You knew it was coming. It’s almost the 4th, and I have a hard on about the founders. Yeah, this is about freakin’ Betsy Ross and that stupid flag myth.
The story goes that George Washington, the Father of Our Country, went to Ross and asked her to make the nation’s new flag. Ross, a gifted seamstress, took up her sturdy needle and crafted the first of our beloved Stars and Stripes. This tale is recounted in children’s books and included in elementary school social studies lessons. Ross has been dubbed the Mother of Our Country, a female counterpart to the venerable Washington. You can tour Ross’s home in Pennsylvania (which may or may not be the actual house she lived in) and buy “Betsy Ross flags” (which are probably made in Taiwan or Honduras or some other foreign locale now).
Ross was the name of her first husband, who died in the Revolutionary War — as did her second. Ross later married a third time. (Yet, you know her only as Ross.) She was an upholsterer, actually, and was successful at that business — as well as in real estate. Her first two husbands were absent and the third was disabled in the war, so she was the major breadwinner for her family all her life. She did contract to make flags for the Pennsylvania navy (yeah, this was before centralized federal government); however, there is no documentary or contemporary testimonial evidence that she was involved in designing or making the first U.S. flag. That story was started by her grandson and family members after the Civil War. They spread the myth and turned her home into a civic tourist destination. For a fee, you can tour the house and imagine her as the humble housewife she was not, sewing the first flag by firelight with all the care due that momentous occasion. On your way out, you can purchase patriotic tokens in the gift shop.
Professional historians — to their credit — have largely repudiated this founding myth, but popular feel-good patriotism sustains support among the public. Regular citizens still buy books about Ross and make the pilgrimage to her home. The Betsy Ross House now notes that the story is a legend — and then proceeds to promote the lovely tale anyway. When they say “legend has it,” you are supposed to imagine back in time through the booming of Revolutionary cannons, billowing white smoke, and lilting fife, visualizing a delegation of founding fathers on a noble mission — perhaps in the secret of night — knocking at Betsy’s door (please, use her familiar nickname) to beseech her aid in giving her needy young nation a symbol to believe in. Perhaps the angels sang. Perhaps Daniel Day-Lewis emerged from the fog with flowing hair, promising to return for the flag when word was sent to him — wherever he might be.
This feel-good story is popular because it gives us warm-fuzzies about our country and, again, our founders. It suits the emotional boosterism that passes for patriotism in our country. Love of country has no appeal to reason here. People cling to the story because it is what we want to believe, regardless of its veracity. We must have a mother, and female soldiers or activists of the Revolution (of whom we do have evidence) will not do. We need someone more nurturing and passive to fit that bill. So, the ideal of “Betsy Ross” is shoved down our throats — despite the fact that it is not an accurate depiction of that woman, female Revolutionaries, or the role of women in our country, even in that time. Her name was Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, bitch, and she was not some icon to abuse.