“What now is their pride?” a member of the British Parliament demanded of Benjamin Franklin in a 1766 investigation. Amidst the conflict with her American colonies over taxes, Parliament searched for any sign of loyalty from her wayward children. This questioner wanted to hear that Americans were proud of her mother England, from wearing her fashions to obeying her laws to buying her tea.
We don’t know if Franklin was under oath, but he chose to be truthful, albeit cheeky. “To wear their old clothes over again till they can make new ones,” he replied. Americans took pride in their Yankee ingenuity, to the point of preferring their old clothes instead of bolstering England’s textile industry. Many Americans had stopped eating lamb so they could have more wool to make their own clothing.
What is the pride of Americans today? The answer is still found in fabric, as varied as the printed T-shirts hanging in our closets. Our cotton blends boast of sports, slogans, and schools. We take pride in our children, commerce, communities, and churches. There are as many sources of pride for Americans as there are stars in the sky. But the most tangible example of national pride is still found in a cloth, whether polyester or nylon. If one icon has united Americans since the Revolutionary War, it’s Old Glory, which consistently tops the lists as the premier symbol of the United States.
June 14 marks our flag’s 231st birthday. It was a birth with no complications. The Continental Congress simply passed a resolution creating the first flag. “That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white: that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation,” they proclaimed on June 14, 1777.
What is complicated is the story behind the seamstress. Although it is certain Betsy Ross worked as an upholsterer in Philadelphia, her role in sewing the first American flag is supported by swearing, not her signature. Her grandchildren ultimately used an affidavit to sew the final stitches in her legacy.
“While there is no doubt that the real Betsy Ross was worthy of interest in her own right, it is the legend of Betsy sewing the first stars and stripes that has made her an unforgettable historical figure,” proclaims historians at the Betsy Ross House (www.betsyrosshouse.org).
“The Betsy Ross story was brought to public attention in 1870 by her grandson, William Canby, in a speech he made to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Canby and other members of Betsy’s family signed sworn affidavits stating that they heard the story of the making of the first flag from Betsy’s own mouth,” the Ross site continues.
This oral history goes like this. George Washington, Robert Morris, and George Ross visited Ross at her upholstery shop. They asked if she could make a flag from a sketch someone had drawn. Ross’s family members communicated what happened next in their sworn testimonies.
“Washington asked if Betsy could make a flag from the design. Betsy responded, ‘I do not know, but I will try.'” She may have changed the design from six-pointed stars to five-pointed stars.
Unfortunately, neither Ross nor Washington left a record of the appointment. No correspondence or letter with either of their signatures exists to prove the story. A few facts make it plausible and likely. George Ross, one of the flag’s committee members, was the uncle of Ross’s deceased husband. Betsy Ross was also paid a large sum of money from the Pennsylvania State Navy Board for making flags in May 1777, a month before the Continental Congress’ flag resolution. Ross made flags throughout her life. Perhaps the best proof is in the affidavit. Ross’s family members were either glory seekers or truth tellers. Taking an oath is a serious gesture, a commitment of truth. They put their integrity on the line to show their pride in their grandmother and the freedom the flag represents.
Fortunately we don’t have to take an oath to show our patriotism today. Flag Day makes it simple. All we have to do is hoist Old Glory up on a pole, wear a pin on a lapel, or don a cotton blend bearing the banner. We have much to be proud of as Americans, including patriots like Betsy Ross and her family members who swore on her sewn pride.
Jane Hampton Cook is the author of Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War, a 365-day digest with personal writings from about 20 key players in the Revolutionary War. She is a former webmaster to President George W. Bush and resides in Vienna, Virginia.