May 9, 1791 — Today marks the death of Francis Hopkinson, an American author, attorney, and one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — whom scholars believe designed the first American flag. He died suddenly of a massive epileptic seizure in his hometown of Philadelphia, PA. He was 53.
Born on September 21, 1737 to an elite family in Philadelphia, Hopkinson was an attorney who spent two years studying under his mother’s relative, the bishop of Worcester, in London. He returned to the colonies in 1763 with a lucrative royal appointment as the collector of customs for Salem, New Jersey.
He added New Castle, Delaware, to his responsibilities in 1772. In 1774, Hopkinson’s revolutionary sentiments caused him to resign his post and return to private legal practice in Bordentown, New Jersey. He was elected as one of New Jersey’s delegates to the Continental Congress in 1776 and soon after signed his name to the Declaration of Independence.
Words of Wisdom
The design of the first Stars and Stripes by Hopkinson had the 13 stars arranged in a staggered pattern technically known as quincuncial because it is based on the repetition of a motif of five units.
This arrangement inevitably results in a strongly diagonal effect. In a flag of 13 stars, this placement produced the unmistakable outline of the crosses of St. George and of St. Andrew, as used together on the British flag. Whether this similarity was intentional or accidental, it may explain why the plainer fashion of placing the stars in three parallel rows was preferred by many Americans over the quincuncial style.