Thursday, April 23, 2015

Who Really Created the First Flag? Betsy Ross, George Washington, or Francis Hopkinson?

Betsy Ross
 (from The History of the First
United States Flag
, 1878)
Betsy Ross is as American as mom, apple pie, and Chevrolet, but is she for real? What would you say if I told you 99.9 percent of Americans never heard of Betsy Ross before 1870?

It’s true.

Elizabeth Ross was an obscure Philadelphia upholsterer and sometimes flag maker, until her grandson, William Canby presented a paper before the Pennsylvania Historical Society in 1870. The nation was gearing up for the bicentennial celebration when Canby decided to share his grandmother’s story with the world. And, it was just what the nation needed at that time—a female hero.

As it turns out, Betsy Ross wasn’t just a flag maker. She was a storyteller, too. And the story she shared with her children and grandchildren was a whopper that they would never forget.

Here’s the story as Canby tells it.

Somewhere between May 23rd and June 7th, 1777 three members of the Congressional Flag Committee visited Betsy Ross in her upholstery shop on Arch Street in Philadelphia. The committee members included George Washington, Robert Morris, and Colonel George Ross (a member of the Continental Congress, and an uncle of her late husband).

The three men were on a mission to create the new nation’s first official flag, and George Washington himself asked Betsy Ross to make it. The committee already had a design in mind, and showed it to Betsy to get her input.

According to Canby, Betsy replied that “she could try” to make it, but first she had a few suggestions to make it even better. The original design was unsymmetrical, so Betsy suggested a few changes, the most important of which was using a five pointed star instead of the six pointed star designated by the Committee. When questioned about the difficulty of making a five pointed star, Betsy grabbed her shears and quickly cut a five pointed star.

The Committee was impressed and retired to a back room of the crowded upholstery shop to mull over the new design. George Washington himself took charge and drew the new design taking pains to get it just right.

When Washington finished sketching the new flag the members of the Committee hurried off to have a local artist, William Barrett, make a painting for Betsy to work from. Betsy scurried off to visit a local warship so she could examine the ship’s colors and see how they were made.

Betsy Ross Creating Flag (1910 postcard image)
When the painting was done, the Committee members brought it back to Betsy, and she quickly made the new flag. It was accepted the next day, and according to the story, Colonel Ross gave Betsy one hundred pounds to get started making all the flags she could crank out.

So far, so good. The only problem is—there’s no evidence to support the story.

For something so newsworthy, there is no coverage of the story in the local or national press. On June 14, 1777 there is a short one sentence reference to the flag on page 235 of Dunlap’s Journal of Congress. “Resolved that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes alternately red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars in a blue field representing a new constellation.”

Further research by Canby places George Washington, Robert Morris, and Colonel George Ross in Philadelphia at the stated time. The only thing missing is hard evidence. Nothing points to Betsy Ross as the first flag maker. The journals of the Continental Congress don’t have any record of a Flag Committee. There are no receipts payable to Betsy Ross. Canby counters with the fact that Congress oftentimes formed as many as six committees a day at this time, most of them of which were unrecorded. As further evidence, he says that amidst the turmoil and fighting during that period, making a flag was considered trivial, and not worth mentioning.

Finally, lacking real evidence, Canby included affidavits from Betsy Ross’s daughters, granddaughters, and nieces reciting stories they were told as children.

In truth, it’s a great story—one we all learn in elementary school, but one that very likely will never be proven.

Betsy Ross’s personal story was just as remarkable.

She was born Elizabeth Griscom on January 1st, 1752. She was the eighth of seventeen siblings, and was apprenticed to William Webster as an upholsterer. Betsy met her first husband John Ross while working for Webster. They eloped in 1773 when she was twenty-one. John Ross was a soldier in the Continental army, and died in 1776 during an accidental gunpowder explosion on the Philadelphia waterfront.

A year later she married Joseph Ashburn, a sailor in the Continental Navy. His ship was captured in 1781, and he died the next year in a British prison. She married again in 1783 to John Claypoole. That union lasted thirty-four years until he died of natural causes in 1817.

Betsy Ross lived until 1836, sharing stories of her adventures with her children, grandchildren, and neighbors.

The other claimant to designing the first flag was Francis Hopkinson.

He was born into a wealthy family, graduated from the College of Philadelphia, and went on to become an author, musician, and customs collector. In 1761 he hung out his shingle as a lawyer. He was a New Jersey delegate to the Continental Congress, and one of the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence.

After the Revolutionary War, Hopkinson served as a member of the Constitutional Convention. In 1789 George Washington appointed him a U S District Judge for Pennsylvania.

He was a consultant to the Great Seal Committee in 1776, and helped to design the Great Seal of the United States. In 1778 Hopkinson designed a fifty dollar Continental currency note, and later a forty dollar note.

His claim to designing the American flag stems from an invoice he submitted to Congress in 1780. It was rejected because he didn’t include any vouchers to back up his expenses.

Similar to Betsy Ross there is no hard evidence to support Hopkinson’s claim as designer of the first American flag.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History