After Hours

Geek Trivia: Grand old snag

What payment did Francis Hopkinson request for the design of the first U.S. flag?

Editor's note: The Trivia Geek is taking a little time off to celebrate CNET Networks' 10th anniversary, so we've pulled this Classic Geek, which originally ran on June 30, 2004, from our archives to tide you over until next week. Look for a fresh batch of Geek Trivia on June 29, 2005.

Generations of American schoolchildren have heard the tale of Betsy Ross, "inventor" of the U.S. flag, only to face the adulthood disillusionment that, if anything, Ross was merely the seamstress—not the creator—of Old Glory. And she may not even have been responsible for that.

We can attribute the origin of Betsy Ross's legend to her grandson, William J. Canby, who recounted the story of his grandmother's creation of the first official American flag to the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870. But while some have sworn affidavits attesting the accuracy of Canby's account, no credible evidence can substantiate the claim.

Despite this lack of evidence, Charles H. Weisgerber's "The Birth of Our Nation's Flag" reinforced the notion of Betsy Ross as America's first flag maker. The painting depicts Ross devotedly sewing a 13-starred American flag in the presence of George Washington, a scene that likely never occurred in history.

While Ross was certainly an acquaintance of Washington, and there's significant evidence to suggest she sewed, but didn't design the first American flag, the flag itself in the painting is anachronistic. Weisgerber depicts the 13 stars arranged in a circle, a design that never appeared on any sanctioned flag until well after Ross's era—let alone the first version commissioned by Congress.

Nonetheless, "The Birth of Our Nation's Flag" found its way into American history textbooks for generations, cited as an example of historical fact, when such was never the case.

The person who most likely developed the flag that Betsy Ross may or may not have sewed was New Jersey Congressman Francis Hopkinson, credited in the journals of the Continental Congress as the designer of the flag. So why is there any doubt that he designed America's first sanctioned flag?

Hopkinson never received payment for his work, despite several efforts to the contrary. This denial of payment, if true, becomes even more outrageous when one realizes how little Hopkinson demanded in exchange for his efforts.


What price did N.J. Congressman Francis Hopkinson request for his design of the first U.S. flag, a payment he never received despite his listing in the journals of the Continental Congress as the flag's true designer?

In a 1780 letter to the Board of Admiralty, Hopkinson submitted a list of symbols and ornaments he claimed to have designed—including the U.S. flag and the Great Seal of the United States—and asked for "a quarter cask of the public wine" as compensation. The board denied his request, and so began a long, entangled battle between Hopkinson and the board for payment, which he never received.

Resolution finally came in 1781, when Congress demanded the Board of Admiralty act on Hopkinson's claim. The board responded by claiming it had consulted several sources on the design of the U.S. flag, but no one design was the entire basis for the final version. Thus, the board claimed, no one—Hopkinson included—deserved compensation.

The reasons why the board refused to pay Hopkinson aren't totally clear, but they seem to have been largely political in nature. Though Hopkinson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, records indicate he had many rivals in the early American government, which may have played a role in his denial of payment, however small the sum.

Ironically, this whole affair played out years after Congress passed the Flag Resolution of June 14, 1777, which stated that "the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation." The government would not decide either the dimensions of the flag or the arrangement of its stars until 1912, when President William Howard Taft signed an Executive Order setting out specifications for the flag's design, including six rows of eight stars with five points each, with one point of the stars facing upward.

Indeed, between 1795 and 1818, Congress required the U.S. flag to have 15, not 13, stripes—one for each state in the Union during that period. It was not until after 1818 that it adopted the "one star for each state" standard, and the flag thus returned to 13 stripes, one for each of the original American colonies.

That was the last Congressional Act passed pertaining to the flag's design. All other revisions have come from three Executive Orders.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the May 18 edition of Geek Trivia, "Episode 0: The Unseen Influence." TechRepublic member Chaz_C had a question about the prologue title for the original Star Wars.

"Some sites indicate that Star Wars was the theatrical title and A New Hope was added for the video release—so my question is this: Did A New Hope appear at the top of the prologue in the theatrical version?"

As always, the Wikipedia is there for me and you: "The designation of Episode IV: A New Hope comes from the heading of the introductory text of the opening title, but it appeared beginning with the 1981 re-release, in order to be consistent with The Empire Strikes Back (and the eventual sequels and prequels that followed since)."

This is because 20th Century Fox wouldn't allow these words in the screen crawl for the original release, fearing it would lead to confusion. Keep those quibbles coming!

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About Jay Garmon

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