Who Designed America’s Symbols?

(Excerpted from United Symbolism of America by Robert R. Hieronimus, Ph.D.)

Francis Hopkinson: America’s Unknown, Unpaid Artist

Maybe if Francis Hopkinson had draped a flag over his knee and posed for a painting of himself working on it, his name would be as popular today as that of Betsy Ross, and little children would dress up as him in the school pageants. As it was, Hopkinson was too aware of the fact that the Congress had more pressing issues of concern in the early days of the revolution than to pay the modest invoices of the graphic designers of the day. Several years later, in 1780, however, he did submit a petition for payment for his time and effort in conceiving of this and several other designs for the new country, wondering if a quarter cask of the public wine might not be sufficient remuneration. His petitions for payment were ultimately denied, but not before leaving a telling, and rather pitiful, paper trail that has convinced most flag historians that Hopkinson was the true designer of our first “Stars and Stripes.”

Many authors have read between the lines of the bureaucratic runaround Hopkinson was subjected to by the Board of Treasury, finding it noteworthy that in none of the denials of his petitions was there any dispute that Hopkinson had, in fact, designed the American flag. His contemporaries must have accepted that Francis Hopkinson designed the first American flag as described with the “New Constellation” in the canton. It appears he had an enemy on the Board of Treasury, however, and his invoices were repeatedly returned to him first requiring vouchers, then itemization, and then quibbling over the amounts in hard money vs. Continental currency. The itemization he provided allows for an interesting observation: he asked for only £9 for the design of the American flag, but he wanted £600 for the time he’d spent on the design of the Great Seal. Hopkinson had apparently spent a great deal of time and deliberation on his Great Seal work, probably working over different sketches or renderings of the committee’s ideas, and he valued this time at £600. Asking for only £9 for designing the American flag indicates to me that the idea to replace the Union Jack in the canton with the “New Constellation” of stars came to him rather quickly, in a burst of inspiration, rather than over a long course of laboring, sketching and re-sketching different drafts and changes. By this low figure, he may also have been acknowledging that other people had contributed to this design of the flag, namely the red and white stripes were already in use. It was this collaborative effort that the Board of Treasury ultimately used as their best excuse for why they declined his petition for reimbursement. Not only was the design not exclusively his idea, but also somehow the public was entitled to these extra services from men in public office. Most telling, however, is that no one disputed his assertion that he designed the first American flag. As Rear Admiral William Furlong and Commodore Byron McCandless concluded in their Smithsonian publication, So Proudly We Hail: “The journals of the Continental Congress clearly show that he designed the flag.”4

Francis Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a ratifier of the Constitution. He was a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and head of the Marine Committee which directed most naval matters during the war. He served as treasurer of the Continental Loan Office, judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania, and judge of U.S. District Court. He was an artist, musician, lawyer, and author. His popular songs, poems and pamphlets were compared at the time to the writings of Tom Paine. He was an avid “fancier” of official seals and emblems, and known to doodle them in his spare time. We know from Hopkinson’s library and his correspondence that he was familiar with heraldry and art. He collaborated with du Simitière on the design of the state seal of New Jersey, and is officially recognized as the single designer of the seals of the U.S. Navy and Treasury Department, and several pieces of Colonial paper currency. From his position on the Navy Board he would have been one of the first to hear of the confusion being caused by the presence of the Union Jack on the Continental Colors, and we can easily see Hopkinson in between his board meetings, doodling over ideas for how to replace it. His idea for white stars on a blue field equating this new country to a “New Constellation” was his way of showing the world that this upstart America would become something permanent. America would be like a new constellation appearing in the sky.