthen you in the good opinion that you have formed of me, and to which I hold infinitely, as that of one of the two men whom I love and respect the most in the United States of America. (6)
Politician and judge
As someone who knew and idolized George Washington, and was a fervent admirer of Alexander Hamilton, Joseph Hopkinson became a staunch Federalist. He represented the party for two terms in the House of Representatives, from 1814 to 1819. Hopkinson was not keen on life in Washington, writing to Emily in 1819:
I begin to feel the fatigue of this session, especially since the labors of the Court are added to those of Congress. This violent exercise of my mind has the usual effect of depriving me of my sleep, for as soon as I get to bed and in the dark, I begin to cogitate and ruminate about the various matters of the past or coming day. Under this pressure I look with great joy to my emancipation and return to what you consider the dullness of Bordentown. To me it will be a most desirous and useful repose. (7)
In 1819, he retired to Bordentown to work on a biography of Alexander Hamilton. In 1821-22, he served as a member of the New Jersey House of Assembly. Joseph Hopkinson returned to Philadelphia in 1823, resuming his legal practice there. He represented Charles Stewart in the latter’s divorce from Delia. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams – a good friend – appointed Hopkinson federal judge for the eastern district of Pennsylvania. Hopkinson’s most notable legacy in this capacity was his 1833 opinion in the case of Wheaton v. Peters, which serves as the basis for American copyright law.
Throughout his life, Joseph Hopkinson regarded the law as a high and serious calling, one uniquely suited to statesmanship. As he told the students at the Law Academy of Philadelphia in 1826, a lawyer
must not consider himself as the mere drudge of a mercenary occupation…he must fix his eye on higher destinies and more important services. He must believe that to his integrity and knowledge and talents, the best interests of his country may hereafter be committed; and he must prepare himself to fulfill these dignified duties with honor and success….
The prize is not to be gained by indolence or vanity…. [H]igh honours and employments…await the lawyer who has given his days and nights to the acquirement of the deep and various knowledge, which brings strength, and fullness, and ornament, to the character and exercise of his profession; and which can be obtained only by long and careful reading, and profound reflection. (8)
Hopkinson added, in words equally apt for our multi-tasking age of digital distractions:
Do not believe that what is called light reading is most suitable to youth; and that graver studies may be reserved for graver years. From the commencement, accustom yourself to books which require close attention, and exercise your faculties of reason and reflection: the mere power of attention, that is, of confining the mind exclusively to one object, to restrain its erratic propensities, is more rare and difficult than is generally imagined. It can be acquired by habit, produced by that sort of reading which makes it necessary; and it will be weakened or lost by a devotion to works whose gossamer pages will not bear the weight of thought, but are skimmed over by the eye, hardly calling for the aid of the understanding to draw from them all they contain.
I do not mean by this recommendation to fasten you down to law and metaphysics; nor to exclude you from the delights of the imagination…. Turn…to those [poets] who have dipped the pen in the human heart; who have consulted the everlasting oracles of nature and truth, and whose works are therefore not of the ephemeral tribe, local, temporary, and transient. These great men have not mistaken the effusions of a brilliant fancy, the facility of graceful expression, for the precious gifts of poetic genius. They float not on the caprice and fashion of a day, but will endure while man remains the same. (9)
In 1837, Joseph Hopkinson was elected to the convention for the amendment of Pennsylvania’s constitution. Though the Federalist Party had by then collapsed, he remained true to its cause.
I am, and always have been, one of this persecuted, despised party. There are, it is true, but few of us left, but we may claim to be sincere at least, for we have had a long and severe trial, when, perhaps, we might have been taken into favor by abandoning our principles. I began with the administration of Washington; I was and am a federalist of that day and school. I have never changed, because I have as yet seen nothing better. (10)
Joseph Hopkinson died on January 15, 1842, age 71. Emily died on December 11, 1850, age 76. They are buried in Christ Church Episcopal Cemetery in Bordentown.
Elizabeth Borden Hopkinson (b. January 6, 1800), Joseph’s and Emily’s only daughter, had a wide circle of friends and admirers. These included Joseph Bonaparte (true to his interest in her in Napoleon in America), John Quincy Adams and Adams’ wife Louisa. In November 1822, Adams wrote to Hopkinson from Washington.
Mrs. Adams desires to be affectionately remembered to your lady and family and is in eager expectation of the pleasure of seeing Miss Hopkinson here. She was so much delighted with her visit to Bordentown that the remembrance of it yet enlivens the present and will long cheer the future hours of her existence. (11)
Elizabeth married John Julius Keating, the son of Colonel John Keating. Keating came from a family of Irish emigrants who had fled to France to escape religious persecution. At the outbreak of the French Revolution, John Sr. – a French army officer stationed in the West Indies – resigned his commission and moved to Delaware. John Jr. was a lawyer who had a brief career in the Pennsylvania legislature before dying in 1824 at the age of 25. In 1832 Elizabeth married Philadelphia lawyer William Shepard Biddle, Nicholas Biddle’s older brother, who was nearly twenty years her senior. His death in 1835 left Elizabeth widowed a second time. She never remarried. Elizabeth died on September 20, 1891, at the age of 91, outliving all but one of her siblings.
You might also enjoy:
- Rufus W. Griswold, The Poets and Poetry of America: With an Historical Introduction (Philadelphia, 1843), p. 476.
- The Port Folio, Vol, II, No. 18, Philadelphia, April 3, 1802, pp. 97-98.
- Burton Alva Konkle, Joseph Hopkinson, 1770-1842 (Philadelphia, 1931), pp. 328-329.
- Ibid., pp. 335-336.
- Ibid., pp. 336-337.
- Ibid., p. 342. The other was Dr. Nathaniel Chapman.
- Ibid., p. 227.
- Joseph Hopkinson, An Address delivered before the Law Academy of Philadelphia, at the Opening of the Session of 1826-7 (Philadelphia, 1826), pp. 10-11.
- Ibid., pp. 28-29.
- Proceedings and Debates of the Convention of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Propose Amendments to the Constitution, Vol. IV (Harrisburg, 1838), p. 305.
- Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VII (New York, 1917), p. 329.
[T]he mere power of attention, that is, of confining the mind exclusively to one object, to restrain its erratic propensities, is more rare and difficult than is generally imagined.