Thomas Jefferson Papers

To Thomas Jefferson from Francis Hopkinson, 6 April 1788

From Francis Hopkinson

Philada. April 6th. 1788

Dear Sir

It is a very long Time indeed since I have had the Satisfaction of a Line from you. Mr. Rittenhouse had a Letter last Fall in which you mention some Books to have been forwarded for him in a Package address’d either to me or Dr. Franklin, but those Books have not come to hand. I have another Gathering of Magazines, Museums, and News Papers for you, waiting a suitable opportunity.—We are in a high political Fermentation about our new proposed federal Constitution. There are in every State People who have Debts to pay, Interests to support, or Fortunes to make. These wish for scrambling Times, paper Money Speculations or partial Commercial advantages. An effective general Government will not suit their Views, and of Course there are great oppositions made to the new Constitution, but this opposition chiefly arises from a few leading Party Men in the Towns and Cities who have been very industrious in holding it up as a political Monster to the multitude who know nothing of Government and have gained many Proselytes in the back Counties.—The Lees and Mr. Mason have so exerted themselves in Virginia as to make the Determination of that State doubtful. Maryland is infected with a Mr. Martin, but I am told the Constitution will be adopted there. We shall know in a few Weeks. The Convention met in New Hampshire and adjourned to sometime in June. The City of New York is federal, but the Country much opposed, under the Influence of Govr. Clinton. Altho’ Pennsylvania has long since adopted the proposed System, yet in no State have the People behaved so scandalously as here. George Bryan and his Party (formerly called the Constitutional Party) have been moving Heaven and Earth against the Establishment of a federal Government. Our Papers teem with the most opprobrious Recitings against the System and against all who befriend it. These Scriblers begin with Arguments against the proposed Plan such Arguments as would stand with equal Force against every or any Government that can be devised. They were Arguments against Government in general as an Infringement upon natural Liberty. They then poured forth a torrent of abuse against the Members of the late general Convention personally and individually. You will be surprized when I tell you that our public News Papers have announced General Washington to be a Fool influenced and lead by that Knave Dr. Franklin who is a public Defaulter for Millions of Dollars, that Mr. Morris has defrauded the Public out of many Millions as you please and that they are to cover their frauds by this new Government. What think you of this. Some of the Authors of these inflamatory Publications have been traced, and found to be men of desperate Circumstances. I had the Luck to discover and bring forward into public View on sufficient Testimony the Writer of a Series of abominable abuse, under the Signature Philadelphiensis. He is an Irishman who came from Dublin about 3 Years ago and got admitted as a Tutor in Arithmetic in our University. I am now under the Lash for this Discovery, scarce a Day passes without my Appearance in the News Paper in every scandalous Garb that scribling Vengeance can furnish. I wrote also a Piece stiled The new Roof which had a great Run. I would send you a Copy but for the Postage. You will probably see it in some of the Papers as it was reprinted in I believe every state.

I am sorry to tell you that our friend Mr. Rittenhouse is antifederal. However we never touch upon Politics. Dr. Franklin is as well as usual.

My Mother desires her Love to your Daughter, to which add my affectionate Regards.

I have long had it in Contemplation to establish a Wax Chandlery here and if I can get some Gentleman to join me in the Scheme, as I believe I shall, I will make the Trial. My Circumstances require some Exertion. I know of nothing so promising. Let me have your Opinion. If I determine upon it I shall request you to send over a Master Workman to superintend the Factory. Be so good as to enquire and inform me, what Capital would be requisite for such a Project, in the large Way. I shall depend much on your Encouragement. Yours ever,

F. Hopkinson

RC (DLC); endorsed.

The author of the series of abominable abuse—a violent attack on the “haughty lordlings of the convention” who had already proclaimed “the chains of despotism … firmly rivetted”—was one Benjamin Workman, who warned the people in the 19 Dec. 1787 issue of the Independent Gazetteer that the “days of a cruel Nero approach fast”; that “the language of a monster, of a Caligula, could not be more imperious” than that of the “well-born and their parasites” of the Convention; and that, worse than anything George III had done, “self-important nabobs” had carried on “diabolical plots, and secret machinations” ever since the revolution to destroy the people’s liberties. This intemperate production of an instructor at the University of Pennsylvania was made the object of Hopkinson’s allegorical satire called “The New Roof,” which appeared in the Penna. Packet for 29 Dec. 1787 and was widely reprinted. At a dinner party in Williamsburg, George Wythe supposed Hopkinson to be the author and Gouverneur and Robert Morris, who were present, concurred; the last made the obvious comment in a letter of 21 Jan. 1788 to Hopkinson that “there always appear some Characteristic Marks in your writings that disclose the Fountain from whence they spring” (quoted in Hastings, Hopkinson, p. 400). Hopkinson’s allegory, however, was more important as a defense of the constitution than as a satire of Workman, and in this respect probably influenced contemporaries as well as historians to exaggerate the defects of the Confederation. In “The New Roof” the Confederation was a great house in need of a new roof after only twelve years and, what was worse, as the consulting architects discovered, was weak in its whole structure: there were thirteen rafters, but these “were not connected by any braces or ties, so as to form a union of strength”; they were in part “thick and heavy” and in part “slight”; and, having been put together “whilst the timber was yet green,” they had become badly warped—some outward, bearing an undue proportion of weight, and some inward, bearing no weight at all. More, “the shingling and lathing had not been secured with iron nails, but only wooden pegs [paper money, as Hopkinson had to explain], which swelling and shrinking by successions of wet and dry weather, had left the shingles so loose, that many of them had been blown away by the wind.” The “cornice”—presumably the Continental Congress-was “so ill proportioned, and so badly put up, as to be neither an ornament nor of use.” Finally, “the roof was so flat as to admit the most idle servants in the family, their playmates and acquaintances, to trample upon and abuse it” (same, p. 398). Hopkinson explained the last to mean a lack of dignity in government, but this really begged the question: this part of the allegory could scarcely mean anything else than an attack upon the levelling process and a defense of the aristocratic principle, an attitude that led Hopkinson and other contemporaries (even Moustier, the newly-arrived French minister) as well as historians to denigrate to an unjustifiable extent the calibre of members of the Continental Congress during the latter part of its existence—a period that certainly included non-entities but also included such men as James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Langdon, and others of genuine stature. But “The New Roof” was all the more effective as a weapon for the Federalists because of its graphic oversimplifications which reduced a great political concept to everyday terms.

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