This is a scholarly biography, but the word “scholarly” shouldn’t scare readers away. While hundreds of books have been written about Betsy Ross, mostly for children, no one until now has seriously attempted to separate fact from fiction and place the woman and the legend in context.
Marla R. Miller writes a book that presents Betsy’s Ross’s life and legacy in as accurate a manner as historical evidence allows. She respects the woman and even the myths that have grown up around the story of the origin of the nation’s first flag. In other words, this isn’t a book with an agenda aimed at trashing a cultural icon. That said, Miller doesn’t back away from citing what we don’t know, what we likely will never know, and what we do know that doesn’t match or corroborate certain iconic interpretation.
One reason Miller doesn’t write fluff is that she’s a recognized professional historian. Another reason is that early on she understood that, though the historical record is often sadly slim or silent, what we can know for sure about Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole is interesting enough.
The woman subsequent generations came to know as Betsy Ross did live in a unique time and place at this nation’s genesis, she did play an entrepreneurial and artisanal role as a woman with courage and resolve in early American life, she did make if not the first flag (we still don’t know for sure) than certainly hundreds of US flags in the first decades of the nation’s existence, and she became the beloved matron of a large and loving extended family. So we can remember, respect, and enjoy Betsy for what we know she did, not just for what we wish or think she did.
Not much about Betsy’s personality survives. But Miller believes what evidence we have suggests a woman that was decisive when necessary. She was a person who took considered risks, like marrying a second and third time when her first two husbands died young. She was apparently a woman with an admirable work ethic, and she was clearly a woman with compassion, for time and again she took down-and-out family members into her home, sometimes for years. She was a woman who knew her own mind and made decisions accordingly with respect to religious conviction. She married outside the church when she felt it right, and she became a key and long lasting part of the Free Quaker movement of her day.
Miller celebrates Betsy Ross as an early American woman who was what we’d call today a survivor. She didn’t give up, she didn’t fall apart, she didn’t run away. She did what she had to do to get through, and this she did until death claimed her as a woman full of experiences, full of the love of family, and full of days.
Betsy Ross and the Making of America is an interesting, well-written, and enjoyable book. I recommend it highly.
© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2012
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