Wit and wisdom are seldom both prominently developed in the same person. Wit serves to amuse or exhilarate but rarely produces useful reflection or an improvement of mind. It is emphatically a plume and exposes the head it ornaments to many an arrow from the bow of revenge. Wit makes many conquests but no willing subjects. It produces many _bon mots_ and but few wise sayings. It is an undefined and undefinable propensity--more to be admired than coveted--more ornamental than useful--more volatile than solid--a dangerous sharp edge tool--like a coquette, pleasing company for the time being but not desirable for a life companion.
Rare instances have occurred where the sage, statesman, philosopher and wit have been combined in the same person. Sheridan was such a man and in our own country Francis Hopkinson was the American Sheridan. He was the son of Thomas Hopkinson of Philadelphia, born in that city in 1737. His father was a man of superior attainments--his mother one of the best, and most intelligent matrons of that age. His father died in 1751 and left the widowed mother with limited means to struggle with all the accumulating difficulties of raising and educating a large family of children.
Under her guidance and instruction young Francis improved rapidly in his education and exhibited a bright and promising intellect. To advance the interests of her children she confined herself to the absolute necessaries of life. Being devotedly pious, she took peculiar care in planting deeply in their tender minds the pure principles of virtue and cautiously guarding them against all the avenues of vice, the portals of which are ever open. She taught them the design of their creation--the duty they owed to God and their fellow men and that to be truly happy they must be truly good. With this foundation firmly laid, she placed this son in the University of Pennsylvania where he graduated at an early age and commenced the study of law under Benjamin Chew. He was a close student and made rapid advances in legal acquirements. He possessed a brilliant and flowing fancy, a lively imagination and captivating manners. Although ardently attached to the solid sciences he was fond of polite literature, poetry, music and painting. He excelled in humorous satire, keen as that of Swift and Sheridan. Fortunately these combined talents were brought into extensive usefulness.
In 1765 he visited London where he continued two years making the acquaintance of the leading men of that metropolis and learning the political aspect and designs of the ministers toward his native country. He added largely to the fund of knowledge before acquired and came home prepared to work.
Soon after his return he married the accomplished Ann Borden of Bordentown N. J. thus fulfilling an important part of the design of his creation. He also appreciated the value of the institution he had honored and the joys of connubial felicity. In rearing his children he took the system that had been so successfully adopted by his venerable mother whose instructions were fresh upon his memory. He could adopt no better plan or find a more perfect model to imitate. For a time the cares and pleasures of his family and his professional business engrossed his attention. A crisis soon arrived that arrested this translucent stream of happiness. The oppressions of the mother country had become alarming. Agitation had commenced among the people. The best services of every patriot were needed. His were promptly and efficiently rendered. It was for him to do much in opening the eyes of the great mass to a just sense of their violated rights. This he did by various publications written in a style so humorous and fascinating as to be generally read. He painted the injustice of the crown and the insults of its hireling officers in vivid colors. His Pretty Story--his Letters to James Rivington--his Epistle to Lord Howe--his two Letters by a Tory--his translation of a Letter written by a Foreigner--his Political Catechism and the New Roof--were all productions of taste and merit. They were of vast importance in rousing the people to a vindication of their rights--the achievement of their Independence.
During the administration of Gov. Dickinson, political dissensions and party spirit rolled their mountain waves over Pennsylvania threatening to destroy the fair fabric of her new government. The pen of Mr. Hopkinson was instrumental in restoring order. In an essay called--"A full and true Account of a violent Uproar which lately happened in a very Eminent Family"--he exposed the factious partisans to such keen and severe ridicule that they threw down the weapons of rebellion sooner than if a thousand bayonets had been pointed at their breasts.
He was among the first delegates elected to the Continental Congress and fearlessly recorded his name on the Declaration of Rights that has proved a consolation to the sons of FREEDOM--a Boanerges to the enemies of LIBERTY. Always cheerful and sprightly, he contributed much towards dispelling the gloom that often pervaded the minds of his colleagues amidst disaster and defeat. He knew their cause was righteous--he believed Heaven would crown it with ultimate success and triumphant victory. His personal sacrifices had been many--still he was ever cheerful and illuminated all around him with flashes of the most brilliant wit. At the commencement of the struggle he held a lucrative situation in the Loan Office under the crown and was a favorite of the king--but the king was not a favorite of his--he promptly severed the connection. With all his wit and humor he was firm as a Herculus. With the fancy of a poet he united the soundness of a sage--with the wit of a humorist he united the sagacity of a politician.
He succeeded George Ross as Judge of the Admiralty Court and was subsequently Judge of the U. S. District Court in Philadelphia. He was highly esteemed for his judicial knowledge, impartial justice and correct decisions. He filled every station in which he was placed with credit and dignity. His frequent essays continued to do much towards correcting the morals of society by ridiculing its evils and abuses. Guided by a sound discretion, sarcasm and satire are the most powerful weapons wielded by man. Their smart upon the mind is like cantharides on the skin but often requires something more than a cabbage leaf and cerate to heal it. The wit of Mr. Hopkinson was of a noble cast flowing from a rich and chaste imagination--never violating the rules of propriety--always confined within the pale of modesty but keen as a finely finished rapier. He was an admirer of sound common sense and a zealous advocate of Common School education. He properly appreciated the bone and sinew of our country and knew well that the perpetuity of our Liberty depends more upon the general diffusion of _useful_ knowledge fit for _every_ day use in the ever varying business concerns of life than upon the high toned literature of colleges and universities. He admired the industrious mechanic--he esteemed the honest farmer. In the yoemanry of the soil and inmates of the shops he recognized the defenders of our country.
The useful career of Judge Hopkinson was closed prematurely by an apoplectic fit on the 9th of May 1791. He left a widow, two sons and three daughters to mourn his untimely end and their irreparable loss. He was amiable and urbane in his manners--open and generous in his feelings--noble and liberal in his views--charitable and benevolent in his purposes--an agreeable and pleasant companion--a kind and faithful husband--an affectionate and tender parent--a stern and inflexible patriot--a consistent and active citizen--a useful and honest man. He was like some rare flowers--while their beauty pleases their medicinal qualities are of great value. In the hands of such men our UNION can be preserved.
Source: Sages and Heroes of the American Revolution, by L. Carroll Judson: Copyright, 1854 Available for download at the Project Gutenberg website.