The Story of Betsy Ross

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It makes for a charming story, one that many of us read in grade school. Back in May of 1776, on a swelteringly hot day in Philadelphia, three distinguished men walked purposefully along the cobblestones toward a small house on Arch Street. Just a few days before, these men had been appointed to a special task by the fledgling U.S. Congress, and they were now carrying out their commission.

The first of these men was Robert Morris, a wealthy businessman who was helping to finance the American Revolution. The second was General George Washington, the man responsible for winning the war that Morris was funding. The third man was Colonel George Ross, a relative of the person who lived in that small building on Arch Street.

When they arrived at the house, they noted that it also served as an upholstery shop for the woman who owned it— a twenty-four-year-old seamstress named Betsy Ross. Betsy had been widowed just the year before, so she was eager for any work. When Ross answered the men's knock, she smiled in greeting, recognizing her relative George Ross and George Washington, for whose family she had previously done some sewing.

The three men politely removed their broad-brimmed hats as she led them into her sunlit parlor with its six-over-nine paned window. After exchanging pleasantries, the men stated their business—they asked her to sew the flag for the new nation. "I've never made a flag before," she is said to have answered, "but I'll certainly try." They then showed her a rough sketch of the Stars and Stripes, featuring six-pointed stars laid upon the blue field. She pointed out that it would be less trouble to use a five-pointed star. When Washington voiced his doubts, she took a sheet of paper, folded it seven times, and then made one cut with her scissors. When she unfolded the paper, a perfectly cut five-point star lay in her hand. The demonstration served to reassure the men that the work on the symbol of their nation was in good hands. Once the flag was completed, George Washington was said to be so pleased with her handiwork that he exhibited the flag to all in Congress. It's a wonderful story that people remember as one of the facts about our flag. But not everyone thinks this quaint scenario actually occurred. As the old saying goes, "Consider the source."

The first public rendition of the Betsy Ross story seems to have originated with Betsy's grandson, William J. Canby. In March of 1870, when he was forty-five years old, Canby read this account before the Pennsylvania Historical Society. He claimed that the story had been passed down through his family over the years.

Once a story like this catches on, nothing can stop it—not even the truth. Harper's Monthly featured it in its July 1873 issue; by the 1880s school textbooks were including it as historical fact. Thousands of people who attended the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago gathered to view a painting by Charles H. Weisgerber titled The Birth of Our Nation's Flag—it depicted the young Betsy Ross, hard at work at her sewing. As much as this story remains embedded in the memories of most Americans, some historians doubt that it ever took place. They point out that the 1776 meeting with Betsy Ross was said to have occurred a full year prior to the date in 1777 when Congress resolved to create a national flag; therefore, where would the need be to talk to the young seamstress? Also, an exhaustive search of the Journal of the Congress turns up absolutely no mention of an assignment given to any of the three men in question. There are even some who suggest that Canby created the story out of whole cloth, simply to add some glamour to his rather pedestrian roots.

The Betsy-Ross-story believers—and there are many of them—fire back with persuasive arguments of their own. They point to sworn affidavits by Betsy's daughter and other descendants that support Canby's story. As to the absence of any congressional record of such a flag committee, the pro-Betsy faction claims that the Journal of the Congress was notoriously unreliable. Committees were being formed all the time and some of those were considered "secret." "Also," they argue, "why would Congress keep any record of three men simply meeting with a young seamstress to have a flag sewn?"

The "Anti-Betsy Group," as they're referred to by sworn Ross believers, ask why Congress would plan to replace the Grand Union flag, first flown in January of 1776, only six months later? Betsy supporters claim that Congress was dismayed by the reaction of the British to the Grand Union flag with the Union Jack in the canton—therefore, they were in a hurry to get a new flag produced. To support this argument they cite a 1784 painting by Charles Willson Peale entitled Washington at the Battle of Princeton. In this painting of a battle that took place in January of 1777, five months before the congressional flag resolution, Peale portrayed the American flag with a circle of thirteen white stars against a field of blue. This proves that Ross sewed the flag, argue her supporters somewhat disingenuously, because it shows that the Grand Union flag had ceased being carried before the resolution in June of that year. Of course, as the example of Mel Gibson's The Patriot showed, the media should not be relied upon as the final word in any historical debate—but Ross supporters correctly point out that Peale was noted for his fanatical devotion to historical accuracy in his paintings.

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