Francis Hopkinson — Founding Father

October 2, 1737–May 9, 1791

Francis Hopkinson was a Founding Father from New Jersey. Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence and is widely credited for designing the American Flag.

Francis Hopkinson, Founding Father, Illustration, NYPL

Francis Hopkinson. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Who Was Francis Hopkinson?

Francis Hopkinson was a lawyer, judge, and politician from Pennsylvania who participated in the Second Continental Congress as a delegate from New Jersey.

Francis Hopkinson Facts

  • Born: Francis Hopkinson was born on October 2, 1737, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • Died: He died on May 9, 1791, in Philadelphia.
  • Buried: Hopkinson is buried at the Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
  • Fun Fact: Francis Hopkinson wrote a song called the “Battle of the Kegs” that made fun of General William Howe and was popular in the latter years of the American Revolutionary War.

Early Life and Education of Francis Hopkinson

Francis Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia in 1737 to Thomas and Mary Hopkinson. His mother was the daughter of the Bishop of Worcester, and his family was well-known in both England and Philadelphia. 

Hopkinson was the eldest son in a family of seven siblings. Unfortunately, his father passed away when he was just 14 years old, leaving his mother with the responsibility of raising the children. Mary Hopkinson made education a priority for her children and provided her son with a strong primary education. 

Hopkinson’s education continued at the academy established by Benjamin Franklin and other Philadelphia citizens, which became the College of Philadelphia — now the University of Pennsylvania. 

Hopkinson is notable for being the first student enrolled in the school, where, he showed intellectual prowess and interest in literature. After graduating in 1757, he further honed his literary skills and started composing verses for various occasions.

Legal Career and Trip to England

Following his college education, Hopkinson pursued legal studies under the guidance of Benjamin Chew, who was the Attorney-General of Pennsylvania. Hopkinson was admitted to the bar and started a legal practice in Philadelphia. 

In 1765, at the age of 28, he went to England to visit his mother’s uncle and experience the culture. He visited for 14 months, during which he interacted with prominent figures and even dined with the British Prime Minister, George Grenville.

Marriage to Ann Borden

After returning to America in 1768, Hopkinson married Ann Borden, a wealthy heiress from Bordentown, New Jersey.

Her father, Colonel Joseph Borden, represented New Jersey at the Stamp Act Congress in 1765.

Settling in New Jersey, he managed her estate and secured appointments as a collector of customs and as a Mandamus Councillor. 

Hopkinson and the Patriot Cause

Despite his official roles within the British colonial government, his sympathies aligned with the Patriot Cause. In 1774, he published a pointed political satire titled “A Pretty Story,” symbolizing his growing alignment with the revolutionary sentiment.

Francis Hopkinson Signs the Declaration of Independence

By 1776, the New Jersey Legislature imprisoned the royal governor, William Franklin, and Hopkinson was elected as a Delegate to the Continental Congress. He cast his vote for the Declaration of Independence on July 2 and later signed the document on August 2. 

Battle of the Kegs

During the war, he witnessed an incident in January 1778 that led him to write a song called “Battle of the Kegs.” Residents of Bordentown sent floating mines downriver toward Philadelphia, which were intended to damage and sink British ships. Although he plot failed, the British apparently spent many hours shooting at anything they saw in the water. Hopkinson and other Americans found the situation humorous.

Battle of the Kegs, 1778, Illustration, NYPL
This illustration depicts the Battle of the Kegs. Image Source: New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Designer of the American Flag

Many accounts also support the notion that he played a significant role in the design of the American flag, however, the claim is clouded by controversy.

In 1780, Hopkinson requested payment for the design of “the flag of the United States of America,” but was denied.

Despite the controversy, Hopkinson’s gravestone in Philadephia lists “Designer of the American Flag” as one of his accomplishments. Today, it is generally accepted by historians that Hopkinson did design the flag.

Later Years and Support for Federalists and the U.S. Constitution

After the American Revolution, Hopkinson continued his service to the nation by holding the position of judge of the admiralty in Pennsylvania for a decade. 

Hopkinson continued to use humor and satire to support the Federalist viewpoint through essays like “The New Roof” and “Objections to the Proposed Plan of a Federal Government for the United States, on Genuine Principles.”

Federal Circuit Court Judge

With the organization of the new federal government in 1789, President George Washington appointed him as a Federal Circuit Judge for eastern Pennsylvania. 

George Washington, Portrait, Stuart
George Washington. Image Source: Wikipedia.

Hopkinson presided over the first Federal Court to operate under the United States Constitution.

Death of Francis Hopkinson

Francis Hopkinson’s life came to an abrupt end in 1791 when he suffered a stroke at breakfast, passing away within hours.

Why was Francis Hopkinson important?

Francis Hopkinson is important to United States history due to his support of the Patriot Cause and his service in the Continental Congress, where he signed the Declaration of Independence. He is widely believed to have been responsible for the design of the American Flag. Because of his accomplishments, he is considered a Founding Father of the United States.

Biographical Sketch of Francis Hopkinson

This biography of Francis Hopkinson was written by historian Benson J. Losing. It was published in 1858 as part of Lossing’s Biographical Sketches of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Please note that section headings have been added and some text updates have been made in order to improve the readability of the text.

Birth and Early Years

Francis Hopkinson was bom of English parents, at Philadelphia, in the year 1737. 

His mother was the daughter of the Bishop of Worcester, and, like her husband, was well-educated and moved in the polite circles of England. They maintained the same standing in Philadelphia.

College of Philadelphia

Francis was only fourteen years old when his father died, and then the whole care of a large family of children devolved upon his mother, whose income was not very ample. She imparted to Francis his primary education until he was fitted for the College of Philadelphia, wherein he was placed. 

Graduation, England, and Marriage

On leaving that institution, he commenced the study of law and was admitted to practice in 1765. He went to England the same year for the purpose of visiting his relatives and improving his mind. He returned in 1768 and was soon after married to Ann Borden, of Bordentown, New Jersey.

New Jersey Government

Hopkinson was a poet and a wit, and a knowledge of his superior talents having reached the ears of the British ministers, he was appointed to a lucrative office in the State of New Jersey, soon after his marriage. This he held until his republican principles were too manifest, by both word and deed, for the minions of British power here to mistake, and he was deprived of his office. 

Elected to the Second Continental Congress

In the meanwhile, he had been growing rapidly in the esteem of the people of New Jersey, and in 1776 he was elected by them a delegate to the Second Continental Congress. He supported there, by his vote, the Declaration of Independence, and placed his signature on it.

Judicial Service

Hopkinson held the office of Loan Commissioner for a number of years; and on the death of his friend and colleague in Congress, George Ross, he was appointed Judge of Admiralty for the State of Pennsylvania. He held that office until 1790, when President Washington, properly appreciating his abilities, appointed him District Judge of the same State, which office he filled with singular fidelity.

A Quiet Founding Father

Hopkinson was one of those modest, quiet men, on whom the mantle of true genius so frequently falls. Although ardent in his patriotism and keenly alive to the events in the midst of which he was placed, yet he seldom engaged in debate, and his public life is not marked by those varied and striking features, so prominently displayed in the lives of many of his compatriots.

Hopkinson’s Death

For several years Judge Hopkinson was afflicted with gout in the head, which finally caused a fit of apoplexy that terminated his life in two hours after the attack, in May 1791. He was 53 years old at the time of his death. He left a widow and five children.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Francis Hopkinson — Founding Father
  • Date October 2, 1737–May 9, 1791
  • Author
  • Keywords Francis Hopkinson, Founding Father, Second Continental Congress, Federalist Party, Battle of the Kegs
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 18, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 10, 2024