Our History: Declaration singer also known for his writings, musical pieces

By Joan Brown Wettingfeld

When I think of the talented and knowledgeable men who took on the task of planning and writing our Constitution, I never expected to learn that one of them was considered the first native composer for his composition “Seven Songs for the Harpsichord” and who also, as some believe, designed the first American flag.

Born in Philadelphia in 1737, Francis Hopkinson had an excellent education, as he was fortunate in becoming a member of the first class in the new College of Philadelphia in 1751. It is now the University of Pennsylvania.

He graduated in 1757 and received a master’s degree in 1760; in 1790 he became an honorary doctor of law.

Hopkinson had earlier served as secretary to the Provincial Council of the Pennsylvania Indian Commission in 1761, making treaties with the Delaware and Iroquois tribes. In 1763, he served as customs collector for Salem, N.J. Three years later he was to spend four months in England hoping to become a commissioner of customs from North America.

This position did not materialize, but he did make the acquaintance of the British prime minister and several other important men, including Benjamin West, the great American painter.

When Hopkinson returned home, he married Ann Borden. Later they would have five children. Hopkinson became a customs collector in Delaware and was admitted to the New Jersey bar in May 1775. Resigning his crown-appointed position in 1776, he was to become a representative in our Second Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Hopkinson left Congress in November 1776 to serve on the Navy Board of Philadelphia and in 1778 he became treasurer of the Continental Loan Office, moving on in 1779 to become judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania. He was also involved in the ratification of the Constitution.

President George Washington was to nominate him to the newly created position of judge of the U.S. District Court for Pennsylvania and after confirmation he received his commission Sept. 26, 1782.

As active and knowledgeable as Hopkinson was, he is remembered almost as much for his cultural contributions. At a time when Philadelphia and the colonies in general were not known for an interest in pursuing the arts, Hopkinson had a reputation as a songwriter and amateur author.

Some of his popular works and political satires, usually poems and pamphlets, helped arouse interest and the spirit that fostered the call for political independence during the American Revolution.

Later, many of his essays and writings were published in “Miscellaneus Essays and Occasional Writings,” a three-volume work published in Philadelphia in 1792. He also had a reputation as an amateur musician and had learned to play the harpsichord at 17, hand-copying songs and instrumental pieces of European composers.

Hopkinson became good enough to play with professionals and mastered the organ at Philadelphia’s Christ Church, composing his own hymns and psalms. An inventive mind led him to model a glass harmonica to be played with a keyboard, as well as another instrument that used the tone of metal balls called the bellarmonic. He also composed the first American opera, “Temple of Minerva,” in 1781.

Multifaceted in his talents, there is a claim that he designed the first official American flag. One argument is that many were involved in the design of our flag and that the flag resolution did not specify the stars’ arrangement, either in a square, rows, a wreath or the Betsy Ross circle.

The Hopkinson design featured six-pointed stars arranged in rows and one as in a circle.

Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian and freelance writer.

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