The Betsy Ross Flag: History and Modern Context
If you are a fan of athletic footwear, and you like staying up-to-date with what is happening in the industry, then you probably heard about the recent story about a pair of “Air Max 1” sneakers that Nike was planning to release in honor of the Fourth of July, but ended up recalling. The shoes were to feature the Betsy Ross flag, and evidently, Nike had a last-minute change of heart about the design, citing “concerns that it could unintentionally offend and detract from the nation’s patriotic holiday.” Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be a controversial move, with some praising the decision and others expressing their disappointment. But what exactly is the Betsy Ross flag, and why do people have such strong feelings about it?
Introduction to Betsy Ross
First, let us go into who Betsy Ross herself was. She was an American woman born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 1, 1752, as Elizabeth Griscom. As a child, she was taught reading and writing at school and needlework at home. She married John Ross, and the two of them started a shop where they offered fabrics and sewing services. After John Ross died, she became the wife of Joseph Ashburn. When Ashburn passed away, she wedded her third and final husband, John Claypoole. Despite this varied lifetime, however, this iconic woman is today known chiefly by her nickname, Betsy, and her first married surname, Ross.
During Ross’s early life, the United States did not yet exist; we were still colonies of Great Britain. Many developments had taken place during the 1600s: large numbers of religious minorities came to the colonies to escape persecution. Additionally, slavery had also become a widespread practice in the southern colonies, replacing indentured servants as the preferred form of labor. Beginning in 1660, Great Britain began to become more wary of other European nations competing to become colonial powers – specifically France and Spain. Relations between the colonies and Britain began to sour, culminating in events like the Boston Massacre, where colonists were killed by British soldiers, and the Boston Tea Party, when colonists dumped tea belonging to the East India Company into the harbor. The government of Great Britain responded by enacting new laws in 1774 that limited Massachusetts’s autonomy, required local governments to house and feed British soldiers, and allowed for royal officers to be tried in England if accused of a crime. The colonists called these the Intolerable Acts, and they helped foster both a spirit of togetherness and feelings of rebellion in the colonies. Ross would have been 22 years old when the Intolerable Acts went into effect. That is to say, her early life was a time of political upheaval and a growing American identity: this identity would come to need a flag.
What is Betsy Ross Known For?
So, what is Betsy Ross known for? Well, the story goes that during the time in which she was operating her upholstery business alone, shortly after the death of John Ross, she was visited by three men from the Continental Congress. General George Washington, who was the head of the army; Robert Morris, the wealthiest citizen in the Colonies; and Colonel George Ross, who was the uncle of John Ross. At that time, it was not unusual for sewing shops to produce flags, but the visitors were there to offer Betsy a very special project: creating the first flag to represent the Colonies as a whole. Until that time, different colonies and militias were using their own designs, including the famous “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, but the Continental Congress wanted a banner that would unite the whole nation. Washington already had the idea of a motif involving a star, but the one he had in mind would have been six-pointed, more similar to the star on the seal of the United States Marshals Service. Betsy Ross suggested replacing this with a five-pointed star, which could be created with a single cut. To prove this, Ross demonstrated with a piece of paper, and the men were convinced to make the change. And thus the first American flag was sewn. The most notable differences between the Betsy Ross flag and the one we use today is the number of stars, as there were only 13 colonies then compared to our 50 states today, and their arrangement; the stars on the Betsy Ross flag are in a circular form instead of appearing in rows.
Design of the Flag
In case you have been wondering where this design came from, it is not known for certain, but there are two probable options. It is possible that the colonists may have been influenced by the look of the flag of the Netherlands, which has stripes of red, white and blue. However, it is more likely that Washington’s idea was drawn from his own family’s coat of arms, which featured a shield of white stars on a blue field and stripes of red and white.4 The first official use of the Betsy Ross flag took place in 1777 during the Revolutionary War. During a battle in Cooch’s Bridge, Delaware, General William Maxwell had the flag raised. However, the Betsy Ross design was never actually legally identified as being the flag of the United States.3 On June 14, 1777, the flag that was declared to represent this country employed a slightly different look, with the 13 stars in a grid instead of the circle. Ross’s influence was still visible, though; the stars featured on every American flag since then have been the five-pointed variety as per Betsy Ross’s original recommendation to Washington. She was also apparently responsible for the flag’s shape, saying that a rectangle would work better than a square, as this would look nicer in the wind.2
The red, white and blue that we all associate with the American flag, including the Betsy Ross variant, each have specific meanings. In the U.S., red represents bravery, white represents purity, and blue represents justice. As you may know, these three colors feature on the flags of other countries as well. The United Kingdom’s flag also has red, white, and blue, but for different reasons. Rather than standing for particular values, the presence of the colors is the result of combining the crosses of St. George, St. Andrew, and St. Patrick, who are the patron saints of England, Scotland, and Ireland respectively. France also famously uses a flag of red, white and blue. The white is the color of the king, and red and blue are the colors of Paris. The colors can also be considered to stand for the three ideals of the French Republic: liberty, equality, and fraternity. We mentioned that the Netherlands’ flag could have been an influence, as it also includes the three colors. However, many people do not know that the Dutch flag was originally orange, white and blue. They were chosen because they were the familial colors of the Orange family who ruled the Netherlands after the Dutch revolted against Spanish rule. The orange was later changed to red supposedly because this would make the flag easier to see while at sea. Another interesting fact about the Dutch flag is that it was the first tricolor flag in the world! As you can see, while red, white, and blue are popular flag colors, they generally have different meanings to the countries that have used them.
