Sorry for the language, friends!
I suppose I’m finally over losing the Flag Day Poetry Contest in elementary school. As I recall, it was a beautiful June day and we all sat outside looking at the flag. Our principal read the winning poem over the loudspeaker. The poem was haiku-like, breathtaking in its simplicity and emotional: the writer reflected on the beauty of the flag in free verse. Not a single eye was dry.
I, on the other hand, had written a narrative account of the Betsy Ross myth in blank verse in my typical over-the-top trying-too-hard-to-win way: “While Betsy Ross was sewing in her quiet little shop/George Washington rushed in and ordered her to STOP!” I will not repeat the rest of the awkward rhymes I remember.
As a child, I had very little feeling for the American Revolution because it mostly involved…well, men running around and killing each other and then We Won! Each battle seemed like the other to me. But stories about women like Betsy Ross, Molly Pitcher, and (later in time) Dolley Madison, came alive to me through those old orange biographies for kids. The idea that women were part of Early America: sewing, bringing water to others, maybe briefly firing a cannon or rescuing paintings from a burning White House appealed to me, maybe because I could see myself––a girl––in those stories. What the women did seemed doable.
My current work-in-progress novel, “A Little Rebellion,” was inspired by both the story of Betsy Ross, and what I imagine my Quaker ancestors might have been doing during the Revolution.
The book Betsy Ross, Quaker Rebel by Edwin S. Parry (self-described direct descendant of Betsy Ross), published in 1930, perhaps best relays the typical myth of Betsy Ross. (Thank you to my sister, Meg, for buying me a signed copy of the book!) Parry describes her as a “beautiful Quaker girl…her life was filled with tragedy and romance.” In colorful chapters describing her schooling, rivals for her affection, teenage partying (yes ,smuggled rum is mentioned) and Betsy’s subsequent disownment for marrying outside her Quaker faith, I found a heroine worthy of any novel.
But a closer look at Elizabeth Griscom Ross, via Marla R. Miller’s excellent Betsy Ross and the Making of America reveals much more: Ross was part of a powerful resistance movement made all the more remarkable because it arose out of a community that embraced pacifism and disaffection. Ross was not only a flag maker, she was a business owner, upholsterer, munitions maker (she made 60,000 musket cartridges), and one of the first leaders of a splinter sect of Quakers in America: the Free Quakers. She also was married three times.
The contradictions in her life story intrigued me: the contrast between Quaker pacifism and outright participation in military supply, the myth of Betsy as a quiet flag-making girl contrasting with the more traditional male role she took on as a businessperson and leader of a new sect.
And then there’s Betsy’s conscience: what might have prompted her to take up the American cause, when she might have been far more comfortable embracing the typical Quaker’s “disaffection” or non-involvement in the war? Disaffection, in the guise of pacifism, often meant that Quakers were able to continue to trade with all sides during the war. Though small business owners were greatly affected by British oppression through measures like the Stamp Act, I wondered at Betsy’s giving up her family, faith, and the more comfortable Quaker world, to actively participate in the War for Independence, and begin a splinter religious sect.
Betsy’s world of 1777 Philadelphia came alive to me during several visits to the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia. The first visit I made to the house in 2015 was truly eye-opening to me (I thought of Revolutionary Philadelphia as a mostly white world). Phillis the Laundress, portrayed by a re-enactor I encountered in Betsy’s cellar, was a free Black laundress. She relayed to us her backstory: she had been enslaved by her Quaker owner, freed, and then had started her own laundry business. I was surprised to learn there was a sizable free Black population in Philadelphia at the time of the Revolution (about 1,000 people), not all of whom were servants.
What might that world of 1777 really have looked like, I wondered, with white women making furniture and taking snuff (as Betsy did), free Black women operating small businesses like bakeries, and, as I went on to learn, the beginning of racially integrated schools? I began to see that world as deeply stratified but with many groups longing for the same thing: more freedom, in a shape and form that matched their circumstances.
I am grateful that Betsy’s myth was intriguing enough for me to take a closer look and start to imagine a world of young people making decisions about both their lives and the future of their country in 1777.
Thank you, “Little Rebel.”
Here are some great links:
Betsy Ross House: http://www.historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/what-to-see/
Free Quakers: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_Quakers