Sunday, June 14, 2015

Who else on Flag Day but Betsy Ross?

     Betsy Ross made the first American flag, but her service to her country only began with that commission. She suffered hardship in the Revolutionary War, before living a good life of prosperity once the nation was free.

     She was a beautiful woman -- a fourth-generation American Quaker. Born on January 1, 1752, she and her husband, John Ross, ran an upholstery business in Philadelphia. Much of the work was sewing uniforms and cloth tube for musket balls. This conflicted with her pacifist religion. However, she and her husband attended Christ Church, sitting in Pew 12 each Sunday. General and Martha Washington were among the many dignitaries who also attended the church. Shortly after her 24th birthday, her husband died on January 21, 1776, after an explosion wounded him while guarding munitions for the Patriots. Betsy Ross continued the business.

     In the early days of the rebellion, the American flag was a problem. In an age when communication was unamplified by electronics, drummers and flags served as signals to troops. Washington tried to incorporate a flag using the Union Jack where the stars now sit on our flag. Loyalists proclaimed it a flag of surrender.  General Washington turned to Congress to come up with a continental flag that all 13 colonies would recognize, as well as their individual regimental and colonial flags.

     One day in May 1776, General Washington and two men who had signed the Declaration of Independence -- Robert Morris and Colonel George Ross, her late husband's uncle -- visited her shop with a request. They wanted her to sew a flag they designed -- 13 alternating stripes of red and white, and a union of blue with 13 white stars, representing a new constellation. There is no proof that she talked Washington into five-pointed stars instead of six-pointed.

     Betsy Ross finished the flag in time for it to stand over the signing of the Declaration of Independence. A year later, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress officially recognized this design as the American flag, adding 37 other stars over the years.

     After making the first flag, Ross continued to sew for the soldiers. When the British occupied Philadelphia, they trapped Ross in the city. The British quartered soldiers in her home. Modern Americans do not appreciate the significance and importance of the Third Amendment to the Constitution.

     However, forcing her to quarter soldiers may have backfired on the British. She beguiled Hessian Colonel Carl von Donop, which may have delayed his dispatch of troops to the Battle of Trenton, which the British promptly lost.

     After her first husband's death, Ross returned to the Quaker fold, but this time as a Free Quaker, a group that held the patriotic war was a just war and while they would not fight in it, they would support the American cause. After the war, they built the Free Quaker Meeting House near her home in 1783.

     In 1777, she met sea Captain Joseph Ashburn and they married at Old Swedes Church. She gave birth to their daughter and was pregnant again when teh British captured him at sea and charged him with treason. Ashburn died in a British prison. Their first daughter, Zilla, alsso died at nine months, while daughter Eliza was born after her father's imprisonment. She learned of the death of Captain Ashburn years later from a fellow shipmate and inmate, John Claypoole.

     After the war, two good things happened in 1783. First, the Quakers built that historic meeting house. Second, she and John Claypoole married there. Their life was good as she gave birth to five more daughters and their upholstery business boomed. He later worked at the U.S. Custom House and they purchased a large house on Second Street in the mercantile district of the city. In 1793, Philadelphia suffered an outbreak of yellow fever, which killed her parents and a sister. The city's climate was warmer then than now.

     In 1817, at age 65, she became widowed for the third time as Claypoole died after years of declining health. And in 1834, the Quakers shuttered the church where the Claypooles married, as only Betsy Ross and John Price Wetherill remained as members.

     She died in 1836 at age 84. It was not until 1870 that the story of her sewing the first flag became public, having been passed down through her daughters and their children. This has led some to doubt the veracity of the tale, but I accept it for two reasons. However, it is very likely that someone of her station, her ability, and her need -- recently widowed in the Patriot cause -- would get the commission.

     Not every fact in history can be verified, but many contemporary lies are.

     What made her exceptional was her ability to use a skill that seems so ordinary to create an extraordinary symbol of a great nation. Betsy Ross did what she could to liberate the colonies from King George III.

Happy Flag Day.

My first collection of "Exceptional Americans" is available here.


  1. The city's climate was warmer then than now.

    How can that be what with global warming and all? Must have been all of those SUVs back then.

    1. Do not concern yourself about the warmth in Philadelphia at that time, NASA GISS will adjust the data to show a nice cool time.