Design Education

Founding Fathers Stiff Flag Designer

As we celebrate Independence Day in the U.S., it seems fitting to give credit where credit is due to Francis Hopkinson, who substantial evidence shows designed the first American flag in 1777. Hopkinson, a New Jersey lawyer and signer of the Declaration of Independence, had a natural love of heraldry and art, and dabbled at graphic design (a profession that didn’t exist back then). During the American Revolution, Hopkinson was serving as chairman of the Navy Board’s Middle Department, when it got an urgent request to come up with an official banner of some sort that soldiers could carry into battle. At the time, the rebelling colonies were flying a flag that featured a variation of the British Union Jack in the canton surrounded on three sides with horizontal red and white stripes. (It looked like a knock-off of the British East India Company flag.)

Hopkinson’s design preserved the red-and-white stripes, but replaced the Union Jack with a blue field sprinkled with 13 white stars, “representing a new constellation.” On June 14, 1777, the Second Continental Congress passed the flag resolution adopting Hopkinson’s design as the flag for the new nation.

The story would have ended happily there, except that the Continental Congress refused to pay Hopkinson’s “invoice.” Although Hopkinson admitted that his design of the flag, a seal for the Admiralty and Treasury boards, and the Great Seal of the United States were “labours of fancy” done free of charge, he asked Congress for a token of gratitude in the form of a “quarter cask of the public wine,” about 28 gallons. Although Congress did not dispute Hopkinson’s contribution, it turned down his request, stating that he was not the only person consulted on the design and as a civil servant he had already received an adequate salary. To this day, few Americans know that Hopkinson designed the flag.

Adding insult to injury, in 1870, the grandson of a Philadelphia seamstress named Betsy Ross claimed that his aunt Clarissa told him that his late Grandma Betsy made the original American flag at the request of none other than George Washington. Betsy even convinced General Washington to jettison the 6-pointed stars for 5-pointed ones that could be cut more efficiently with fewer snips. The story of a lovely young widow struggling to make a living by taking in sewing had far more charm and human interest than that of a Congressional bureaucrat who did design on the side. The American public was quick to credit Betsy Ross for making the world’s most famous flag. To be fair, apparently, Betsy Ross did sew some flags around 1776, but she was a “production person,” not the “senior designer.” In 1952, the U.S. Postal Service ignored all that by issuing a commemorative stamp on Betsy’s 200th birthday. The stamp shows Betsy Ross unveiling her “circle star” flag to Washington, Benjamin Franklin and one other unrecognizable founding father. Ironically, Hopkinson never got his own stamp, nor recognition, nor payment for his design. Designers everywhere should light a sparkler in his honor.