Francis Hopkinson was a popular patriot, a lawyer, a Congressman from New Jersey, a
signer of the Declaration of Independence, poet, artist, and distinguished civil servant.
He almost certainly was the person who designed the first Stars and Stripes.
He was appointed to the Continental Navy Board on November 6,1776. It was while serving
on the Continental Navy Board that he turned his attention to designing the flag of the
United States. The use of stars in that design is believed to have been the result of
an experience in the war directly related to his prioperty.
A book in Hopkinsons library at his home in Bordentown was taken by a Hessian soldier in
December 1776, a dark year of the war. The book, Discourses on Public Occasions in
America (London, 1762) by William Smith,D.D., had been a gift to him by the author. The soldier, one I. Ewald, wrote on the inside cover that he had seen the author near Philadelphia and that he, Ewald, had taken the book from a fine country seat near Philadelphia. The book was
subsequently given to someone in Philadelphia who returned it to Hopkinson. The soldier
had written above and below Hopkinson's bookplate, which had three six pointed stars and his
family motto, "Semper Paratus", or "Always Ready". The safe return of the book may
well have symbolized to Hopkinson the revival of the Americans hope.
In a letter to the Board of Admiralty in 1780 Hopkinson asserted that he had designed
"the flag of the United States of America" as well as several ornaments, devices, and
checks appearing on bills of exchange, ship papers, the seals of the boards of Admiralty and
Treasury, and the Great Seal of the United States. Hopkinson had received nothing for this
work, and now he submitted a bill and asked "whether a Quarter Cask of the public wine"
would not be a reasonable and proper reward for his labors.
The Board forwarded the letter to Congress, which referred it to the Board of Treasury.
Apparently acting on a request from Congress, Hopkinson sent a detailed bill on June 6th, and
it was sent to the auditor general, James Milligan. He sent it to the commissioners of the
Chamber of Accounts, who replied six days later on June 12th that they were of the opinion that
the charges were reasonable and ought to be paid. Milligan gave the report a favorable
endorsement and passed it on to the Board of Treasury. The board now raised objections and
returned the bill to the auditor general on the grounds that no vouchers were included
with the bill. Hopkinson now submitted a new copy of his bill and itemized each charge
and it was rejected once again, and the auditor asked once more for its favorable consideration. After another round of referal through the departments, the board filed the correspondence and did nothing for two and half months.
Fed up with the delay, Hopkinson wrote to Charles Lee, the secretary of the Board of Treasury, accusing him of lying about having received the amended bill and delaying the settlement of his claim. Lee failed to satisfy Hopkinson, and the latter sent to Congress a list of charges against the board.
Just as in our modern times, Congress appointed a committee to investigate the matter.
The various government officers concerned with the claim appeared before the committee
at its request. Only the men of the Board of Treasury ignored the summons. In its report to
Congress, the committee recommended that the present board be dismissed.
Congress sent the report back to the committee for further consideration and another
investigation and another report followed. In its second report the committee noted that
this time the members of the Board of Treasury answered the summons, but frequently
tried to dictate the way in which the investigation should be made. The committee felt that
the Treasury should be directed by a single individual responsible to Congress, but made no
recommendation in regard to Hopkinson's claim. The matter remained unsettled until
August 23rd,1781, when Congress passed a resolution asking that the claim be acted on.
Meanwhile, Hopkinson had grown weary of the controversy and on July 23rd, 1781, he resigned
his office as Treasurer of Loans. One of Hopkinsons chief opponents on the board of Treasury
resigned the same day.
Between the first and second report of the committee the Board of Treasury gave its own
report to Congress on the history of the Hopkinson claim. Aside from the lack of vouchers,
the members of the board knew that "Hopkinson was not the only person consulted" on the
matter of designs and therefore could not rightly claim the whole amount, and in addition,
the board felt that the public was entitled to these extra services from men who drew
Though Hopkinson's political adversaries blocked all attempts to have him paid for his
services, they never denied that he made the designs. The journals of the Continental
Congress clearly show that he designed the flag.
The design of the first Stars and Stripes by Hopkinson had the thirteen stars arranged
in a "staggered" pattern technically known as quincuncial because it is based on the
repetition of a motif of five units. This arrangment inevitably results in a strongly
diagonal effect. In a flag of thirteen stars, this placement produced the unmistakable
outline of the crosses of St. George and of St. Andrew, as used together on the British
flag. Whether this similarity was intentional or accidental, it may explain why the plainer
fashion of placing the stars in three paralell rows was preferred by many Americans over
the quincuncial style.
Embassy of the United States of America