chapter  2
30 Pages

Historical Thinking

American Historical Association, founded 1884 ( Royal Historical Society, founded 1868 ( World History Association, founded 1982 (

History: The Journal of the Historical Association The American Historical Review The Journal of American History The Historical Journal

According to the familiar story, George Washington visited the Philadelphia tailor shop of Betsy Ross in 1776 as part of a congressional flag committee. However, there is no record in any document of any such committee, and Washington, as a commanding general but not a member of Congress, would not likely have been involved in such a party. Further, the Flag Resolution describing the new flag was not adopted until 1777. “Virtually every historian who has studied the issue believes that Betsy Ross did not sew the first American flag” (Leepson 2006: 39). This particular bit of storytelling owes its origin to Ross’ grandson, William Canby, who in 1870 presented an essay to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania called “The History of the Flag of the United States.” Canby (1870) confessed that no concrete evidence supported the Ross tale, but he advanced the dubious, if not dangerous, claim that the “next and the last resort then of the historian (the printed and the written record being silent) is tradition”; surely, he argued, a family tradition “uncontradicted by the written record, stands unimpeach - able, quite as reliable and often more so, than the books.” Subsequently he provided the now-canonical legend (in his own words: “Let us now return to our Legend”) of Betsy Ross and the first flag. But such a lovely fable still

needs assistance, which it got from Ross’ descendants, who made and sold “Betsy Ross flags,” as well as from an 1873 article in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine essentially repeating Canby’s version uncritically. And the legend grew: the latter article’s author, H. K. W. Wilcox, added the assertion that Ross became the supplier of flags for the country-a boast that not even Canby had made. Another pillar of the lore was a book by Canby’s nephew Lloyd Balderson, The Evolution of the American Flag, restating Canby’s material. Other aid came from the Betsy Ross Memorial Association, the movement to preserve the Betsy Ross House (which may actually be at the wrong address), and Charles Weisberger’s evocative but historically inaccurate 1893 painting Birth of Our Nation’s Flag, reprinted “in school textbooks for years, deceiving generations of unsuspecting students” (Ayres 2000: 212).