Date: December 2005
Byline: Richard R. Gideon
Book Review: Betsy Ross's Five Pointed Star
Elizabeth Claypoole, Quaker Flag Maker — A Historical Perspective
Published by Canmore Press
Copyright ©2004 by John Harker
Hardcover, 166 pages, including an index of 6 pages, 41 pages of notes, 2 pages of permissions, 2 pages of Genealogy notes, a Timeline of 16 pages, 31 pages of Appendix, 32 pages of Illustrations and Exhibits, and 6 pages of Bibliography
Reviewed by Richard R. Gideon
Back in 1992 Wall Street Journal staff reporter Valerie Reitman wrote a Flag Day feature article, published on June 12th, entitled "Tale of Betsy Ross, It Seems, Was Made Out of Whole Cloth." Ms. Reitman's article received prominent display on the paper's front page. I do not know what general reaction her article received, but I do know it managed to raise the blood pressure of John Balderston Harker, who as a great, great, great, grandson of Betsy Ross has more than just a passing interest in the subject.
For the few who may not be familiar with the Betsy Ross story, it all started with a talk given to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870 by Betsy's grandson, William J. Canby. In his presentation Canby explained how his grandmother, then known as Elizabeth Claypoole (Betsy's third marriage), was visited by a "committee" of three men of renown; George Ross, Robert Morris, and George Washington. They brought with them a design for a flag, and asked Betsy if she could make it. Betsy said she had never made a flag before, but being a seamstress thought she "could try," and then suggested some modifications in the design, including the use of five-pointed stars instead of the more European six-pointed stars in the original drawing. She also suggested that the flag's proportions be changed from square to rectangular. When the men remonstrated, saying a five-pointed star was more difficult to make, Betsy said she could make one with "one snip of the scissors," which she then went on to demonstrate to the delight of the men. Canby stated that his grandmother felt that the original flag design was Washington's. Unfortunately, Canby's research failed to turn up any documents that would support the thesis that Betsy's flag came into common use after the Declaration of Independence and before the passage of the Flag Resolution on June 14, 1777.
Ms. Reitman's 1992 article is not the first time the Betsy Ross story has been attacked; in 1908, William J. Campbell, the chairman of Philadelphia's Historic Sites Committee, authored a report which called the story "a fake of the first water." However, Betsy has had her share of supporters. On March 11, 2000, Emily Neilan, at the time a Graduate Student at Arizona State University, presented a paper entitled "The Story of Betsy Ross" at the ORIGINS OF THE AMERICAN FLAG symposium held by the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore, Maryland. In the handout material Ms. Neilan provided an abstract of her paper in which she stated, "The Betsy Ross story has undeservedly earned the reputation that it is undoubtedly false. Superficially this seems true; however, a closer look reveals the probability that the Philadelphia seamstress did sew the nation's first Starts and Stripes." During the question period Ms. Neilan was roundly attacked by some of the assembled "vexillologists," and one respondent left the young lady visibly shaken. (My wife commented later that she thought it unbecoming of such "highly educated" men to behave in such an undignified manner.)
In BETSY ROSS'S FIVE POINTED STAR, John Harker takes a new look at a very old subject, and in doing so has adduced some new information, and has reanalyzed some old information, in order to better grasp Betsy's role in the evolution of our nation's most recognizable symbol. In so doing Mr. Harker also takes aim at Francis Hopkinson's "fancywork," and suggests that while the famous signer of the Declaration of Independence undoubtedly designed a flag, there is no evidence to show his design was the one adopted in the famous June 14,1777 Flag Resolution.
Mr. Harker takes us back to the early days of the Republic, and reminds us that we must consider the time, language, and customs if we are to make any sense out of our flag's history. He points out that nobody in Betsy's family has ever claimed that she designed the American flag. In fact, if the date of the "committee's" visit is correct — late May or early June of 1776 — the concept of a flag for the nation United States of America would be absurd because there wasn't any such entity in existence at that time; it's hard to make a flag for a country that doesn't exist. Mr. Harker does suggest that Washington may have had a purpose for the flag, and that eventually an alternate design with the stars in lines, simpler to make, became the norm and was the basis of the 1794 flag of fifteen stars and stripes (it is interesting to note that the first flag approved by the Congress of the United States of America was the aforementioned flag of fifteen stars and stripes, on January 13, 1794). However, Mr. Harker adverts that 13 five-pointed stars and their arrangement in a circle was the overall design that was approved by the Marine Committee in their resolution of June 14th, 1777; a design that, according to family legend, was sketched by George Washington. Although there is no evidence in Washington's extant papers that he designed the flag it would not be out of character for him to have done so; he was known to have designed his own uniforms, amongst other things.
