Designs for Wine and Country

On May 25, 1780, Francis Hopkinson submitted a request for payment for certain “labours of fancy” to the Continental Marine Committee and Board of Admiralty with the following comments:

It is with great pleasure that I understand that my last Device of a Seal for the Board of Admiralty has met with your Honours’ Approbation. I have with great Readiness, upon several Occasions exerted my small Abilities in this Way for the public Service; &, as I flatter myself, to the Satisfaction of those I wish’d to please, viz

The Flag of the United States of America

7 Devices for the Continental Currency

A Seal for the Board of Treasury

Ornaments, Devices & Checks for the new Bills of Exchange in Spain & Holland

A Seal for the Ship Papers of the United States

A Seal for the Board of Admiralty

The Borders, Ornaments & Checks for the new Continental Currency now in the Press,—a Work of considerable Length

A great Seal for the United States of America, with a Reverse.—

For these Services I have as yet made no Charge, nor received any Recompense. I now submit to your Honour’s Consideration, whether a Quarter Cask of the public Wine will be a proper & a reasonable Reward for these Labours of Fancy and a suitable Encouragement to future Exertions of a like Nature.

His claim to have designed the American flag—which he sometimes referred to as the “Naval flag of the United States”—isn’t doubted by those who have studied the matter. (Even the US Postal Service, which tries hard to avoid stepping into unsettled historical debates, honored Hopkinson as “Father of the Stars and Stripes” on Flag Day 20 years ago.) One of his designs placed the stars in symmetrical rows, while another had them in a circle. True, they were six-pointed stars—probably taken from the family crest he brought back from a visit to England—not the five-pointed stars that were eventually used in the flag sewn by Betsy Ross. But that’s a pretty minor adjustment.

“Of all candidates, he is the most likely designer of the stars and stripes,” says Edward W. Richardson in Standards and Colors of the American Revolution, while A History of the United States Flag, published by the Smithsonian Institution, states: “The journals of the Continental Congress clearly show that [Hopkinson] designed the flag,” adding that the authors of that volume had “no question that he designed the flag of the United States.”

And even though his enemies blocked all attempts to have him paid for his services, “they never denied that he made the designs.”

Hopkinson never did get his quarter-cask of wine, even though it seems, from this vantage point, a pretty reasonable recompense for the time and graphic-design talent required—not to mention the enduring quality of some of the designs. The Commissioners of the Chamber of Accounts concluded that the charge was “reasonable and ought to be paid.” But he ran afoul of bureaucratic nitpicking and some personal animosity from his enemies in the Board of Treasury, who said that he had neglected to submit any vouchers supporting his requests. When he resubmitted the bill, this time for money ($7,200, which sounds like a lot but wasn’t, given the weak state of the dollar), the Board of Treasury again postponed the matter, sniping that he “was not the only person consulted on these exhibitions of fancy” and thus “wasn’t entitled to the full sum charged.” When he went to its offices in person, the door was literally slammed in his face.

Congress appointed a committee to investigate the quarrel and, when the Board of Treasury refused to appear before it, issued a report that lambasted the behavior of its secretary and two commissioners as “very reprehensible, extremely disgusting, and has destroyed all friendly communication of Counsels, and harmony in the execution of Public Affairs.” It recommended the dismissal of all three men, but that too got bogged down in bureaucratic torpor. All this while a war was going on. —S.H.


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