Thursday, July 4, 2013

Betsy Ross

We all know the story of Betsy Ross from second grade. George Washington needed a symbol to bring his young nation together against the tyranny of the British, so he commissioned a seamstress in Philadelphia to create the first American flag, which she does successfully, and all the Patriots rally around the new flag to beat the British and create the best nation on Earth. Amurika! But what most people don't know is that this story didn't come about until nearly a hundred years after the War of Independence, and was told by Betsy's grandson with basically no proof or verified sources except through family tradition and word-of-mouth. Sounds rather suspicious, doesn't it? So who really is this Betsy Ross character? Is there any reason to believe that she really did create the first American flag? And if not, why have we been lied to by our teachers and textbooks all this time?  Miss Lewis, how could you?!  After all the apples we gave you!

Fig.1: I bet that's not even your real hair, 
you lying scoundrel!
First of all, "Betsy" isn't even her real name! She was born Elizabeth Griscom in 1752, one of seventeen children in a prominent Quaker family in Philadelphia (I don't care if "Betsy" is short for "Elizabeth," it still sounds fishy). She was taught to sew at a young age by her great-aunt, Sarah Griscom, which normally isn't pertinent information when writing a mini-biography on someone, but I guess if an individual's possible claim to fame is sewing something, then I should just throw that in there. (Don't worry, I won't be telling you where Genghis Khan learned to sew when I write a history on him, even though it's quite a fascinating story!) During the Revolution, she apparently used this skill to make uniforms and tents for the Continental Army, but with her dubious sewing history, I really need to see embroidery that says "This was stitched by Betsy Ross" in order to even believe that.

As for her personal life, Elizabeth Griscom might as well be called Elizabeth Taylor when it comes to how many marriages she had. First she eloped with an Episcopalian named John Ross in 1773, which caused quite a stir and convinced her Quaker family to disown her. John died as a militiaman in the war, but she quickly moved on from land to sea and wed a mariner, Joseph Ashburn, in 1777. Of course he was captured by the British, charged with treason, and died in jail. Not to be deterred, she married one of her old BFFs, John Claypoole, in 1783, and he had the decency to stay alive for another thirty-some years. Betsy kept up an upholstery business all this time (which given her shadiness, may have been a front for an illegal opium ring or something) until she retired in 1827, and passed away in 1836 at the age of 84.

Or did she?!

No, she did. It was quite sad.

Fig.2: Don't let the flag touch the ground, Betsy! 
Flag etiquette 101!
Anyway, no one had even heard of Betsy Ross outside the 19106 zip code until 1870. With the centennial of the United States upcoming, people were just eating up Revolutionary stories left and right. One of Betsy's grandchildren, William Canby, jumped on the bandwagon and presented the Historical Society of Pennsylvania with a long-winded paper that claimed that George Washington personally asked Grandma Betsy in early 1776 to put together a flag based on a congressional-approved design. According to the story, Betsy was quite humble, saying stuff like she never made a flag before "but she could try." But when Washington showed her the sketch of the design, she immediately tore into it, berating its color scheme and lack of symmetry, and inquiring, "Did doth five-year-old fingerpaint this monstrosity in ye ol' art class?" Betsy got to work right away, and presented the finished product to General Washington (fig.2), who was so excited he performed a backflip for the first and only time in his accomplished life.

So where did William Canby get this information that his grandmother put together the first American flag? One: from his probably-senile aunt who had passed before the publishing of his paper and just loved to tell stories of the good ol' days; and two: from a Miss Clarrissa Wilson, who took over the upholstery business after Betsy's retirement and sure didn't mind the publicity about how her shop created the original Stars and Stripes. Two primary sources that certainly would not be suitable for any respected academic institution or historical society in this day, hear you me! But with the centennial around the corner, people fell in love with the story that an ordinary, hard-working, and hopefully good-looking young lady was called upon to create the symbol of the young nation. And so the Betsy Ross story has become canon in American history ever since, just like other "completely factual" tales such as Columbus discovering America (others got there first), Pocahontas saving John Smith's life (didn't happen like that), Washington and the cherry tree (completely made up), and the state of Delaware (not actually a real place). Truth be told, we have no idea who made the first flag, but it's completely irresponsible for us historians (Canned or not) to give credit where no credit can be proven!

Fig.3: House of lies!!!
And yet the lie lives on, in the classrooms, in textbooks, on history specials, during small talk in the waiting room of the local chiropractor. Worst of all, there's a museum located at 239 Arch Street (as indicated by Canby's paper) calling itself the Betsy Ross house (fig.3), whose main purpose is promote her as the originator of the first flag. How can a historic institution be based on such a flimsy story, ask their employees to perpetuate it as if it's actual history, and then charge people $5 to become misguided and deceived ($2 extra if you want the audio guide to help do that as well). It's sickening! People there should be ashamed! If they want to dress up and act like they're in the 18th century, do something a little more noble, like become a brickmaker at Colonial Williamsburg or something! Sure, you may be doing the work of a slave or indentured servant there, but it's better than being a straight-up fibber!

The story of Betsy Ross demonstrates one of the major pitfalls of history. Just like Emperor Nero fiddling during Great Fire of Rome, if a story sounds good, it has the potential to overwrite what actually happened. Which is unfortunate, because if Betsy wasn't the real creator of the flag, then she's receiving the credit for someone else's hard work! What if a old woman named Lucille Fannybottom was the actual seamstress who sewed the first Old Glory? What if she had the rheumatism, and had a hard time sewing anything anymore, but somehow gathered up the strength in order to piece together the very first symbol of her young nation? What a uplifting story! But poor Mrs. Fannybottom never had her moment in the sun! Well, even if this Fannybottom lady never made a flag in her life, I'm going to perpetuate this story until it can overtake the Betsy Ross tale someday. Two can play at this game, William Canby! But I need some help; please spread the Fannybottom story everywhere you can! Even add to the tale to make it even more heartwarming and legendary (maybe in the comments below). With your help, we can erase the conniving Betsy Ross from history, and replace her with an even better flagmaker!

Fig.4: The Fannybottom Flag! Let it wave!

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