Crafting a legend

The well-known story of Betsy Ross' alleged creation of the first American flag has been questioned -- and may not be as interesting as the story of Ross' life.

July 04, 1999|By Delia M. Rios

PHILADELPHIA -- Many a schoolchild can recite the story of Betsy Ross. .....It is a story as simple and evoc-ative as any good fable, impressing upon generations of Americans a collective memory of the humble seamstress in her demure white cap, the first Stars and Stripes unfurled over her lap.

Yet that might be the least interesting part of her tale.

What's more, no one can say with certainty that Betsy Ross made the first flag. Or that there was a first flag. That's the kind of story this is. As one historical consultant has put it, "These are complex as well as vexed matters."

To suggest that her story is more legend than historical fact is to trifle with the mythology of the American Revolution and, in no small part, with the affections of Americans.

But that is exactly the question that has been debated very nearly since her grandson first went public with the family story in the 1870s. The country was in a patriotic fervor then, preparing to celebrate the centennial of the Declaration of Independence. Betsy Ross fulfilled a certain yearning. As historian Sandy Mackenzie Lloyd pointed out, she is the only woman placed in our memory alongside the Founding Fathers.

It is always possible that indisputable evidence will surface. But, lacking that, a compelling, real woman can be found just beneath the sanitized surface. A patriot who lost two husbands to the Revolutionary War. A businesswoman who trained at least one of her seven daughters to carry on the family flag-making business. A Quaker who defied the pacifism of her religion to support the Revolution. A woman who lived and worked in wartime Philadelphia, and who offers a glimpse into the lives of ordinary Americans caught up in those great events.

How her story came to be told reveals something about how Americans remember their history.

"I think the fascinating aspect of the family story is the conscious effort that [the] grandson makes just before the centennial to bring the family story into a national focus, to say, 'My family is everybody's family,'" said Karie Diethorn, chief curator at Independence National Historical Park in Philadelphia.

It says something, too, about how much credence we give to historical voices when little or no evidence exists to corroborate their stories.

"This really is a dual story," said Lloyd, who has served as a consultant to the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. "It's a story of the real Betsy Ross and the story of the story.

"And it's worth telling."

The key to both is the parallel story of the American flag.

"So much love, patriotism and sacrifice are symbolized in the flag that it is hard for present-day Americans to realize that it did not have some dramatic moment of birth," wrote Roger Butterfield in a history of the American flag. Debate this summer over a constitutional amendment to ban flag desecration proves again how powerful a symbol the Stars and Stripes has become to us.

Congressional action

The Continental Congress was consumed by the business of war, and not just against any foe but against the greatest power on Earth. The earliest record of congressional action on an American flag was brief and was not mentioned in the press for weeks. The flag's design was recorded on June 14, 1777, now celebrated as Flag Day. That's the year the British Army occupied Philadelphia, where Congress was meeting.

Congress ordered that "the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."

A recognizable flag might have been more critical for American ships than for foot soldiers, so that the ships did not attack one another. At any rate, there appears to have been no hurry to get the flags to the battlefield. "Congress failed to supply [George] Washington's army with official Stars and Stripes flags until 1783, when all the big battles were over," according to "The History of the United States Flag: From the Revolution to the Present."

"Meanwhile," the authors wrote, "the American army and navy fought under a confused array of local, state and homemade flags adorned with pine and palmetto trees, rattlesnakes, eagles, red, blue and yellow stripes, blue and gold stars, and other variations."

The powerful symbolism of the flag, as we know it, did not begin to take hold until the 19th century. It inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner" during the War of 1812 and served as a unifying force after the Civil War ended in 1865. Just 11 years later, the centennial was celebrated.

That brings us to the Betsy Ross legend.

The need exists, Nona Martin believes, to find a repository for our history. Americans have transferred their love of the flag to Betsy Ross and, by extension, to the house in Philadelphia that has been marked as hers since the 19th century.

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