US Flag: The First   13 comments

US Flag - Betsy RossThe Big Lie

I hate it when people lie.

And when people lie to kids, that’s just evil.

I was lied to.  You too, probably.

Here’s the truth:  Betsy Ross didn’t sew the first American flag.  Here’s more truth: no one really knows who created the first flag, but the smart money seems to be on Francis Hopkinson, a delegate to the second Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence!  He actually submitted a bill to the Congress for services rendered in designing the flag.

Which they refused to pay, as many people were involved in the design.  According to Congress. And they never lie.

The Betsy Ross legend, come to find out, didn’t even become public until 1870, 34 years after her death and nearly 100 years after the American Revolution.  The story was first presented in a paper by William J Canby, Ross’ Grandson, in a paper presented to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Canby declared that in early 1776, a secret committee from the Continental Congress came to Betsy Ross, a single mother running an upholstery business, to sew the flag based on a design George Washington sketched on Betsy’s table.  The secret committee included Betsy’s uncle, George Ross, Robert Morris (perhaps the wealthiest man in America at the time) , and George Washington – who had the pew next to her at church.

The iconic moment, captured in many paintings, was when Betsy demonstrated to the gentlemen that rather than using the 6-pointed star that they proposed, a 5-pointed star would be better as it could be cut with one motion of her scissors.

But there’s no proof this ever happened, except for family stories passed down within the Ross family … which kept it a secret for almost a hundred years.

However, Canby’s story captured the imagination of America and it became a part of the public discourse … and was generally accepted as true.  I learned it in school as fact.  How about you?

The Basics

To figure out who made the actual first flag for the United States of America, there are a few basic questions to be answered.

1. When could such a flag have been made? Not before there was a nation, certainly.  The Declaration of Independence was not ratified until July 4, 1776 … and Ross had received a commission to make the US flag months earlier?  It seems difficult to designate a flag before you have a nation.

HOWEVER, historians have cited the “first” flag as the Continental Colors, which was used on both US ships (before there was a US) and at garrisons of the Continental Army.  This flag was used until a more official flag was designated in 1777.

The Grand Union Flag, AKA The Continental Colors, was first hoisted on the ship Alfred, in Philadelphia on December 2, 1775, by Lt. John Paul Jones.

The Grand Union Flag, AKA The Continental Colors, was first hoisted on the ship Alfred, in Philadelphia on December 2, 1775, by Lt. John Paul Jones.

2. Who had the authority to create a flag to represent the country? A “secret committee” of the Continental Congress?  I don’t think so.  Even if Washington — the leader of our armed forces in time of war! — made the time to meet with a flag maker, it strains credulity to assume there would be no contemporary proof of the event.  It’s also possible Washington simply needed a standard or battle flag for his army … that kind of flag has been very common through history.  Armies “rally to the flag.”

3. Who designed it, and who made it? We’ll never know.

Finally, on June 14, 1777 the Continental Congress adopted the following: Resolved: that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.

There was no provision for exactly how the stars should be arranged, nor what the size of each element should be.  Those details varied in the subsequent years.

Here’s the “Betsy Ross Flag” that I grew up assuming was our nation’s first flag, along with two others that also fulfill the Congressional Resolution of 1777.

It's certainly true that Betsy Ross made flags, and may well have designed this flag.  Was it official?  No more than the other contemporary designs that fulfilled the Continental Congress' resolution.

It’s true that Betsy Ross made flags, and may well have sewn this flag. Was it official? No more than the other contemporary designs that fulfilled the Continental Congress’ resolution.

This is the flag that Hopkinson billed Congress for the creation of.  It certainly fulfills their requirements laid out in the June 1777 resolution.

This is the flag that Hopkinson billed Congress for the creation of. It certainly fulfills their requirements laid out in the June 1777 resolution.

The Cowpens Flag was was said to have been carried by William Batchelor of the 3rd Maryland Regiment at the Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781.

The Cowpens Flag was said to have been carried by William Batchelor of the 3rd Maryland Regiment at the Battle of Cowpens, January 17, 1781.

Originally entitled Yankee Doodle, this is one of several versions of a scene painted by Archibald M. Willard in the late nineteenth century that came to be known as The Spirit of '76. Often imitated or parodied, it is one of the most famous images relating to the American Revolutionary War. The life-sized original hangs in Abbot Hall in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The painting uses a Cowpens flag.

Originally entitled Yankee Doodle, this is one of several versions of a scene painted by Archibald M. Willard in the late nineteenth century that came to be known as The Spirit of ’76. Often imitated or parodied, it is one of the most famous images relating to the American Revolutionary War. The life-sized original hangs in Abbot Hall in Marblehead, Massachusetts. The painting uses a Cowpens flag.

There is a belief among many that the first “official” US flag was raised at a summer-long encampment of the Continental army at Middlebrook, New Jersey in 1777. That flag is assumed to be the Hopkinson flag, not the Betsy Ross flag.

If the Continental Congress approved a specific version of the flag, that was never recorded.  We do not know which design was the first accepted flag of the United States of America. That distinction was apparently not important to our founding fathers, and didn’t become important until truth seekers began to clamor for an answer about 100 years after the fact.

And that is frustrating.  Life was much simpler in grade school, wasn’t it?

Betsy Ross showing Major Ross and Robert Morris how she cut the stars for the American flag; George Washington sits in a chair on the left. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris.

Betsy Ross showing Major Ross and Robert Morris how she cut the stars for the American flag; George Washington sits in a chair on the left. Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863-1930).

The Birth of Old Glory, by Percy Moran, has Betsy Ross showing her flag to George Washington and three other gentlemen.

The Birth of Old Glory, by Percy Moran, has Betsy Ross showing her flag to George Washington and three other gentlemen. Painting was done circa 1917.

Charles Weisgerber's 1893 painting of The Birth of Our Nation's Flag, helped make Betsy Ross the most famous woman in American history. Since no images of Ross existed, Weisgerber created her face from photographs of her daughters and other female relatives.

Charles Weisgerber’s 1893 painting of “The Birth of Our Nation’s Flag” helped make Betsy Ross one of the most famous women in American history. Since no images of Ross existed, Weisgerber created her face from photographs of her daughters and other female relatives. The publication of this illustration – in a book authored by Ross’ descendants, no less – cemented her place in American lore.

More
US Flag: The Second
US Flag: The Third
US Flag: The Snake Flags
Common Place
The Betsy Ross Story
CyberSarge

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13 responses to “US Flag: The First

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  8. The first American flag was sewen by Margreat Manny, this is the flag the flew from the staff of Alfred and the firsst recognition of the flag and our nation was by the Dutch at St. Eustatius in the Caribbean much to the indignation of the British.

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