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Hopkinson Flag Design

You might have learned in school (or in a childhood song) that Betsy Ross designed the first American flag, but the truth is, so many years after the fact, we cannot be entirely certain who designed the original stars and stripes with 13 stars. However, there is a strong argument with documentation that a man named Francis Hopkinson created the flag, and his story is quite interesting.

Francis Hopkinson was a popular patriot, a lawyer, a Congressman from New Jersey, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a poet, artist, and distinguished civil servant.

In a letter to the Board of Admiralty in 1780, three years after the flag was officially adopted, 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. His design was unique in that the stars had 6 points and were arranged in an offset pattern. 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.

This letter was referred to the Board of Treasury. Soon after, Hopkinson sent a detailed bill to the auditor general, James Milligan. From there it was sent to the commissioners of the Chamber of Accounts, who agreed that the charges were reasonable and should be paid. Milligan took that report and gave it to the Board of Treasury. The board now objected, saying no vouchers were included with the bill. Hopkinson submitted a new copy that itemized each charge only to have it rejected again, even after Milligan once again asked for its approval. The bill went through another round of referrals through the departments, then was filed away and forgotten for more than 2 months.

Hopkinson decided he was tired of waiting and wrote to the secretary of the Board of Treasury, Charles Lee. He accused Lee of lying about receiving his itemized bill and for delaying his payment. Lee did not resolve the matter, so Hopkinson took it to Congress. Congress appointed a committee to investigate. When called in, only the men from the Board of Treasury neglected to show up. So, the committee recommended that the current Treasury Board be relieved of duty.

More investigation followed, and this time the Board of Treasury arrived, but they tried to tell the committee just how they should run their investigation. From that, the committee recommended the Treasury be run by just one person, but at the same time, failed to regard 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 Hopkinson’s chief opponents on the board of Treasury resigned the same day.

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.