Francis Hopkinson

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Francis Hopkinson
Francis Hopkinson.jpg
From The literary history of Philadelphia (1906).
Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Pennsylvania
In office
September 26, 1789 – May 9, 1791
Nominated by George Washington
Succeeded by William Lewis
Delegate from New Jersey to the Second Continental Congress
In office
June 22, 1776 – November 30, 1776
Personal details
Born September 21, 1737
Philadelphia, Province of Pennsylvania, British America
Died May 9, 1791(1791-05-09) (aged 53)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Resting place Christ Church Burial Ground, Philadelphia
Nationality American
Spouse(s) Ann Borden
Alma mater The Academy and College of Philadelphia
Awards Magellanic Premium (1790)

Francis Hopkinson (September 21,[1][2] 1737 – May 9, 1791) designed the first official American flag. He was an author, a composer, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence as a delegate from New Jersey. He served in various roles in the early United States government including as a member of the Continental Congress and chair of the Navy Board. He also served as a federal judge in Pennsylvania.

Early and Family Life

Francis Hopkinson was born at Philadelphia in 1737, the son of Thomas Hopkinson and Mary Johnson. He became a member of the first class at the College of Philadelphia (now the University of Pennsylvania) in 1751 and graduated in 1757, receiving his master's degree in 1760, and a doctor in law (honorary) in 1790. He was secretary to a Provincial Council of Pennsylvania Indian commission in 1761 that made a treaty with the Delaware and several Iroquois tribes. In 1763, he was appointed customs collector for Salem, New Jersey. Hopkinson spent from May 1766 to August 1767 in England in hopes of becoming commissioner of customs for North America. Although unsuccessful, he spent time with the future Prime Minister Lord North, Hopkinson's cousin James Johnson (Bishop of Worcester), and the painter Benjamin West.[3]:133

After his return, Hopkinson operated a dry goods business in Philadelphia and married Ann Borden on September 1, 1768. They would have five children.

Legal career

Hopkinson obtained a public appointment as a customs collector for New Castle, Delaware on May 1, 1772. He moved to Bordentown, New Jersey in 1774, became a member of the New Jersey Provincial Council, and was admitted to the New Jersey bar on May 8, 1775. He resigned his crown-appointed positions in 1776 and, on June 22, went on to represent New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress where he signed the Declaration of Independence. He was appointed to Congress’ Marine Committee in that year. He departed the Congress on November 30, 1776 to serve on the Navy Board at Philadelphia. The Board reported to the Marine Committee. Hopkinson later became the Navy Board’s chairman. As part of the nation's government, he was treasurer of the Continental Loan Office in 1778; appointed judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania in 1779 and reappointed in 1780 and 1787; and helped ratify the Constitution during the constitutional convention in 1787.[3]:chapter VI [3]:325

On September 24, 1789, President George Washington nominated Hopkinson to the newly created position of judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. He was confirmed by the United States Senate, and received his commission, on September 26, 1789.

Only a few years into his service as a federal judge, Hopkinson died in Philadelphia at the age of 53 from a sudden apoplectic seizure.[3]:449 He was buried in Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia.[4] He was the father of Joseph Hopkinson, who was a member of the United States House of Representatives and also became a federal judge. Hopkinson was the designer of the American flag. He did not get his due in life. At one point, he asked for a quarter cask of wine for his efforts, [3]:241 which he never received.

Cultural contributions

Hopkinson wrote popular airs and political satires (jeux d'esprit) in the form of poems and pamphlets. Some were widely circulated, and powerfully assisted in arousing and fostering the spirit of political independence that issued in the American Revolution. His principal writings are A Pretty Story . . . (1774), a satire about King George, The Prophecy (1776), and The Political Catechism (1777).[5]

Other notable essays are "Typographical Method of conducting a Quarrel", "Essay on White Washing", and "Modern Learning". Many of his writings can be found in Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings, published at Philadelphia in three volumes in 1792 (see Bibliography).

Hopkinson began to play the harpsichord at age seventeen and, during the 1750s, hand-copied arias, songs, and instrumental pieces by many European composers. He is credited as being the first American born composer to commit a composition to paper with his 1759 composition "My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free." By the 1760s he was good enough on the harpsichord to play with professional musicians in concerts. Some of his more notable songs include "The Treaty", "The Battle of the Kegs", and "The New Roof, a song for Federal Mechanics". He also played organ at Philadelphia's Christ Church and composed or edited a number of hymns and psalms including: "A Collection of Psalm Tunes with a few Anthems and Hymns Some of them Entirely New, for the Use of the United Churches of Christ Church and St. Peter's Church in Philadelphia" (1763), "A psalm of thanksgiving, Adapted to the Solemnity of Easter: To be performed on Sunday, the 30th of March, 1766, at Christ Church, Philadelphia" (1766), and "The Psalms of David, with the Ten Commandments, Creed, Lord's Prayer, &c. in Metre" (1767). In the 1780s, Hopkinson modified a glass harmonica to be played with a keyboard and invented the Bellarmonic, an instrument that utilized the tones of metal balls.[6]

