Betsy Ross and the American Flag

Historic Analysis

Betsy Ross is regarded by many as a character befitting a fable — that the tale of her making the first flag is no more than an instructive parable.

Modern-day parsers of the past suggest that several 19th-century authors and enthusiasts of American history were overanxious to champion the story of Betsy Ross brought to public attention by her grandson, William Canby, in a speech before the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870. That the story of the patriots of the Revolutionary Era required a deserving female role model. That magazines, textbooks, and artists uncritically have echoed the contrivance of a man who was an 11-year-old boy when his grandmother died. Some historians dismiss Canby's testimony and assertions entirely, viewing the absense of any written record of the flag's creation as more persuasive than an oral history

The testimony of Betsy Ross's daughter and other family members recount Betsy's story, and historically no other evidence has ever emerged to contradict that testimony or otherwise cast doubt on its veracity. Evaluating the circumstantial evidence also supports her story, including the paper star found in a safe in the 20th century. In April 2009, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission officially recognized Betsy Ross's contributions with a historic marker in front of her house, stating, "Credited with making the first stars and stripes flag, Ross was a successful upholsterer. She produced flags for the government for over 50 years. As a skilled artisan, Ross represents the many women who supported their families during the Revolution and early Republic."

The true story of Betsy's involvement with the American flag remains unclear and it's likely that it always will. The evidence is not definitive and conclusive, but it is persuasive. Curious minds are encouraged to look at primary sources, examine evidence firsthand, and draw their own conclusions, not just with regard to Betsy and the flag, but with all contentious subjects.

Primary Sources

This page comprises four sections.

The first is how Betsy Ross's deeds were brought to the public's attention.
The second part is set up as a point-counterpoint with arguments and rebuttals.
The third sets forth points in support of Betsy Ross having sewn the first flag.
The fourth shows printed examples of how her story is being told by widely distributed sources, followed by our comments.

Part 1: Betsy's Deeds Are Made Public

In March 1870, in anticipation of America's Centennial, William Canby, a grandson of Betsy Ross, made public the story of Washington's visit to the flagmaker. In a paper given to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, the justifiably proud grandson related to the world his grandmother's deeds.

Since Canby was a mere lad of 11 when Betsy passed on in 1836, he relied on his own recollections as well as those of other relatives. For the record, three affidavits were sworn to, one by a daughter of Betsy Ross, one by a granddaughter, and one by a niece. These statements communicate in clear detail that Betsy Ross often told them the heroic saga of the birth of the American flag.

Canby's paper recounts a meeting between a secret Congressional Committee and the widowed seamstress. The committee of Robert Morris and George Ross was accompanied by George Washington. The meeting resulted in the creation of the first American flag. Betsy contributed by suggesting a 5-pointed star, rather than the 6-pointed star recommended by Washington.

After Canby's lecture, the story of Betsy and the flag took root in the hearts of Americans. Harper's Monthly retold the story in a July 1873 issue. In the 1880s, the story began to appear in textbooks. Charles Weisgerber's painting "Birth of Our Nation's Flag" (a detail of which is displayed on the homepage) was exhibited with admiration at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Part 2: Point-Counterpoint

Can Canby be trusted?
The question is rather, "Can Betsy Ross herself be trusted?"

Some have suggested that Canby invented the story out of whole cloth to bring himself fame. Others suggest that an 11-year-old boy's memory of Grandma's stories cannot be trusted. The sworn testimony of Betsy's daughter and other descendants, as well as Canby's own memory make very clear that the source of the stories are Betsy Ross's own words. Did Betsy, a known flagmaker, embellish the truth by saying she made the first one?

There is no receipt for the first flag.
Only one receipt exists for any of the flags Ross made. In the records of the Pennsylvania Archives, a minute from the Board of War meeting of May 29, 1777, reads in part, "An Order on William Webb to Elizabeth Ross, for fourteen pounds, twelve shillings, two pence for making ships colours & put into William Richards' stores." This document proves that Betsy Ross was certainly a flagmaker. That she didn't always make receipts for her flags or other work is known. Further, Canby remembers his grandmother saying that some flags she made came back to her for mending years after the war.
Francis Hopkinson deserves credit for creating the first flag. He submitted an invoice for, among many other items, "the design of 'the flag of the United States of America'" to the Board of Admiralty in 1780 (covering the few years prior to his submission of the invoice).
"Hopkinson flag"
Francis Hopkinson, a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was an important contributing member of the Revolutionary cause and a creative light deserving great credit for all his achievements. He was a member of the Marine Committee, which attended to most matters involving the Navy.