Fact or Fiction?
So, is all of this really true, or is the Betsy Ross story just a legend? Well, the evidence to support her legacy is unfortunately scarce. There is not a great deal of documentation that backs up the idea that she created the first flag. In fact, Ross’s alleged contribution was not widely known in the United States until 1870, when her grandson, William Canby, shared the tale with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in a paper titled “The History of the Flag of the United States.” People loved the story, and it had become well-known across the country three years later. It remains part of our national consciousness to this day.
Canby acknowledged that there was no real proof to what he was claiming; it was merely based on his family’s oral tradition. Although there is evidence that Betsy Ross did produce flags for the Philadelphia navy, historians disagree with attributing the country’s first flag to her. That honor may be more rightfully ascribed to Francis Hopkinson. He was a representative to the Continental Congress from New Jersey and is documented to have designed multiple instances of official American insignia, including the Great Seal of the United States, the Continental Board of Admiralty seal, the treasury seal, and even some designs for currency. He is also known to have been involved with the country’s first official flag. Yet it cannot be said definitively that the first flag originated with Hopkinson, either.
Firm Roots in American History
While the Betsy Ross flag never became an official flag of the United States, it was certainly not forgotten to history, either. Ross herself has become a legendary figure in the country’s history and she has become symbolic not only the role women played in the American Revolution but the contributions of women to America’s prosperity in general. In the 1930s, there was even an independent league of women pilots called the Betsy Ross Air Corps.
The Betsy Ross flag has seen appearances at presidential inaugurations, including Barack Obama and Donald Trump., It remains a popular symbol for other kinds of memorabilia, too, and is perceived by its fans as representing the Revolution and uniquely American values of liberty, democracy, and unity. So why then did Nike feel that it was not right for a shoe meant to embody patriotism?
Well, over the years, the Betsy Ross flag has taken on a more complicated image. At some point, it began to be utilized by white nationalist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan and the patriot movement. A Michigan-based chapter of the NAACP argued that the flag was a symbol of “racial supremacy,” but it is not classed as a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League. Interestingly, this phenomenon is in no way unique to the Betsy Ross flag. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Under the guise of ‘heritage,’ symbols of early U.S. history have long been adopted by hate groups set on returning to a time when all non-white people were viewed as subhuman and un-American.”
So, did Nike make the right choice? It is difficult to say, and the responses were extremely mixed. While there certainly were people who praised the company for taking this direction, many commenters on articles about the decision to recall the Betsy Ross flag sneakers expressed surprise that the banner had ever even been used as a white supremacist image. In fact, some have even opined that Nike worsened the situation by strengthening the idea of the flag as a hate symbol and thus providing a powerful weapon to racist groups. Aside from sparking many conversations, the recall had the secondary effect of making the shoes something of a collector’s item; originally priced at $120, it was found being resold for more than $4,000, representing an increase of between 2,000% and 4,000%. So for early buyers, the recall ended up being a very financially advantageous development indeed.
Ultimately, flags – like all symbols – are tools. We must be careful how we use them and who we allow to use them. Betsy Ross herself was never a slave owner, and in reality, it is unknown if she even originated the flag that now bears her name. Whatever kinds of meaning other people have decided to attribute to the flag over the years, we should still keep in mind not to forget where it originally came from and what it was intended to represent that many years ago. 13 colonies, once under British rule, that served as the precursor for our United States today. We are now states instead of colonies and our number is 50, but when we look at the flag, we can recall the same values that we have always striven for: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.