At his alma mater, University of Pennsylvania, one of the buildings in the Fisher-Hassenfeld College House is named after him.[citation needed]



  • The Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq Printed by T. Dobson, 1792. Available via Google Books: Volume I, Volume II, Volume III
  • Judgments in the Admiralty of Pennsylvania in four suits Printed at T. Dobson and T. Lang, 1789. Available via Google Books


Musical compositions

  • Collection of Plain Tunes with a Few from Anthems and Hymns. Printed by Benjamin Carr, 1763.
  • Temple of Minerva. (The First American Opera)[7] Printed by Benjamin Carr, 1781.
  • Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano. Printed by T. Dobson, 1788.[8]

Flag controversy

Possible representation of Francis Hopkinson's Navy flag showing 6-pointed stars in rows.

On Saturday, June 14, 1777, Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the first official national flag of the United States. The resolution creating the flag came from the Continental Marine Committee. Hopkinson became a member of the committee in 1776. At the time of the flag’s adoption, he was the Chairman of the Navy Board, which was under the Marine Committee. Today, he would be known as the Secretary of the Navy.[9]

Hopkinson is recognized as the designer of the flag of the United States, and the journals of the Continental Congress support this.[10] His first letter in May 25, 1780, requesting compensation from Congress was almost comical. He asked for a quarter cask of wine in payment for designing the U.S. flag, the Great Seal of the United States, and various other contributions. After Congress received a second letter from Hopkinson asking for cash in the amount of L2,700, the Auditor General, James Milligan, commissioned an evaluation of the request for payment. In this second letter, Hopkinson did not mention designing the flag of the United States. Instead, he listed "the great Naval Flag of the United States" (See illustration of flag.) along with the other contributions.[11] The report from the commissioner of the Chamber of Accounts said that the bill was reasonable and ought to be paid. Congress used the usual bureaucratic tactics of asking for an itemized bill for payment in cash. After that, there was further bureaucratic back and forth including a request for an itemized bill and a committee to investigate Hopkinson’s charges that his payment was being delayed for arbitrary reasons. Congress eventually refused to pay Hopkinson for the reason that Hopkinson was already paid as a public servant as a member of Congress. Congress also mentioned that Hopkinson was not the only person consulted on the designs that were "incidental" to the Treasury Board. [3]:240–249 This referred to Hopkinson's work on the Great Seal.[12] He served as a consultant to a committee working on the design of the Great Seal.[13][14] Fourteen men worked on the Great Seal, including two other consultants – Pierre Eugene Du Simitiere (first Great Seal committee) and William Barton (third committee).[15] No known committee of the Continental Congress was ever documented with the assignment to design the national flag or naval flag.[16]

There is no known sketch of a Hopkinson flag—either U.S. or naval—in existence today. Hopkinson, however, did incorporate elements of the two flags he designed in his rough sketch of his Great Seal of the United States and his design for the Admiralty Board Seal.[17] His rough sketch of the Great Seal[18] has 7 white stripes and 6 red stripes. The impression of Hopkinson’s Admiralty Board Seal[19] has a chevron with 7 red stripes and 6 white stripes. The Great Seal reflects Hopkinson’s design for a governmental flag and the Admiralty Board Seal reflects Hopkinson’s design for a naval flag.[20] Both flags were intended to have 13 stripes. Because the original stars used in the Great Seal had six points, Hopkinson's U.S. flag might also have intended the use of 6-pointed stars.[21] This is bolstered by his original sketch[22] that showed asterisks with six points.

The legend of Betsy Ross as the designer of the first flag entered into American consciousness about the time of the 1876 centennial celebrations, owing to the efforts of her grandson, William Canby.[23] This flag with its circle of 13 stars came into popular use as a flag commemorating the nation's birth. Many Americans today still cling to the Betsy Ross legend that she designed the flag, and most are unaware of Hopkinson's legacy. The circle of stars (a circle connotes eternity) first appeared after the war ended and after Hopkinson’s original design.[24]

Hopkinson's letter and response

On May 25, 1780, Hopkinson wrote a letter to the Continental Board of Admiralty mentioning several patriotic designs he had completed during the previous three years. One was his Board of Admiralty seal, which contained a shield of seven red and six white stripes on a blue field. Others included the Treasury Board seal, “7 devices for the Continental Currency,” and “the Flag of the United States of America.”[25]

In the letter, Hopkinson noted that he hadn’t asked for any compensation for the designs, but was now looking for a reward: “a Quarter Cask of the public Wine.” The board sent that letter on to Congress. Hopkinson submitted another bill on June 24 for his “drawings and devices.” The first item on the list was “The Naval Flag of the United States.” The price listed was 9 pounds. This flag with its red, outer stripes was designed to show up well on ships at sea.[20] A parallel flag for the national flag was most likely intended by Hopkinson with white, outer stripes[20] as on the Great Seal of the United States and on the Bennington flag, which commemorated 50th anniversary of the founding of the United States (1826).[26] Ironically, the Navy flag was preferred as the national flag.

