Who designed the first American flag?

Francis Hopkinson (September 21, 1737 – May 9, 1791)

Francis Hopkinson

Did you think Betsy Ross? No, the designer of the first official American flag was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Francis Hopkinson.

Francis was born in Philadelphia, to Thomas Hopkinson and Mary Baldwin Johnson. His lineage went back to the court of Charles II. Thomas emigrated to America, settling in Philadelphia. Thomas became an intimate friend of Benjamin Franklin. He even suggested some improvements to Franklin’s scientific experiments, which proved to be correct.

Francis learned a lot from his father, especially his great Christian faith, but sadly, his father died when Francis was only fourteen. He’d received a basic education by that point, and his mother was determined to see that his education continued, recognizing his genius in many areas. She used her inheritance, compromising where necessary, to make sure that Francis went to England to complete his education. On his return, she helped him secure a good marriage, to Ann Borden, whose father owned a stage and ferry company from Philadephia to New York City. Nancy, as Ann liked to be called, was a handsome, vivacious girl, well-educated for the times and highly accomplished. She and her sister Maria, who married Thomas McKean, also a signer and afterward Governor of Pennsylvania, were said to have been the most beautiful women of New Jersey. She seems to have been admirably fitted to be the life companion of the brilliant young lawyer who was both poet and musician as well as a man of affairs. She was twenty-one when they married, he was thirty-one.

While in England, he got to know the future Lord North and became an advocate of independence for the colonies.

“He penetrated the depths of science with case, and with grave and important truths stored his capacious mind. But he by no means neglected the lighter accomplishments. In music and poetry he excelled, and had some knowledge of painting. Few men were more distinguished for their humor and satire. “


Following his return to America, he received an appointment as a royal Collector of Customs. He soon felt that he could not continue this office in good conscience, and resigned. Francis practiced law, and was appointed an associate justice of the New Jersey court, but declined the position. He wrote a number of popular satires against the British. In 1776, he was elected to the Second Continental Congress. With his close association with Franklin, Francis’s support of the Declaration of Independence was never in doubt. He signed the engrossed copy with the rest of the delegates.

Francis was then appointed Justice of the Court in Pennsylvania, and following the ratification of the Constitution, he became one of Pennsylvania’s first federal judges. He continued in this position until his untimely death.

 “Sometime during the revolutionary war, Bordentown, the place where Mr. Hopkinson and family resided, was suddenly invaded by a party of Hessians. The family had hardly time, to escape before the invaders began the plunder of the house. After the evacuation of Philadelphia, by the British, a volume, which had been taken from the library of Mr. Hopkinson, at the above period, fell into his hands. On a blank leaf, the officer, who took the book, had written in German an acknowledgment of the theft, declaring that although be believed Mr. Hopkinson to be an obstinate rebel, the books, and philosophical apparatus of his library were sufficient evidence, that he was a learned man. “


Part of Francis’s legacy is his satirical writings – plays, letters, articles – which served to keep the populace of Pennsylvania stirred up against the British. When General “Gentleman Johnny” Burgoyne of the British Army threatened America and issued a proclamation addressing the rebels as errant children, Francis penned the following tongue in cheek letter to him. It’s an eloquent “go stuff it” letter, thanking him for his desire to “restore the rights” of his fellow Englishmen, by force:

To John Burgoyne, esq. lieutenant-general of his majesty’s armies in America; colonel of the queen’s regiment of light dragoons; governor of Fort-William in North-Britain; one of the representatives of the commons of Great-Britain; and commanding an army and fleet employed on an expedi|tion from Canada, &c. &c. &c.

Most high! most mighty! most puissant [having great power], and sublime lieutenant-general! WHEN the forces under your command arrived at Quebec, in order to act in concert and upon a common principle with the numerous fleets and armies which already display in every quarter of America, the justice and mercy of your king; we the reptiles of America, were seized with unusual trepidation and confounded with dismay. But what words can express the plenitude of our horror when the colonel of the queen’s regiment of light dragoons advanced towards Ticonderoga. The mountains trembled before thee, and the trees of the forest bowed their lofty heads: the vast lakes of the west were chilled at thy presence, and the stupendous cataract of Niagara bellowed at thy approach.—Judge then, oh! ineffable governor of Fort-William in North-Britain! what must have been the consternation, terror, and despair of us miserable Americans, whilst in your irresistible advances you laid all waste with fire and sword, more fully to display the justice and mercy of your king. Dark and dreary was the prospect before us, till, like the sun in the east, your most generous, most sublime, and inimitable proclamation shed abroad the cheering rays of protection and mercy, and shone upon the only path that could lead us from the pit of annihilation. WE foolishly thought, ignorant as we were, that your gracious master’s fleet and armies were come to destroy us and subdue our country; but we are most happy in hearing from you—and who can doubt what one of the representatives of the commons of Great-Britain asserts? that they were called forth for the sole purpose of restoring the rights of the constitution to a froward and stubborn generation. AND is it for this, oh, sublime lieutenant-general of his majesty’s armies in America! that you have left the commons of Great-Britain to shift for themselves, and crossed the wide Atlantic; and shall we most ungratefully decline the profered blessing? To restore the rights of the constitution, you have collected an amiable host of savages, and turned them loose to scalp our wives and children, and to desolate our country. This they have ac|tually performed with their usual skill and clemen|cy; and we yet remain insensible of the benefit— we yet remain unthankful for such unparalleled goodness. OUR congress hath declared independence— and our assemblies, as your sublimity justly ob|serves, have most wickedly imprisoned some of the avowed friends of that power with which we are at war. If we continue thus obstinate and ungrate|ful, what can we expect, but that you should in your wrath give a stretch to the Indian forces under your direction, amounting to thousands, to overtake and destroy us; or which is still more terrible, that you should withdraw your fleet and armies, and leave us to our own misery; without completing the benevolent task, of restoring to us the rights of the constitution.

WE submit—we submit—most puissant colonel of the queen’s regiment of light dragoons, and governor of Fort-William in North-Britain! We humbly offer our heads to the tomahawk, and our bellies to the bayonet—For who can resist the power of your eloquence? Who can withstand the terror of your arms?

THE invitation you have given, in the consciousness of Christianity, your royal master’s clemency, and the honour of soldiership, we thankfully accept. The blood of the slain—the cries of violated virginity, and slaughtered infants—the never-ceasing groans of our starving brethren now languishing in the jails and prison-ships of New-York call upon us in vain, whilst your sublime proclamation is sounding in our ears. Forgive us, oh, our country! Forgive us, dear posterity! Forgive us, all ye nations of the world, who are watching our conduct in this important struggle for the liberty and happiness of unborn millions, if we yield implicitly to the fascinating eloquence of one of the representatives of the commons of Great-Britain.

BEHOLD our wives and daughters, our flocks and herds, our goods and chattels, are they not at the mercy of our lord the king, and of his lieutenant-general, member of the house of commons, and governor of Fort-William in North-Britain, &c. &c. &c.

Cum multis aliis. Saratoga, July 1777.


Burgoyne’s proclamation: https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/evans/N18777.0001.001/1:13?rgn=div1;view=fulltext

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