This Day in History: Francis Hopkinson, Signer of the Declaration & Designer of the Stars and Stripe
On this day in 1737, a signer of the Declaration of Independence is born in Philadelphia. This signer, Francis Hopkinson, made unique contributions to our country—but you won’t guess how!
Yes, he helped with certain tasks that you have perhaps become used to reading about in these posts. He held Royal appointments that he resigned early in the conflict with Great Britain. He became a member of the Continental Congress. He served on Philadelphia’s Navy Board. He worked toward ratification of the Constitution and later became a federal judge.
But he also made other, more unique contributions as our country struggled to get off the ground. He contributed art, poetry, and song to the cause. Sometimes, these artistic expressions ridiculed the British or promoted the colonial viewpoint. At other times, they simply buoyed the spirits of a nation that was trying to get through a difficult time.
His poem, “the Battle of the Kegs” spoke of David Bushnell’s invention of an underwater mine. That invention was used unsuccessfully in September 1777 (see September 7 history post), but with perhaps slightly more success in January 1778.
He wrote multiple toasts and songs to George Washington. He also wrote the “New Roof” as the nation contemplated whether to ratify the Constitution. In that song, a house is built with thirteen rafters in need of repair. A man and all his possessions sit vulnerable and exposed under the rafters, which will fall unless a new roof is built. Hint: the rafters are the states and the new roof is the Constitution.
His artistic talents were put to a more traditional use as well. Hopkinson may take some credit for the design of the Great Seal of the United States. He assisted the second committee that considered a design, and some of his ideas were used in the final seal. On another front, some have credited him with designing the first “Stars and Stripes.”
Has Hopkinson’s contribution to the flag been overshadowed by the Betsy Ross story?
Either way, these descriptions scratch the surface of Hopkinson’s influences on American art and music! Some consider him the first composer of an American opera or an American cantata. And he helped improve the quality of some musical instruments.
One classic work on music in America summarizes Hopkinson’s unique contributions: “Men like Jefferson, Franklin, and Hopkinson, in helping to create a nation that recognized man’s inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness, did not overlook the aid and comfort that music can give in this unceasing quest.”
Primary Sources & Further Reading:
Benson John Lossing, Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of American Independence (1866)
Charles A. Goodrich, Lives of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (1832)
Dennis Brindell Fradin, The Signers: The 56 Stories Behind the Declaration of Independence (2003)
Francis Hopkinson and the Constitution (Historical Society of Pennsylvania website)
Gilbert Chase, America’s Music: From Pilgrims to the Present (1955)
Penn Biographies: Francis Hopkinson (1737-1791) (Univ. of Pennsylvania, University Archives and Records Center)
Sanderson’s Biography of the Signers to the Declaration of Independence (Robert T. Conrad ed. 1865)