The Treasury Board turned down the request in an October 27, 1780, report to Congress. The Board cited several reasons for its action, including the fact that Hopkinson “was not the only person consulted on those exhibitions of Fancy [that were incidental to the Board (the U.S. flag, the Navy flag, the Admiralty seal, and the Great Seal with a reverse)], and therefore cannot claim the sole merit of them and not entitled in this respect to the full sum charged.”[27] This is most probably a reference to his work as a consultant to the second committee that worked on the Great Seal of the United States.[28] Therefore, he would not be eligible to be paid for the Great Seal.[29]

Great Seal of the United States

Francis Hopkinson provided assistance to the second committee that designed the Great Seal of the United States. On today's seal, the 13 stars (constellation) representing the 13 original states have five points. They are arranged in a larger star that has six points. The constellation comprising 13 smaller stars symbolizes the national motto, “E pluribus unum.” Originally, the design had individual stars with six points, but this was changed in 1841 when a new die was cast. This seal is now impressed upon the reverse of the United States one-dollar bill. The seal, designed by William Barton, contains an unfinished pyramid with a radiant eye, an image used by Hopkinson when he designed the continental $50 currency.[30][31]

See also


  2. Francis Hopkinson was born on September 21, 1737, according to the then-used Julian calendar. In 1752, however, Britain and all its colonies adopted the Gregorian calendar, which moved Hopkinson’s birthday 11 days to October 2, 1737. See George E. Hastings, The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1926), p. 43.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Hastings, George (1926). The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Francis Hopkinson at Find a Grave
  5. Charles Wells Moulton, ed. (1902). The Library of Literary Criticism of English and American Authors: 1785–1824. Buffalo, NY: The Moulton Publishing Company. p. 131.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Francis Hopkinson biography at the Library of Congress Performing Arts Digital Library; accessed 30 September 2015.
  7. Pennsylvania Center for the Book on Hopkinson and his writings
  8. "Seven Songs for the Harpsichord or Forte Piano". Early American Secular Music and its European Sources, 1589–1839. Retrieved 2009-05-05.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. Zall, Paul M. (1976). Comical Spirit of Seventy-Six: The Humor of Francis Hopkinson. San Marino, California: Huntington Library. p. 10.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Furlong, William Rea; McCandless, Byron (1981). So Proudly We Hail. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 101.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Williams Jr., Earl P. (October 2012). "Did Francis Hopkinson Design Two Flags?". NAVA News (216): 7.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. Williams, Jr., Earl P. (Spring 1988). "The 'Fancy Work' of Francis Hopkinson: Did He Design the Stars and Stripes?". Prologue: Quarterly of the National Archives. 20 (1): 48.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  13. transcript
  14. Buescher, John. "All Wrapped up in the Flag",, accessed August 21, 2011.
  15. Williams, Jr., Earl P. (June 14, 1996). "A Civil Servant Designed Our National Banner: The Unsung Legacy of Francis Hopkinson". The New Constellation (newsletter of the National Flag Foundation). Special Edition #7: 8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  16. Canby, George; Balderston, Lloyd (1909). The Evolution of the American Flag. Philadelphia: Ferris & Leach. p. 48.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  17. Williams (2012), pp. 7-9.
  18. Patterson, Richard S.; Dougall, Richardson (1978). The Eagle and the Shield: A History of the Great Seal of the United States. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. p. 37.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. Moeller, Henry W., Ph.D. (January 2002). "Two Early American Ensigns on the Pennsylvania State Arms". NAVA News (173): fn. 41 & 42.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Williams (2012), pp. 7–9.
  21. Williams (2012), p. 8.
  22. Patterson and Dougall, p. 9.
  23. Canby and Balderston, pp. 110–11.
  24. Cooper, Grace Rogers (1973). Thirteen-Star Flags: Keys to Identification. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press. p. 11.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. Leepson, Marc; DeMille, Nelson. Flag: An American Biography. St. Martin's Griffin. p. 33. ISBN 978-0-312-32309-7.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Joint Committee on Printing, U.S. Congress (2007). Our Flag (Rev. ed.109th Congress, 2nd Session ed.). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office. ISBN 978-0-16-076598-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  27. Williams (1988), p. 47.
  28. Williams (1988), p. 48.
  29. Journals of the Continental Congress – Friday, October 27, 1780
  31. Univ. of Notre Dame, Coin and Currency Collections
  • Francis Hopkinson holdings at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Online Public Access Catalog.
  • Mastai, Bolesław; Mastai, Marie-Louise d'Otrange. The Stars and the Stripes; the American flag as art and as history from the birth of the Republic to the present. New York, Knopf, 1973. ISBN 0-394-47217-9.CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Znamierowski, Alfred. The World Encyclopedia of Flags. Hermes House. ISBN 1-84309-042-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links

Legal offices
Preceded by
Newly created seat
Judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Pennsylvania
September 26, 1789 – May 9, 1791
Succeeded by
William Lewis