What makes BETSY ROSS'S FIVE POINTED STAR such a good read is the layout of evidence with respect to a very well put-together timeline. In terms of evidence, the reader is asked to consider the "Portrait of Betsy Ross (1752-1836)" painted by Samuel L. Waldo in 1832. If the Betsy Ross legend was an invention of her grandson in 1870, why would this well known New York artist take the time and trouble to seek her out in 1832 in order to paint her portrait? And since she was known at the time as Betsy Claypoole, why would the artist use her first married surname? Other oil paintings of Besty Ross are also adduced, all predating the famous 1893 Charles Weisgerber painting. One was made by an unknown artist in the 1831-1835 period, and featured Betsy with a flag in her lap; another is a composition of Ellie Wheeler made in 1851, featuring Betsy with the "committee" whilst she works on the stars and stripes. Then there is the oral history of Rebecca Prescott Sherman, the wife of Roger Sherman, who is said to have visited Betsy whilst she was working on the flag and had the honor of sewing on a couple of the stars herself. One of the more intriguing bits of evidence is the pattern for five-pointed stars found in a fireproof chest belonging to the Society of Free Quakers in Philadelphia — Betsy's home church. These are just some of the items of evidence Mr. Harker would have us consider.
The one thing that is lacking in Mr. Harker's book is a "smoking gun." Although there is a lot of circumstantial evidence, and much speculation, there is nothing concrete from the period that would say, definitively, that Betsy Ross made the first American Flag. In this regard Francis Hopkinson has a much better claim, in that he submitted a bill for doing that very thing. But wait; Mr. Harker counters that whilst Hopkinson does indeed submit a bill for services, he was asked to refine his accounts to better reflect his work, and when he did so he changed the name of the flag from "The Flag of the United States of America" to "The Naval Flag of the United States." It might also be noted that the Congress never did pay Hopkinson for his flag design, saying he wasn't the only one who contributed to the design of the nation's flag, and he was getting a high public salary as it was. In other words, the Hopkinson argument is just as circumstantial as the Ross argument. And, as Shakespeare would say, "Aye, there's the rub!"
After reading Mr. Harker's book (twice) I can honestly say that my own view of the Betsy Ross story has changed from "I don't believe it" to "more investigation is required." Unfortunately, given the temper of those times and the fact that flags were not a part of the public's consciousness (not to mention the lack of written evidence), it may be all but impossible to prove the Betsy Ross story as true. But "not proved" is not the same as "not true," and until more definitive evidence comes along to settle the issue Mr. Harker provides us with enough sworn testimonials and physical evidence to support his hypothesis, which is in his words, "I believe that the first flag had the stars in a circle, laid out by Washington in Betsy's parlor using Betsy's suggestion of five-pointed stars." Perhaps the issue is in the words "the first flag"; the first flag for what?
The bottom line is that BETSY ROSS'S FIVE POINTED STAR is a very valuable book and an interesting read; it give us a much better look into the life and time of Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole, and the exhibits and color plates are outstanding. But this book's ultimate value may be in forcing the recalcitrant flag historian to rethink his or her premises, and that alone is worth its price.
Advantages: A interesting book that brings to light a lot of evidence that is probably heretofore unknown to most people. Mr. Harker has arranged his evidence in both investigative and timeline formats, making it easy to follow his line of reasoning. There is much more in his book than this review has the time or space to adduce; well worth adding to one's personal library
Disadvantages: The book deals with "oral history" and "suppositions" in several places, which will not sit very well with flag historians. Academics will argue that some of the evidence calls for a conclusion without supporting documents
AVm rating: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
AVAILABILITY: The book was released in June, 2005 — may be ordered from Mr. Harker — firstname.lastname@example.org. Paperback is $20 + $5 S&H; Hardcover is $25 + 5$ S&H
Copyright © 1996-2013 by the Independence Hall Association