Happy Flag Day, which, in case you didn’t know, is June 14th. It’s not a national holiday, but it is an annual observance first marked by President Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 Proclamation. President Harry Truman signed an Act of Congress in 1949 designating June 14th as the official date. As with all our major national symbols, we revere our flag. We ascribe stories to its creation and meaning that help us, as a nation, feel connected to it and the struggle that gave it birth.
But as it turns out, we’ve got some mythology on our hands.
I fully set out to research and write a little post on what I believed to be the history of the U.S. Flag, starting with one of my earliest personal heroines, Betsy Ross. As a girl, I considered Mrs. Ross to be the first of those Great American Women (think Clara Barton, Amelia Earhart, Florence Nightingale, Susan B. Anthony), and it made me believe that I, too, could someday make a mighty contribution to the world.
But my jaw–and my spirits–dropped a bit while researching this post because Betsy Ross did not sew the first American flag.
Yes, she was a seamstress, and yes, she made flags. But that’s where history actually meets the water’s edge. Turns out there is no credible evidence pointing to Ms. Ross’ hurried labor, in solitude and by candlelight of course, to finish that first Star Spangled Banner.
This myth was planted in the nation’s consciousness by one William Canby, grandson of Mrs. Ross, in the 1870s. Mr. Canby presented “evidence” to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania that his grandmother stitched the flag after a personal visit from George Washington. His evidence, however, consisted exclusively of affidavits from family members. That’s it.
Some of the latest research debunking this myth comes from Smithsonian researchers in the 2008 book The Star Spangled Banner: The Making of an American Icon. And a 2010 biography of Betsy Ross by Maria Miller further suggests that the seamstress may have been one of several flag makers involved in the design and creation of the flag; perhaps she was the one who suggested that the stars have five points and not six.
Until this week, I assumed the school story I’d heard 40-some years ago was true. Is this news to you as it was to me?
And it’s left me wondering: How does myth become fact?
I suppose it’s because we humans “never let the facts get in the way of a good story”–especially when that story reflects our core values and beliefs about who we are as people. U.S. citizens can get personally involved in the tale of a young Revolutionary War widow who labors on behalf of her new country, by sunlight and candlelight, because she was called to this mission by the Father of Our Country.
And it naturally makes sense that the story of Betsy Ross would resonate with a nation that was on the eve of its centennial–and on the mend from a violent civil war. Nations and people often need stories like this to heal and to lift them up.
But it’s still just a story.
Myths–cultural, secular, religious–inspire and guide us. They’re beautiful. I really was smitten with Betsy Ross as a child, and I have no objection to having learned this legend.
But it I wish I’d also been taught the historical evidence.
I wonder what other stories from my early education were wrapped in myth. I wonder what myths might be shared with school children today, including this one.
I wonder about the place of story–and fact–in education; it’s at the core of the debate over teaching evolution and creationism, isn’t it? It’s a can of worms opened by Betsy Ross, I know, but a pretty important one.
P.S. — This isn’t the only myth surrounding our nation’s flag. For a really interesting and quick read, I recommend this Washington Post article from this time last year: Five Myths About the American Flag.