In a letter submitted to the Board of Admiralty in 1780, Hopkinson sought payment for his design of "the flag of the United States of America" as well as several ornaments, devices, and checks appearing on bills of exchange, ship papers, the seals of the boards of Admiralty and Treasury, and the Great Seal of the United States. The invoice was rejected because it lacked vouchers. On resubmitting his invoices, he changed the reference from "the flag of the United States of America" to now state, "The Great Naval Flag of the United States." There is no historical record of what his flag looked like.

The price he affixed to his design was one of the higher ones among those in the voucher, indicating a far more intricate and complex design than the relatively simple American flag. It would seem that Hopkinson's flag was not our Stars and Stripes.

Looking at the number of points on the stars, we note that Hopkinson, at that time, designed with 6-pointed stars. Hopkinson's family coat of arms contained 6-pointed stars. Washington's Commander-In-Chief flag had 6-pointed white stars in a blue field. Hopkinson's work, before and after 1776, favored the 6-pointed star. 5-pointed stars don't appear in Hopkinson's designs until years later. It's unlikely that he would use 6-pointed stars, suddenly switch to a 5-pointed star for exactly one flag, then continue designing with 6-pointed stars for years before finally switching to the 5-pointed star for his later designs.

Apart from the voucher, which unlikely refers to the flag with 5-pointed stars in a circular pattern, or any relatively simple stars and stripes design, there is absolutely no evidence in support of his designing the flag.

For those who are curious, though it is irrelevant to this discussion, Hopkinson's entire set of invoices was rejected.

There is no contemporary reference in any known letter, newspaper, or diary that refers to the original flag. Neither Betsy Ross, the members of the committee, Washington, Congressmen, nor soldiers, speak to the first flag.
Flags were of undeniable importance for identification of troops and ships. They were not yet the symbols of American unity and identity they would later become. A war was being fought and other affairs were undoubtedly more pressing. Betsy did not keep a diary. Washington, a prodigious letter writer and chronicler, wrote of the need for new flags and how flags boosted morale. On occasion, contemporary diary entries did speak to flags, but not with regularity. Newspapers did not even record the Flag Resolution itself until two months after it was enacted in June 1777. It shouldn't be forgotten that the war effort wasn't going particularly well when the flag was made — the balance of a new nation was at stake. Most people at the time would have simply considered the Ross flag just one out of many banners flying at the time.
There are no records in Congress speaking of a flag committee.
It is true that there are no records in Congress speaking to a "flag committee." Historians seeking the truth of the Betsy Ross story have searched through the published proceedings of the Journals of Congress and the minutes of the Continental Congress and found no mention of a flag group. However, one finds in those minutes many irregularities. Committees were being formed at a rate of six in a day at times. Some committees were "secret." In the minutes, reports of some committees were noted, but the content omitted; for others, the work of committees is reported without a traceable record of them having ever been formed. What importance would there have been to George Washington, along with a committee of two taking an hour to go a few blocks to have an upholsterer and flag-maker they were already familiar with sew a new flag design?
There are no records in Congress speaking of a flag debate.
With General Washington and a committee of two on a mission to have a flag sewn to their new design, it's unlikely there'd be a single word of debate about it.
Congress did not adopt an official flag until June 1777, a full year after Betsy claimed to have made the flag.
The first flag resolution was passed on June 14, 1777 {"Resolved. That the flag of the united states be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the Union be 13 stars white in a blue field representing a new constellation"}. The lack of specificity in the Flag Resolution suggests that it was making official a flag that was already recognized as the de facto national flag.
If Betsy sewed it, where is the original flag?
Very few flags from that time still exist. A few regimental flags still exist as do some naval flags. Many flags were destroyed in battle. Others may have sunk in ships which carried them. Others were captured in battle. Many simply tattered and were lost to the ravages of time.
Why would the familiar Grand Union flag, first used by Washington as commander of the reorganized Continental Army starting in January 1776, be replaced just 6 months later?
At the siege of Boston, on January 1, 1776, the Grand Union Flag that was hoisted by the Continentals was mistaken as a token of surrender. The Grand Union flag contains the British Union Jack in the corner where the stars are today. According to the Annual Register of 1776, the Continentals were so dismayed by the Loyalists' reaction to the Grand Union Flag that they recognized a need for a new banner. On February 20, Washington issued an order for distinctive regimental uniforms and flags.
Was Washington even in Philadelphia at the time of the supposed meeting?
Congressional records and Washington's own letters place him in Philadelphia from late May to early June of 1776.
It's dubious that Washington and members of so distinguished a committee would have left Congress to call on a lowly upholsterer.
The design of a new flag was important to Washington. It's quite conceivable that George Ross knowing of the hard circumstances of his young relative, suggested Betsy. Washington and Robert Morris both prayed at Christ Church with Betsy Ross, so would be familiar with her. She would be a very likely choice for the sewing of the flag.

