It comes as no surprise that the favorite subject of early songwriters in America during and after the War for Independence was General George Washington, the darling of the new republic. Numerous ballads, toasts, odes, and marches heralded his courage and virtue as Commander-in-Chief and President, and at least as many dirges and elegies mourned the passing of “Columbia’s god-like son.” Each seeks to outdo the others in superlatives glorifying his bravery, honor, and integrity. As genuine outpourings of an adoring nation, they take the Father of His Country’s full mythic measure. A devoted contributor to this corpus was his friend Francis Hopkinson, America’s first native composer.
Born in Philadelphia in 1759, Hopkinson boasted a daunting array of talents, and he put them all to good use in his brief life. Poet, pamphleteer, essayist, draftsman, designer, painter, teacher, scientist, editor, lawyer, politician, bureaucrat, judge–the list goes on. He compiled tune books, composed songs, gave concerts, invented a new method of quilling harpsichords, and found time to be among the signers of the Declaration of Independence. His friendships with Franklin, Jefferson, and Washington place him at the matrix of the new nation. In appearance he was unprepossessing–John Adams thought him an oddity, with a head no bigger than “a large apple.” Still, a gracious gentleman and a lover of the arts, he fluttered the pulses of the Philadelphia salons crowd and gave America her first true dilettante.
“The Toast to General Washington” appeared in Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano (1788), the first published collection of American secular music. Hopkinson sent a copy to Washington, noting humbly that “I cannot, I believe, be refused the Credit of being the first native of the United States who has produced a Musical Composition.” Washington returned the favor with the following praise: “I can neither sing one of the songs, nor raise a single note on any instrument to convince the unbelieving…. But I have, however, one argument which will prevail with persons of true taste…. I can tell them that it is the production of Mr. Hopkinson.” In “The Toast to General Washington,” Hopkinson’s adulation echoes in the chords and lyrics that toast the health of, and seek the blessing of Heaven upon, his Hero.
A Toast to General Washington
‘Tis Washington’s health–fill a bumper all round,
For he is our glory and pride.
Our arms shall in battle with conquest be crown’d
Whilst virtue and he’s on our side.
‘Tis Washington’s health–loud cannons should roar,
And trumpets the truth should proclaim:
There cannot be found, search all the world o’er,
His equal in virtue and fame.
‘Tis Washington’s health–our hero to bless,
May heaven look graciously down:
Oh! Long may he live, our hearts to possess,
And freedom still call him her own.