Francis Hopkinson was born to an elite, well-off family. He graduated in the first class of the College of Philadelphia (which later became the University of Pennsylvania) in 1757.Soon after earning his A.B. in 1757, Hopkinson published a number of verses criticizing the work of John Beveridge, a former professor, titled, “Errata or the Art of Printing Incorrectly,” and “The Grammarians: or Scoto and the Doctor, a new Ballad.” Later, he apprenticed under Benjamin Chew, who later was Chief Justice of Pennsylvania. Hopkinson set up his own practice in 1761. Hopkinson then spent two years studying under his mother’s relative, the Bishop of Worcester, in London, before returning to the colonies with a lucrative royal appointment as the collector of customs for Salem, New Jersey, in 1763. He added New Castle, Delaware, to his responsibilities in 1772. In 1774, Hopkinson’s revolutionary sentiments caused him to resign his post and return to private legal practice in Bordentown, New Jersey. A talented musician, Hopkinson composed many pieces over his lifetime, including “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” (1759)—the earliest surviving non-religious song composed in the American colonies.In 1774, he was appointed to the governor’s council in New Jersey. However, Hopkinson would soon join those who supported American independence. As the American Revolution raged, Hopkinson returned to serve in the colony of his birth in 1777, first on the Navy Board at Philadelphia, then as treasurer of the Continental Loan Office in 1778 and finally with a seat on the Admiralty court in Pennsylvania in 1779. He joined Pennsylvania’s ratification convention in 1787, and served on the bench of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania from 1789 until his death.Hopkinson represented New Jersey at the Continental Congress in 1776, and was one of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. During the Revolutionary War, he served on the Navy Board at Philadelphia, as treasurer of the Continental Loan Office and as a judge for the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania. Hopkinson also demonstrated his support for independence with songs like “The Battle of the Kegs,” a popular Revolutionary War ballad that mocked the panicked British reaction when powder-filled barrels floated by their ships on the Delaware River, and “A Pretty Story,” which is a skeptical examination of the relationship between Great Britain and the coloniesAfter the fight for independence had been won, a Constitutional Convention was held in 1787 in order to create a stronger governing document for the new country. Some opposed a more powerful central government, but Hopkinson actively supported the new Constitution and argued in favor of the its ratification. He also wrote “The New Roof,” an allegory that detailed why a new government (roof) was needed to protect its citizens. In the end, the new Constitution was adopted.Though evidence shows that Hopkinson worked on the design of the U.S. flag, Congress turned down his request for “a quarter cask of the public wine” as payment for its creation. There is no definitive answer about who was responsible for the placement and style of the flag’s stars, but Hopkinson’s other design work, which includes contributing to the design of the Great Seal of the United States, lends credence to his bid for credit.
In 1789, George Washington nominated Hopkinson as a U.S. district judge for eastern Pennsylvania—a position that Hopkinson would hold until his death on May 9, 1791, at the age of 53. He died very suddenly of a massive epileptic seizure. He left behind a widow and five children.
Hopkinson’s lifetime output included inventions, musical compositions and writing that ranged from satire to serious essays. Most importantly, having signed the Declaration of Independence, worked on the U.S. flag and supported ratification of the Constitution, his contributions to the United States live on to this day.
According to Signing Their Lives Away (Denise Kiernan and Joseph D’Agnest, 2009, Quirk Books, pp. 89-91), “No sketches of Hopkinson’s flag design exist, but we do have the original description, which called for thirteen red and white alternating stripes and thirteen white stars on a field of blue. In Hopkinson’s original design, the stars were six-pointed and arranged in row.“The staggered arrangement of stars proved to be somewhat controversial. Look closely at the stars, and you’ll see that they easily form crosses and diagonals. To the eyes of early Americans, this was comfortably similar to the design of Great Britain’s flag. “So the stars on Hopkinson’s flag were configured into a circle, which banished the similarity to the British flag and also suggested that no one colony or state was greater than an of the others. Of course, this version looks remarkably similar to the one supposedly sewn by Betsy Ross.” Resources: Biography On This Day University of Pennsylvania Archives and Record CenterU.S. FlagU. S. History