Betsy Ross and the Making of America
by Marla R. Miller; Henry Holt
How can this be the first scholarly biography of Betsy Ross? Surely she is one of the most famous women of the American Revolution. Most of us still learn the legend that George Washington visited her Philadelphia shop and asked her to create a flag for the budding nation.
But as Marla R. Miller explains, Ross’ descendants “saw no need to preserve the letters she wrote, the shop accounts she kept, or any other record of her thoughts or actions….Her interior life is not preserved in journals or letters.”
Miller does her best to surmount this obstacle by relying on other archival documents—newspaper ads, household receipts, meeting minutes and the like— and by writing about many, many other people who surrounded Ross, even relatives of relatives. The result is a historical account that’s brilliantly researched but feels somewhat like a bait-and-switch, as much about the making of America as about Ross. No record exists of Washington’s visit to Ross’ parlor, for example, so Miller sidesteps the question of her actual role in creating the first Stars and Stripes. “The flag, like the Revolution it represents, was the work of many hands,” she writes.
The book is at least 50 pages too long and overstuffed with minutiae about minor characters we forget five pages later. But its best sections, which reveal how Ross came to know the men who ran the Revolution and later the country, are intelligent and lively. What’s clear is that Ross was not a seamstress, but an upholsterer with an array of skills in furniture making and fabric. She sustained a business throughout her long life, through three husbands (a fellow upholsterer, a mariner and a customs officer, each of whom left her a widow) and seven children, two of whom died young. She clearly had a bit of fire to her, leaving her Quaker upbringing when she married John Ross and later returning to the Free Quakers, a splinter group that supported the Revolution.
More broadly, Miller portrays what life was like for everyone from artisans to American prisoners in England. When she focuses on fewer characters and more stories, her voice is winning, at times even funny. Employ a 10-year-old’s approach to reading her book: Skip the slow bits, and enjoy the good parts.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.