J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, January 04, 2022

“A full Display of his truly sublime & extensive Genius”

Portrait of Francis Hopkinson, paused in thought at his writing desk, painted by Robert Edge Pine
Francis Hopkinson, designer of the U.S. flag, was another Philadelphia Federalist who disliked Eleazer Oswald’s poetic commentary on how Boston had a parade to celebrate ratifying the new Constitution.

In fact, Hopkinson was still upset at the end of March 1788, more than a month after Oswald’s gibe appeared in his Independent Gazetteer.

Hopkinson’s response took the form of a literary essay purporting to analyze the classical poetic qualities of that newspaper’s “There they went up, up, up” verses. It began:

On the first of January 1788, it was determined in a certain Seminary of Learning to institute a Professorship of Poetry & the Belle Lettres.

As this was intended to be only an honorary Appointment (the Gratuity being only a Barrel of strong Beer per Quarter to the Professor) it was left to the present Faculty to determine which of their Members should fill the new Chair.

The Faculty, having conven’d for the Purpose, it was moved & agreed to that the Candidates should compose probationary Odes to be exhibited on Monday the 18th of February, & that this new Professorship should be awarded to the Author of the most approved Performance.

On the Day of Decision it appeared that none of the Professors except Dr. D——— had enter’d the Lists, & that he had only two of the Tutors for his Competitors. So that there were but three probationary Odes produced on this Occasion. These being read & considered, the Ballots were when, & Dr. D———’s Performance was declared the most worthy, by a very decided Majority. And on the Day following his admirable Ode was given to the impatient Public.

The Doctor had chosen for his Subject the grand Procession made at Boston on the Adoption & Ratification of the proposed federal Constitution by the State of Massachusetts. This judicious Choice gave the Doctor Room for a full Display of his truly sublime & extensive Genius, & he has exerted himself accordingly; as will fully appear by exhibiting the Ode itself verbatim & literatim.
“There they went up, up, up,
And there they went down, down, downy,
There they went backwards & forwards
And poop for Boston Towny. . . .”
After the full eight lines of verse came a detailed English and Latin philological analysis that filled more than two pages of the American Literature journal in 1930. Because that was where Hopkinson’s parodic essay first saw print. If he intended it for a general audience in 1788, no newspaper or magazine editor agreed to publish it.

Hopkinson’s “Dr. D———” appears to refer to James Davidson, professor of the Greek and Latin languages at the University of the State of Pennsylvania. Perhaps Davidson was an Anti-Federalist—but he left no evidence of such views. Perhaps Hopkinson was tweaking his alma mater for some reason.

Or maybe Hopkinson didn’t mean to lampoon Prof. Davidson at all, but was simply amused at the idea that a classical scholar penning the silly “down, down, downy” verses. Again, for all the effort Hopkinson put into this response on behalf of the Federalist cause, it reached a very limited audience.

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