Running from Betsy Ross

It’s inevitable.  Whenever anyone thinks of Flag Day, the first image that comes to mind is Betsy Ross, looking demure in her little white cap and sewing those white stars onto the blue field of the flag. 

For the last four years, I’ve been writing a history of the American flag: one that does not include Betsy Ross. And I’ve been haunted by the Revolutionary widow who keeps intruding on my topic.

My grandmother sent me articles on Betsy.  I stood by the mailbox, holding a sheaf of Xeroxed pages from American History magazine, and shook my head.  There she was, as depicted in the artist’s imagination, a beautiful woman with the flag on her knee.

When I told people that I was writing about the flag, the first question was almost always, “So did Betsy Ross actually sew the first one?”  That’s not what I’m interested in, I’d explain.  I’m writing about the veterans who took over the Statue of Liberty, about Revolutionary sailors digging tunnels out of British prisons, about civil rights in Mississippi in 1963.

I thought I was safe in Harvard’s massive library.  This was a place to do serious research, in a dimly lit wooden carel surrounded by millions of scholarly tomes.  But when I opened a book on nationalism, the first thing I saw was Betsy sitting opposite three august gentlemen – George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross – with a beam of sunlight streaming through the window onto the flag in her lap.  It was a replica of a 19th-century painting, “The Birth of our Nation’s Flag,” which the article deftly analyzed using an impressive range of literary jargon.

In the Journal of American History, I found my favorite article about Betsy, written by a college history professor who was interested in the persistence of national myths. He decided to do an experiment.  On the first day of his American history survey class, he asked students to quickly jot down the names of five historical figures.  Betsy always popped up first.  For an entire semester, the class learned about the real figures and events that had shaped American history, and on the last day, the professor tried the same experiment, curious about how the course had changed their internal sense of American history.  Not much, it turned out.  There she was again: Betsy.

I’ve come to have a funny relationship with Betsy Ross.  I like her, partly for her persistence and partly for what we don’t know about her.  The real Betsy is back in time there somewhere, a woman who shares the fate of so many long-ago women, flattened by popular perception into someone less interesting than who she was.  Her mythic status has not done her any favors, nor has it done history any favors.  It substitutes a cartoon Betsy in place of the flawed and opinionated human being that she inevitably was.

In fact, the significance of her story is not in whether she sewed the first flag or not, but why her myth persists.  She is, intriguingly, a founding mother: a nod to half the nation’s population, a woman to counterbalance all those Revolutionary men.  And she is also an explanation, post facto, for the immense power of the flag in our national life.  The fact that her myth arose in the late 19th century, simultaneous with the flag as a symbol, is telling.  Her story is a determinedly apolitical one, available to all Americans regardless of their convictions.

The real history of the flag could not be more different.  It is rich and messy and complex, filled with passionate men and women who used the symbol to articulate their most cherished ideals and brilliant operatives who co-opted it for partisan gain.  It is a deeply political history, one that shows Americans fighting tooth and nail over the meaning of their national legacy.  It is history that matters: to those in the past, and to us today.  It is, I think, the kind of history most worth telling.

And that’s why, with a nod to the real woman under that white cap, I am running from Betsy Ross.

Woden Teachout is the author of "Capture the Flag: A Political History of American Patriotism."

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