Professor Donald Elder: The Fifty Greatest Americans – Betsy Ross

Feb 19, 2015 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Fifty Greatest Americans

Michael F. Shaughnessy

1. Professor Elder, this section looks at our first female in our list of great Americans. I understand others who may feel that other females (such as Martha Washington perhaps ) deserve to be recognized, but for now, let’s focus on Betsy Ross. When was she born and where was she born?

Elizabeth “Betsy” Griscom was born on January 1, 1752 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She was one of 17 children born to her mother and father, but only 9 of them survived past infancy. As a teen, Betsy was apprenticed to an upholsterer in Philadelphia. While working there, she fell in love with a fellow apprentice named John Ross.

When she was 21, the two of them eloped and were married. It appears that religion was the reason for their decision to marry in that manner. Betsy was raised a Quaker, but her husband was the son of a minister in the Episcopal Church. Relations between Betsy and her immediate family became strained after her marriage, and her decision to marry outside of her faith cost Betsy her membership in her local Quaker church. She and her husband then began to attend Episcopal services at Christ Church in Philadelphia. This, as we will see, paved the way for her to become the Betsy Ross of legend.

2. What involvement did she have in the early days of the American Revolution?

When the war started, John and Betsy Ross actively supported the Patriot cause. John was part of the local militia, and helped guard munitions that were being stored in Philadelphia. Because of her skills as a seamstress, Betsy contributed to the cause by repairing uniforms and preparing paper cartridges for use by American soldiers.

3. In your mind, what were some of her greatest contributions?

According to legend, Betsy Ross is important because she sewed the first flag that we recognize as truly American: alternating horizontal red and white stripes, and a blue field in the corner with thirteen stars. She is also widely believed to have suggested five-pointed stars, rather than the six-pointed stars that had initially been proposed for use. Unfortunately, there is significant doubt today about the accuracy of either of these stories. It was not until 1870 that one of the descendants of Betsy Ross asserted that his ancestor had sewed the first flag. He based his story around the fact that George Washington, when he was a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses, had attended the same church in Philadelphia as Betsy, and had made her acquaintance. Washington was given command of the American Army in the spring of 1775 and left Philadelphia, but when he returned for a visit in 1776 he purportedly asked Betsy to create a new flag for the country. Later investigation revealed, however, that Congress had passed the act to create a new flag in 1777. Historians are therefore reluctant to accept as proven fact that Betsy sewed the first American flag. She more than likely did sew flags, but the evidence that she made the famous first American flag is very tenuous at best.

4. Her relatives and friends were also involved in the American Revolution. Can you shed any light on this?

Betsy had three relatives that all served the American cause, and all three were husbands of hers. John Ross, as we have seen, served in the Pennsylvania militia, but he died early in the war (according to legend in a gunpowder explosion). She then married Joseph Ashburn, who was a seaman on an American ship. Ashburn was captured in 1780 by a British warship, and Ashburn was imprisoned in England. He died there in captivity. A man by the name of John Claypoole was imprisoned with Ashburn, and after gaining his release when the war ended journeyed to Philadelphia to inform Betsy of her husband’s death. Betsy and Claypoole then developed a relationship, and were married in 1783.

5. I know there is a postage stamp honoring her. Are there any other monuments honoring this great American female?

Betsy Ross was the subject of a famous painting, showing her presenting the American flag to George Washington. There is also a bridge linking Pennsauken, New Jersey with Philadelphia that is named for her.

6. What have I neglected to ask and what else needs to be said about this great American ?

As is the case with a number of famous Americans, the truth is not quite as impressive as the commonly held beliefs about them suggest. But the real-life Betsy Ross, even if she didn’t sew the first American flag, still deserves our respect and admiration. She was one of the thousands of women who toiled in obscurity during the American Revolution to make sure that materiel vital to the Patriot cause continued to be provided. She can thus still serve as an inspiration to the American people as we move forward as a nation.

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