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Betsy Ross

In the efforts of David Barton and home school textbook publishers to ground United States history on the efforts stories of Great Men who uphold generic narratives of “Christian” values, there’s an intriguing corrollation to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s essay in Common-Place, “How Betsy Ross Became Famous.” Out of oral histories, postbellum desires to rediscover the Revolution as a unifying story, and the enterprising and mythmaking work of Charles H. Weisberger, Betsy Ross became famous. Her story, Ulrich argues, was always symbolic—there never was a “first flag” commissioned by General Washington—a stand-in for women’s participation in U.S. history alongside men. She was also the Virgin Mary to George Washington’s God:

In the classic version of the Ross legend, [argued Michael Frisch,] as in the biblical story of Mary, an ordinary woman “is visited by a distant god, and commanded to be the vehicle, through their collaboration, of a divine creation. And indeed, in the classroom pageants enacted by generations of American schoolchildren over the past century, that is exactly what we see: Washington calls on the humble seamstress Betsy Ross in her tiny home and asks her if she will make the nation’s flag, to his design. And Betsy promptly brings forth—from her lap!—the flag, the nation itself, and the promise of freedom and natural rights for all mankind.”

David Barton participates in an effort similar to nineteenth-century women: he is working to rewrite U.S. history to legitimize evangelical Christians by locating them in the nation’s founding. Many of the story themes are similar—the Great Men, their public approval of the storyteller’s values, the storyteller’s subsequent use of that approval to his or her own ends. Where Barton’s history differs is that it’s not a populist movement at all—there’s no effort on his part to create corollary figure to the Founding Fathers; rather, it’s to redefine the Founding Fathers themselves. Barton’s is also a masculine movement. On his website women are little more than footnotes to history, rhetorical asides useful for furthering other stories, such as establishing a precedent for Christian worship in the Capitol building (“even women were allowed to display their pulpit eloquence in this national Hall”) or arguing in favor of strict-constructionist interpretations of the Constitution, as when he claims that women gained suffrage by permission: “women were… accorded the constitutional right to vote not by the courts but by the majority approval of men.”

Of course, one hardly needs Laurel Thatcher Ulrich to show that Barton’s no feminist. But Ulrich gives anecdotal evidence that our own age’s preoccupations with The Founders may be burying the myth of Betsy Ross. Where for years, when surveyed, Ross would be students’ most popular nonstatesman from Revolutionary history to name, a recent survey Ulrich took showed her name recognition to be falling:

The students had no trouble identifying the Founding Fathers, but they had a hard time coming up with the name of anyone who was not a president, general, or statesman. Perhaps acknowledging my presence in the room, a few quickly wrote, “Mrs. Washington,” “Mrs. Lincoln,” and “Mrs. Adams,” but there were a lot of blanks on these papers. In the end Paul Revere came in first and Betsy Ross dropped to seventh, though the answers were so scattered, it is hard to determine significance.

If Ulrich is right that the survey indicates that “the debunkers may be winning”—a claim that she readily acknowledges is tentative—then perhaps truth does ultimately trump myth. There are, however, still countless counterexamples to prove that claim false, and it may just as well be that her students’ inability to name Ross is evidence that more contemporary mythmakers such as Barton have not insignificant influence on popular understandings of history.