Came to Annapolis last week, he was met by...


July 02, 1992|By THEO LIPPMAN JR.

WHEN ROSS PEROT came to Annapolis last week, he was met by Uncle Sam and Betsy Ross.

They were pretenders, of course, but, then, the real Betsy Ross and Uncle Sam weren't really themselves, either.

There was a seamstress named Betsy Ross in Philadelphia at the time of the Revolution. But the character you know -- who sewed the first stars and stripes -- never existed.

The story is a familiar one.

George Washington comes to her and asks her to sew a national flag. She not only does it but she talks him out of his design, which was for six-pointed stars, into a design with five-pointed ones.

Now this story is so much a part of the fabric of American history that Philadelphia to this day maintains a Betsy Ross House (to the tune of $285,000 a year, which is one of only many reasons Philly is broke).

The house is not the house Betsy Ross lived in and the bones buried in her grave in the yard, which are not her bones, were put there in 1975.

How did Americans get conned? In the 1870s, Betsy Ross' then grown grandson told the world the story about George Washington and the five- and six-pointed stars, etc. His source for the story was grandma. He was 11 years old when she died. She used to tell him stories as he sat at her knee.

As novelist James Street once said, history learned at low joints is unreliable, but a gullible Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Daughters of the American Revolution swallowed this story whole, needle, thread and thimble.

Why? Some historians speculate that the increase in immigration into the country after the Civil War prompted "old line" Americans to begin adopting myths about the national origins.

vTC Uncle Sam as you know him today was also a creation of the post-Civil War period, more or less. The use of a personality named Uncle Sam to represent the nation actually began much earlier.

During the War of 1812, a New York City man named Elbert Anderson got a contract to supply rations to American troops in the area. The brothers Ebenezer and Samuel Wilson of Troy, N.Y., became his suppliers.

Samuel was generally known as Uncle Sam. The containers the food was shipped in were stamped "E.A.-U.S." That stood for Elbert Anderson and United States. But workers and soldiers were told the U.S. stood for Wilson -- Uncle Sam.

Before long, Uncle Sam personified the United States, and some political cartoonists portrayed the nation symbolically as a man in a starred-and-striped cloak at least in the 1830s.

During the Civil War, some cartoonists dressed Abraham Lincoln in patriotic attire, and after the war the Uncle Sam you know emerged -- tall, gaunt Lincoln face, white goatee, striped pants and a starred high hat.

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