Francis Hopkinson

Francis Hopkinson, New Jersey (1737-1791)

Francis Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 21 September 1737 (o.s.), the eldest of the eight children born to Thomas Hopkinson and Mary Baldwin Johnson. His father died when the lad was only 14 years of age, but his Mother wanted to make sure he had the advantages of a good education, and saw to it that at age 16 he matriculated at the brand new College of Philadelphia [later to become the University of Pennsylvania] as a member of its first class, graduating with a B.A. Degree in 1757, and three years later, in 1760, was granted an M.A. Degree. Francis read law with Benjamin Chew, the Attorney-General for the Colony of Pennsylvania, and was admitted to the Bar in 1761.

Armed with an excellent education and a very wide range of interests, Francis Hopkinson, began working as a Secretary to the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania Indian Commission during which he helped to make treaties with the Delawares and several of the Iroquois tribes. His efforts as an attorney were not very productive, so he sought out and received a position as Customs Collector for Salem, New Jersey. He also tried his hand at a business venture, but that too did not yield the return he hoped for.

Seeking a more remunerative position, Hopkinson took ship for England in May 1766, with the hope of securing a situation as Customs Commissioner for North America. He tried using the patronage of the Prime Minister, Lord North, and his half brother, the Bishop of Worcester in this endeavor, but was unsuccessful; although these contacts gave him a much wider and broader view of world trading practices, politics, and the workings of Parliament. During his stay in London, he did meet and took some painting lessons from Benjamin West. Having exhausted his contacts in England for a position, he returned to America in August 1767.

Hopkinson was a multi-talented person: writing, painting, music, design, politics, law. As a young man he played the harpsichord and the organ; composed several pieces, and copied arias, songs, and instrumental pieces by several European composers. After his return to America, Hopkinson married Ann Borden, daughter of Colonel Joseph Borden and Elizabeth Rogers in Bordentown, New Jersey on 1 September 1768. They had a total of nine (9) children, four of whom died young, and five of whom married and had issue [See Volume 3, 2nd Edition, Part 1, of The Genealogical Register of the Descendants of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Picton Press, 2009, p. 198].

He obtained a public appointment as a Customs Collector for New Castle, Delaware on 1 May 1772. Moving to Bordentown in 1774, Hopkinson became an Assemblyman for the New Jersey Royal Provincial Council. He was admitted to the New Jersey Bar on 8 May 1775, resigned his crown appointed positions in 1776, and was elected to be a Delegate to represent New Jersey in the Second Continental Congress on 22 Jun 1776. He was present on 2 July 1776, and voted for the resolution of Richard Henry Lee, That these Colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent States…, participated in the debates regarding the language on 3 & 4 July 1776, and signed the Declaration on 2 August 1776. He left the Congress on 30 November 1776 to give more time to his law practice and to serve on the Navy Board in Philadelphia.

Hopkinson was a treasurer of the Continental Loan Office in 1778, appointed Judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania in 1779 and reappointed in 1780 & 1787. Strongly in favor of a united nation, he argued positively for the Articles of Confederation, urging those states with “western” claims of land to give them up to the Congress. Serving in the New Jersey Assembly, he helped to see that the Constitution of 1787 was ratified by Delaware [7 December 1787], Pennsylvania [12 December 1787], and New Jersey [18 December 1787], as he spoke and wrote to people in those areas that he knew. After George Washington was inaugurated in New York as the 1st President of the United States, Francis Hopkinson was appointed by him to be Judge of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, receiving his Commission on 26 September 1789.

The oeuvre of Hopkinson’s music, writings, and artistic contributions is quite large. He was a fine amateur musician and composer, writing a number of songs and ballads throughout the decade of the 1760’s. Many of his writings are found in Miscellaneous Essays and Occasional Writings, published in Philadelphia. He prepared a design for the flag of the United States in 1777, although his design was not used, it did provide some guidance to the makers of the flags that were used. Hopkinson also prepared seals for several of the early Federal entities in 1780: The Board of Admiralty, The Treasury Board for use with the Continental Currency, and served on the committee to prepare the Great Seal of the United States of America.

He continued to participate in community affairs, being the treasurer of the American Philosophical Society from 5 January 1781 to 12 January 1791. Serving as Judge of the United States District Court for Eastern Pennsylvania, from the time of his Commission in 1789, Francis Hopkinson died in Philadelphia on 9 May 1791. He is interred in the Churchyard of Christ Church, Philadelphia.

The Rev. Frederick Pyne, DSDI, 2011

Sources

  • Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
  • Robert G. Ferris, Signers of the Declaration, (U. S. Government Printing Office, Washington, DC, 1973), pp. 61-63.
  • George E. Hastings, The Life and Works of Francis Hopkinson, (Chicago, 1926)
  • L. Edward Purcell, Who Was Who in the American Revolution, (Facts on File, NY, 1993), pp. 234-235.
  • John A. Garraty, John A. & Mark C. Carnes, American National Biography, (Oxford University Press, NY, 1999), Vol. 11, pp. 190-192.
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4 Responses to Francis Hopkinson

  1. Marshall E. Johnson says:

    As a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Mr. Hopkinson would have had to make much communication, probably written, with other Founders of the United States, since he quit his position with the Crown when the USA was formed. Are these specific letters available in a library today? I see some of his manuscripts and letters in several historical societies, museums, but not those letters of communication with George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers around the year 1776. Who are his descendants today?

    • jim says:

      Marshall, good question. The Society does not collect papers or other personal items of the Signers. Also do not assume that even thought modern historians would love to get their hands on this kind of material, that such material is extant today. You bet bet on what is available is probably through New Jersey historical societies.

  2. Marshall E. Johnson says:

    RE: Francis Hopkinson, designer of US Flag, Continental $50 bill, etc., —in San Marino, California there is a private museum called the Huntington Library which has a collection of Mr. Hopkinson’s personal letters which they received in the 1920’s. However, in 1946 and 1948 his family gave a lot of family historical papers and information to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in Philadelphia which includes some of his personal letters. So I’m wondering, quantatatively, how much is in San Marino compared to the Penn. Historical Society? You have to have a doctorate degree to even apply to see the material at The Huntington and I don’t have one! Mr. Hopkinson was the first American song composer and was a long time friend and N.J. neighbor of Napoleon’s older brother, and knew many of the Founding Fathers of our country so his correspondence would be very enlightening. He had a house in Philadelphia and maintained a house and farm in Bordentown, New Jersey.

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