To a twenty-first century political strategist, the summer of 1776 would seem like a foolish time to have voted for independence. Little had gone well so far and a large force of the British Navy and Army was assembling in New York’s harbor to launch a decisive attack on Washington’s ragtag army. Only an Act of God could have prevented Washington’s defeat – in fact, an Act of God did prevent defeat two months later.
New Jersey had not yet been in the fight. The significant military action so far had been in New England and Canada. While Thomas Jefferson was busy writing the Declaration of Independence in June, New Jersey was one of three colonies that had not yet authorized its delegates to vote for independence, largely because of internal discord between the patriots; the loyalists; and New Jersey’s Royal Governor, William Franklin, Ben Franklin’s son. Its five delegates to the Continental Congress also opposed secession. On June 21, the New Jersey Provincial Congress authorized secession, named five new delegates all in favor of secession, to the Continental Congress, and ordered the imprisonment of Loyalist Governor Franklin. Among those new delegates was Francis Hopkinson.
Hopkinson was born in Philadelphia in 1737. His father was a friend of Benjamin Franklin who helped young Francis pursue his college studies. Hopkinson graduated from the College of Philadelphia, after which he studied law and began his life in Colonial public service as Secretary of the Pennsylvania Provincial Council, where he negotiated treaties with native American tribes.
He then turned his public service focus to trade and became Collector of Customs in Salem, New Jersey in 1763. Customs agents in the American colonies were not always diligent in executing their assigned duties, resulting in a loss of revenue for London at a time when additional revenue was needed to pay for the costs of the French and Indian War. Wanting to expand his role in Customs, he spent 15 months in London during 1766 and 1767, hoping to be appointed one of five Commissioners of Customs for North America, posts created under the despised 1767 Townsend Acts which attempted to enhance customs enforcement in the colonies. Hopkinson failed in his attempt to be named a Commissioner, which was a good thing in the long run, given the soon-to-be enhanced collection efforts that would antagonize the colonists and, in short order, lead to war. However, during his stay in London, he learned much about British politics and politicians, including Lord North, which would soon prove valuable as the Revolutionary flames rose.
Hopkinson’s interests outside the law included music, writing, and art. From 1759 to 1766, he served as secretary of the Philadelphia Library. His poems and other writings inspired patriots during the Revolutionary War. He used those literary and artistic talents while serving on the Navy Board in 1780 to design the first American flag, a fact not discovered until well after Betsy Ross had gained fame for having created the original design. He later designed the Great Seal, among other devices.
Hopkinson returned from London to Philadelphia where he became a successful merchant in 1768 and married Ann Borden, daughter of a wealthy family that had founded Bordentown, New Jersey. During this time, he continued to pursue public service opportunities. Four years later, he relocated to Delaware to resume his public service role for one year as Collector of Customs.
At this time, Revolutionary fervor was accelerating in the colonies over customs fees and Hopkinson relinquished his role as Customs Collector when New Jersey Royal Governor, William Franklin, well aware of Hopkinson’s apparent loyalty to the British government and of his political connections in London, named him to the New Jersey Provincial Council, the upper house of the New Jersey Legislature, in 1773. Hopkinson then moved his family to his wife’s hometown of Bordentown, New Jersey where he once again entered the practice of law. During this time, he became disenchanted with the British government’s hostility to Americans’ rights and freedoms and joined the patriot cause, writing many patriotic pamphlets and satires, employing a common practice of using a variety of pseudonyms, that were widely circulated in the colonies.
Hopkinson took his seat as a New Jersey delegate to the Second Continental Congress on June 22, 1776. Soon after, Congress passed the Declaration of Independence. He remained a member of the Congress for only five months, leaving to serve on the Navy Board in Philadelphia. Later, Hopkinson was appointed treasurer of the Continental Loan Office in 1778, and judge of the Admiralty Court of Pennsylvania in 1779.
The British and Hessians pillaged and burned much of Bordentown, New Jersey during the war; Hopkinson’s home was spared burning because of his extensive library. The British then used the home as their headquarters during the town’s occupation.
Although Hopkinson was not a Delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he was a member of the Pennsylvania Convention that ratified the Constitution and Chairman of the Committee of Arrangement which organized the grand July 4, 1788 celebration in honor of the ratification of the Constitution, officially ratified on June 21. Today, it may be difficult to envision a parade that included members of 44 trades and professions in addition to the traditional military units and political luminaries.
Francis Hopkinson died in 1791 at the age of 53, young for a man with such a distinguished career. While the names of Hopkinson, Stockton, Clark, Hart, and Witherspoon are immortalized on the Declaration of Independence after less than a week of service on the Second Continental Congress, the names of the dismissed members, Sergent, DeHart, Smith, Cooper, and Livingston, who had the opportunity for immortality, tend toward being forgotten.
Ron Meier is a West Point graduate and Vietnam War veteran. He is a student of American history, with a focus on our nation’s founding principles and culture, the Revolutionary War, and the challenges facing America’s Constitutional Republic in the 20th and 21st centuries. Ron won Constituting America’s Senior Essay contest in 2014 and is author of Common Sense Rekindled: A Rejuvenation of the American Experiment, featured on Constituting America’s Recommended Reading List.
Podcast by Maureen Quinn.
New Jersey State Library: https://www.njstatelib.org/research_library/new_jersey_resources/highlights/american_revolution/
Hopkinson Biography: https://www.revolutionary-war.net/francis-hopkinson/
Ann Borden Hopkinson Biography: https://www.womenhistoryblog.com/2009/12/ann-borden-hopkinson.html
Hopkinson’s American Flag Design: https://blog.usaflagco.com/francis-hopkinson/
Miracle at Philadelphia by Catherine Drinker Bowen
Order of Procession: https://www.loc.gov/resource/bdsdcc.c1501/
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