Did you know that the Declaration of Independence was not signed on July 4, 1776? Our Founding Fathers agreed to its precepts that day, but final draft and copies had to be prepared. One by one, they signed in secret over the next few weeks, throughout the month of August.
Meanwhile, Betsy Ross stepped center stage in American history. A recent widow at age 24 when an ammunitions explosion took the life of her new husband John, Betsy served her nation in a critical time, providently placed and prepared by God.
In the spring and summer of 1776, in her home located one block away from Independence Hall, a vital element necessary to secure American independence lay in her hands.
Read Part 1 of Betsy Ross: Patriots, Petticoats, and Providential History in the July issue of RUBY Magazine.
When we last left Betsy, her husband’s uncle George Ross, Robert Morris, and the esteemed General George Washington surprised her with a visit one morning in May. Congress appointed them the Flag Committee, responsible to design and produce a national standard to take into the expected war with England. The esteemed committee had barely arrived when . . .
Scuffling sounds in the street, just outside the front door, hushed the group with a palatable tension. Betsy’s hand rose to her lips, stifling a gasp.
General Washington motioned for silence. He crept along the wall towards the window, shielding himself, to investigate the source of the noise.
Might spies have followed General Washington to her doorstep? Had the war Betsy feared for so long come to her own home?
Sudden boisterous yells shifted the foursome into high alert that their mission might have been discovered.
Silent and watching from the corner of the window, Washington motioned for stillness, until the bellows turned to laughter, and faded, passing by.
“Drunken youth,” he said, relaxing with a knowing frown.
A collective sigh melted the tense moment. “Back to business, Mrs. Ross.” Robert Morris returned their attention to the matter at hand.
“Can you make this battle flag?”
A collective sigh melted the tense moment. “Back to business, Mrs. Ross.” Robert Morris returned their attention to the matter at hand. “Can you make this battle flag?”
Betsy picked up the paper previously set before her and studied the hasty sketch of a flag design. “How soon would you want it?”
“Within a fortnight, if possible.” Washington said.
She studied the drawing. “By the end of the month, I daresay. Early June at the latest. But . . .” her voice trailed.
“You will be paid for the job, of course, my dear.” Uncle George said.
“Oh. Forgive me. No.” Betsy said. “My hesitation is not economy of money, but—”
“Yes? Speak freely, mistress.” Washington’s voice gently invited her opinion.
Betsy, an obliging woman, did not want to appear critical of anything agreed upon by such an august committee as those standing before her.
But, her expertise had been sought by them. She spoke her mind.
“I only hesitate because, I wonder why you have chosen a six-pointed star for the design rather than a five-pointed star.”
The men looked at each other, cut to the quick by her unexpected response. “Is that all?” Uncle George said. “Five or six points. Does it matter?”
Washington grinned. “Is not a six-pointed star easier to fashion with equal sides than one with five?”
Betsy smiled. “Well, if you’ll allow me to demonstrate, sir.” She crossed the room to a table strewn with fabric swatches and sewing notions—the tools of her trade at the ready. Taking a squared white muslin in hand, she folded it oddly.
Once, then twice, then again, and again. Holding fast the bundled fabric, she clipped one end of it with her shears, allowing the material to drop to the table, unfurling from their folds. She picked up one of the pieces and presented it for inspection. A perfectly cut five-pointed star.
“Astonishing!” Washington shook his head in disbelief.
“My lady, I applaud you. Five-pointed white stars it shall be, on a field of blue—thirteen all; against thirteen alternating red and white stripes.”
The committee agreed.
Discussion followed to determine the exact proportions and measurements of the flag, materials to be used, date of delivery, and payment.
They instructed Betsy to cut and sew it by hand in the privacy of her own bedchamber to protect herself and the decisive step the creation of a battle flag meant to the cause of independence.
The gentlemen stayed only as long as necessary, then made a polite exit.
Closing the door behind them, Betsy realized the implications of what she agreed to do. She felt an active partner with John’s patriotic decision to join the militia, taking a practical stand for what he believed to be true and just.
Though schooled in the use of a firearm, her weapon as a patriot would be needle and thread. John would be proud. Thinking on this brought him nearer to her.
Barely settling in her chair with a steaming cup of tea in hand, mulling over her new commission, she heard another rap at the door.
Mr. Samuel Wetherill, an old family friend, tipped his tricorn hat in greeting as she welcomed him. He brought mending and kind regards in her recent loss.
“But, my dear, are you unwell,” he said with a furrowed brow, observing her vexed expression. “You appear flushed and not quite yourself.” He noticed her trembling so soon after the flag committee’s visit.
“I am well.” She said and sipped her tea. An awkward silence followed.
Mr. Wetherill attempted to put her at ease with conversation. “I daresay, I saw General Washington in the street a bit ago. With your uncle and the good Mr. Morris. Your uncle looks well.”
The Wetherill family had known Betsy since her youth, the eighth child of seventeen, baptized Elizabeth Griscom.
When her pacifist Quaker family cut her off after she eloped with John, an Episcopalian, the Wetherills demonstrated Christ’s love and concern for her through that tumultuous season, welcoming the new Mr. and Mrs. Ross into the Episcopal Christ Church house of worship.
Mr. Wetherill had always proved himself a trusted friend. He discerned amiss. “My dear,” he repeated, “are you well?”
