Betsy Ross
and the Making of America

By Marla R. Miller

Henry Holt. 467 pp $30

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Reviewed by Siobhan Conaty


Forget the flag, Betsy Ross was a fascinating figure in U.S. history in her own right.

Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole (she was a Ross ever so briefly in her long life) was a working mother whose successful career supported both her immediate and extended families.

She challenged the tenets of her Quaker faith, supported a revolution, lived in an occupied city, survived the loss of two husbands (both of whom had been captured at sea and spent time in a British prison), the loss of a child, and a yellow fever epidemic.

And yet that critical question still haunts her legacy - did Betsy Ross sew the first American flag? While historian Marla A. Miller investigates this matter in great depth and with meticulous research, she makes it very clear that her book is not all about the flag. The value of understanding the life and work of someone like Ross goes far beyond our need for a good origin story for the Stars and Stripes.

The lack of documented evidence to prove that Ross met with George Washington, suggested the five-pointed star, and made our country's first flag does not in any way diminish her contributions to American history. Instead, Miller asks, why obscure Ross' six decades of skill and training, a business that was intertwined with a revolution, and a life that seems made for a Hollywood movie to dwell on the question of did she or didn't she?

While Miller states that her book celebrates the working men and women who "made" revolutionary America, it is clearly the women who stand out in this scholarly tome. Questioning America's historical imagination regarding women, Miller presents Ross as an ordinary woman whose hard work and business acumen helped form the foundation of a fledgling country. Indeed, Ross sent her daughters to the first institution of higher education for women in America, the Young Ladies Academy of Philadelphia, helping to ensure another generation of competent women.

Ross' story is the story of many colonial women, mostly unknown, whose lives and deeds have been left out of traditional history books. Miller cuts through the haze and the element of myth surrounding the history of early American women and sets the record straight in a painstakingly (at times) detailed account of Betsy Ross' life and work.

The sheer volume of research and footnotes prevents this book from becoming a page-turner in the traditional sense, but the text is accessible - if not pleasurable - if you are interested in the subject. Miller presents a clear view of the importance of the colonial upholstery business, providing the necessary details to make her point that Ross should not be relegated to the role of a "mere seamstress" in colonial history. Ross' career was just taking off at the point of the revolution, and the author provides the details of her long and prosperous life - Ross was 84 when she died in 1836. Miller tackles the issue of the first flag in the same way, offering an unbiased account of the facts and the hearsay, as well as a thorough description of the other potential candidates who may have made that ever-so-important banner.

With this book, Miller reveals a refreshing new model of a colonial woman - one that encompasses business, politics, education, and war, as well as religion and family. Was Betsy Ross a central figure in the story of the American Revolution? No, but Marla Miller's book demonstrates that she was an essential figure in the making of this new nation - flag or no flag.

In her epilogue, Miller makes a reference to the author James Loewen, who claimed that "Betsy Ross never did anything" in his best-seller Lies My Teacher Told Me. My advice to Loewen - please read this book.

Siobhan Conaty is an associate professor of art history at La Salle University.