J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 28, 2007

Hit and Myth in Common-place

Continuing to clean out my “nifty links” file at the end of the year, I realized I never got around to discussing the latest issue of Common-place, the online magazine of early American history.

Leading off this installment is Harvard professor Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s analysis of how the Betsy Ross legend became so popular, prompting such art as the picture on the right, offered by the Library of Congress’s wonderful American Memory super-website. Ulrich reminds us government decisions aren’t that simple:

The stars and stripes that we know today had multiple parents and dozens of siblings. True, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed a cryptic resolution specifying that “the flag of the thirteen united States be 13 stripes alternate red and white, that the union be 13 stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation,” but nobody specified the shape of the flag, the arrangement of the stars, or the ratio of the canton to the field.

In October 1778, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams actually told the Neapolitan ambassador that “the flag of the United States of America consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white and blue.” Flag sheets from the 1780s and 1790s do in fact show flags with three-colored stripes. As for Betsy's nifty five-pointed star, a Smithsonian study showed that four-, six-, and eight-pointed stars were far more common.
Ulrich concludes that, “Ironically, Betsy’s story may have survived because there was no actual flag to confirm or undermine it.” (Though there is a suspicious five-pointed paper star, fortuitously “discovered” in Philadelphia years after Betsy Ross had already become a brand name.) I believe Ulrich’s essay may also be found in her latest book, Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History.

Also in this Common-place issue is Edward Larkin’s discussion of Loyalists. Unfortunately, Larkin makes the common mistake of misreading John Adams’s 1815 letter to James Lloyd, in which he said one-third of Americans were “averse to the revolution” and another one-third neutral. Careless authors have often taken that comment as referring popular opinion of the American Revolution. However, phrases like “The depredations of France upon our commerce, and her insolence to our ambassadors” make it clear that Adams was writing about American attitudes toward the French Revolution, and the U.S. of A.’s friction with Revolutionary France during his Presidency. That error calls into question some of Larkin’s enterprise, trying to resituate the Loyalists in American culture. Looking back, I see that I raised similar questions last year, too.

1 comment:

Larry Hendrick said...

Great article about the origins of the American flag. It is a fascinating topic to research. Good stuff.

Thanks also for the link to Common-place. I haven't spotted it before. It looks like a site full of useful information.