Founding Fathers Friday: Francis Hopkinson
by Derrick G. Jeter
The revolutionary generation produced a number of eccentric and Renaissance-like men. The most famous were Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. But a man from New Jersey may have shone brighter than these two luminaries if his star had risen higher in the sky during and after the founding of America.
Francis Hopkinson was a man with a scholar’s mind, but an artist’s soul. The brainy said drew him to the mastery of law, mathematics, chemistry, physics, and mechanics. The soulful side produced a musician (including an inventor of musical instruments), a composer, an artist, a designer, and an author. When his friend Ben Franklin wanted a piano, Hopkinson built one for him. And if Franklin needed someone to play it, well Hopkinson could do that to. He could also play the harpsichord and the organ. Besides his virtuoso on the keyboards he also wrote music, composing the earliest surviving secular song in America. A little ditty titled “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free.”
As an author, Hopkinson was, in the words of an early biography, “a poet and wit.” But, as this biographer noted,
His pen was not distinguished for depth, but there was a genuine humor in his productions, which made him widely popular. A majority of his poetical effusions were of an ephemeral nature, and were forgotten, in degree, with the occasion which called them forth; yet a few have been preserved, among which may be mentioned “The Battle of the Kegs,” a ballad, or sort of epic, of inimitable humor.
What Hopkinson is known for these day, however, is not the use of his pen as a composer of ditties or even as a signer of the Declaration of Independence, but for putting ink to paper as a designer . . . of the first American flag. We might say that Hopkinson is the Father of the Stars-and-Strips.
Apologies to all school children who were taught that Betsy Ross designed the first flag while sitting in her parlor conferring with George Washington. It’s very doubtful that General Washington, in the middle of a war, had enough time (or interest for that matter) to meet with a Philadelphia seamstresses to design a flag. In addition to that, there simply is no proof that Betsy was the Mother of the Stars-and-Stripes—though she very well may have sown some flags for the patriot cause. She might also have “invented” the five-pointed star, claiming, as the story goes, that she could cut them out with one snip of her scissors—something that couldn’t be done with a six-pointed star, which appeared on Hopkinson’s flag.
Unfortunately, Hopkinson’s original flag is lost to history, but we do know what it looked like because he wrote down the design. The flag was composed of thirteen red and white alternating stripes and thirteen white stars set on a field of blue. The stars were six-pointed and arranged in rows, like this:
The arrangement of the stars was a bit controversial because they resemble the cross and diagonal strips of England’s Union Jack. Eventually the stars of Hopkinson’s flag were configured into a circle and the six points gave way to Betsy’s five points, creating what is popularly (though erroneously) known as the “Betsy Ross Flag.”
After Hopkinson designed the flag he sent a bill to Congress. He though a sufficient payment would be “a Quarter cask of the Public Wine.” Congress refused to pay. At the time, Hopkinson was an employee of the Treasury, and Congress informed him that as an employee of the government such things were already included in his paycheck. Hopkinson continued to resubmit his bill, but finally gave up after a year and resigned his position in the Treasury.
Besides designing the first American flag, Hopkinson also designed various agency seals for the fledgling government, like the Treasury seal, the Board of Admiralty (governing board for the Navy), designs for the naval flag, and for the U.S. currency. He was also on one of the committees commissioned to design the Great Seal of the United States of America—the one with the eagle flying behind a star encrusted and striped shield, gripping in his talons an olive branch and thirteen arrows. Three different committees worked on the seal. Hopkinson’s team contributed the shield, the olive branch and thirteen arrows, and the six-pointed stars above the eagle’s head.
During the war Hopkinson didn’t exactly come out unscathed. In December 1776 Hessian soldiers ransacked his home. After the war, he received a package containing a book that had been taken from his library. Someone scrawled on the bookplate that the books in his library proved that he was a learned man and deserved to get his property back.
Learned he was. But the man from New Jersey is little known today, though all of us are familiar with the undeniable symbol of the United States of America—the Stars-and-Stripes. Francis Hopkinson was a Renaissance man and a patriot, and the plaque that graces his grave is a fitting and lasting tribute to this great man: “Designer of the American Flag.