Part 3: Points in Support of Betsy

In addition to the family testimony, there are fascinating if inconclusive arguments in favor of Betsy sewing the first flag.

POINT: The Artistic Argument

    One of the arguments used against Betsy Ross is the timeline. The following show that her Stars and Stripes was in use on the battlefield well before the flag resolution of June 14, 1777.

    Colonel John Trumbull and Captain Charles Willson Peale were artists who fought under George Washington. Today they are both acknowledged as preeminent artists of their day.

    Peale led a group of foot soldiers at the Battle of Princeton under the great General. The battle took place on January 3, 1777, five months before the flag resolution — the first historically acknowledged reference to the Stars and Stripes. "Washington at the Battle of Princeton" was a series of paintings Peale executed between 1778 and 1781. In one of them, the viewer can see the left side of a flag containing a blue field with a circle of 13 white stars, as well as a number of captured Hessian flags which are at Washington's feet. Peale cared greatly about accuracy in his paintings and specifically had the Hessian flags brought to his studio to be painted. Some historians dismiss the American flag in this painting as anachronistic — a claim we find unbelievable and inexplicable in light of the care for accuracy Peale is known to have shown, according to Peale's biographers. That painting can be seen today at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. Another painting depicting the Battle of Princeton, done for Princeton University (and still on display there), again shows the Stars and Stripes, as well as Washington's Headquarters flag, on the battlefield.

    Trumbull became an aide to Washington and served at both the Battle of Trenton (December 25, 1776) and the Battle of Princeton. Several of his paintings also show the Stars and Stripes on the battlefield with Washington.

POINT: Wetherill and his Safe

wetherillstarBetsy star previously on display at the Free Quaker Meeting House, Philadelphia. It has since gone missing.

Part 4: Published Accounts

"Though she (Betsy) was long believed to have designed the American flag, this claim has now been disproved..." SOURCE: Philadelphia Access, Access Press, New York, 1993

OUR REPLY: It has not been disproved. It has simply not been proved, and likely will never be. However, with the Hopkinson story so much in doubt, we must encourage future generations of historians to continue researching this question.

"And while historians negate the possibility that Betsy Ross made the first Stars and Stripes..." SOURCE: "The Stars and the Stripes: The American Flag as Art and as History from the Birth of the Republic to the Present" by Boleslaw and Marie-Louise D'Otrange Mastai, Alfred Knopf, New York, 1973

OUR REPLY: Cite your sources. Which historians are you referring to who actually negate the possibility?

"...there could certainly be no very logical reason for replacing the Great or Grand Union Flag with a national banner of new design." SOURCE: "The History of the United States Flag" by Milo M. Quaife, Melvin J. Weig, and Roy E. Appleman, Harper and Row, New York, Evanston, and London, 1961

OUR REPLY: Confusion with a flag of surrender would be very logical. See earlier on this page.

In summary

Historically, the story of Betsy Ross remains unresolved. She was familiar to Washington and to George Ross, her husband's uncle, and the testimony of her decendents is consistent with the facts we do have.

Is her story a fiction, a partial truth, completely true? We may never know for sure, but we do hope future historians can shed additional light on this unresolved question.

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