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Betsy Ross and America’s First Flag

"The Birth of Old Glory" by Percy Moran

"The Birth of Old Glory" by Percy Moran

In the spirit of patriotism surrounding the 4th of July, history professor Marla Miller has written a new book about Betsy Ross, the iconic patriot best known for sewing the first American flag. In Betsy Ross and the Making of America (Henry Holt, 467pgs) Miller investigates the story of Ross and her most famous creation, drawing some very interesting conclusions. Working as an upholsterer, Ross’ skill and quality of craftsmanship was well known, and it is documented that she made numerous flags, pennants and standards for the government during the Revolutionary War. But, there is no written historical record proving the seamstress made America’s first flag by herself. “Miller reminds us, the flag, ‘like the Revolution it represents, was the work of many hands,’” writes Marjoleine Kars in a review for The Washington Post.

Neither is there hard proof that the fabled meeting between Ross and George Washington to finalize the flag design – he wanting six pointed stars, and she choosing the easier to make five pointed stars – ever took place. Miller believes that signed affidavits from family members written years after her death helped turn family stories into historical fact. The author traces the root of the flag making myth to a speech given by Ross’ grandson William Jackson Canby to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870. The nation’s “preoccupation with the flag as a symbol of national unity” during those post-Civil War years allowed the myth to grow. Whatever her role in the making of the first flag, Ross remains in the pantheon of American history’s female heroes. “How much of Ross’ story is fact and how much is fiction doesn’t matter in this richly detailed biography. It’s all fascinating,” concludes Carol Memmott in a review for USA Today.

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