Betsy sighed. Clearly, Mr. Wetherill suspected something amiss. She paused before leaning forward with widened eyes to reveal her news.
“The truth is, Uncle George was just here within the hour accompanied by General Washington and Mr. Morris whom you saw in the street.”
Mr. Wetherill nodded. “Excellent! I hope they brought you good custom. Washington and his ruffles and Morris the same. New shirts ordered up, I suppose?”
“No,” said Betsy. She determined to bring Mr. Wetherill into her confidence. “I have been commissioned by the General to create a battle flag for the colonies. In secret, of course.”
Saying it aloud for the first time caused her to tremble at the gravity of it. “Oh, Mr. Wetherill. What is to become of us in these troubled days? I am commissioned to create a flag that, should the colonies prevail—would become the standard of a new nation.”
All light-heartedness in Wetherill’s manner disappeared. He touched her hand, gazing severely into her face. “My dear. You are an Esther, commissioned by One higher than Washington for such a time as this.
The God of the impossible calls nations into being and unseats them at His will and for His purposes.
History has been wrought in your front room this day. It is His Story! Play your part with confidence and allow God to use it as He will.”
Sudden purpose flooded Betsy’s heart. She crossed the room to the table where the pieces to the star she had cut lay.
“I even convinced the General that a five-pointed star was superior to a six-pointed star for its ease in making. I do it with a few folds and a snip of my shears. See here?” She handed the two pieces of cut fabric to Wetherill.
“I didn’t want to second guess General Washington, but truly—if I were to commit to making a flag with stars, I would rather the simplicity of five-pointed stars rather than six.” Betsy laughed.
“Well, I’m astonished,” said Wetherill, fingering the five-pointed star. “May I ask you—what did you plan to do with this star?”
The question perplexed her. “That star? Well, nothing. It was just a demonstration. I may be able to make use of the pieces in a quilt or patching.
Wetherill stood. “May I be permitted to keep it?”
“Keep it? Well . . . certainly. If you must. But, why?”
“For posterity, my girl.” Wetherill’s response—swift, almost mysterious—chilled her. He lowered his voice in foreboding. “The day may come when we shall need tangible reminders of turning point moments in our national independence story.”
Betsy Ross, indeed, delivered the General’s flag as agreed one month before the Congress voted for independence on July 4, 1776.
Printed dispatches of the formal Declaration of Independence circulated throughout the colonies calling patriots to arms.
As a nation at war, one year later, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress formally adopted the national flag to promote unity and national pride:
“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.”
Betsy remained busy throughout the war, sewing more flags for the revolution in the secrecy of her bedchamber. Within a year, British soldiers took up rooms within her home when they occupied Philadelphia.
Perhaps, as she sewed in secret, she prayed and wondered about the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons whose blood would spill under that banner for the cause of liberty and justice.
She married twice during the war—losing both husbands in battle. Growing strong through a season of storm-clouds and loss, she also made musket bullets in a secret cellar room to aid the constant need for ammunition. Right under Redcoat noses.
After the war she married, for the fourth time, a man named John Claypole. They raised five daughters and maintained a thriving upholstery and flag making business until her retirement in 1827 at the age of 75. She lived a quiet, devout Christian life until her death in 1836 at the age of 84.
Through the years she often spoke of the day General Washington came to call with the commission to create the first American flag of the United States.
Her firsthand account of the event passed down through her family as part of their oral history. In 1870, Betsy’s grandson, William J. Canby, encouraged efforts to purchase Betsy Ross’ house and designate it a historical landmark as the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial.
A campaign launched to open it to the public through monies raised by an Association. Anyone could contribute and receive an elite document suitable for framing at a cost of only ten cents.
The document included a full color picture of the celebrated moment in history painted by association founder, Charles H. Weisberger. It is the same painting used in 1952 to mark Betsy’s 200th birthday with an official US Postage stamp. The house has been a living history museum open to the public since 1937.
But, the most amazing part of Betsy’s story happened in 1925 when the descendants of Samuel Wetherill opened the family safe to discover the star he had taken from Betsy’s house within hours of her visit with Washington on that May day in 1776.
He marked it with her name and did, indeed, seal it away for posterity. It remains a tangible slice of American history on display at Quaker Meeting House Museum located a block from the Betsy Ross House Museum in historic Philadelphia.
To learn more about Betsy Ross and the Betsy Ross House Museum, visit http://historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/history/
Listen to a dramatization of the story on The Writer’s Reverie Podcast, by Kathryn Ross at www.thewritersreverie.com . Click Podcasts on the menu bar and scroll down to access Patriots, Petticoats, and Providential History.
Writer-speaker, Kathryn Ross is Pageant Wagon Publishing—igniting God’s Word and biblical principles as a vibrant light of literacy and learning in the life of your Christian family. Inspired by the stillness of birdsong, silent reflection, antiques, and teatime, she filters her love of history, classic literature, and the arts through God’s Word, to inform her words. Her passion to equip women and families in developing a Family Literacy Lifestyle produces readers and thinkers who can engage the world from a biblical worldview. In addition, she mentors authors as a book shepherd, assisting them in the development, editing, design, and production of the book God has called them to write. Miss Kathy blogs and podcasts at www.thewritersreverie.com and www.pageantwagonpublishing.com.