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, May 19, 2006

Betsy Ross & other storytelling grandmothers

In February 2006 I delivered a paper at the "Heroism, Nationalism & Human Rights" conference at the University of Connecticut. My paper was "Listening to the Old Lady in the Kitchen: How Grandmothers' Tales Became Legends for a Nation." It looked at several examples of episodes in the American Revolution that we can trace back to a grandmother telling stories to children, but no further.

I proposed that the storytelling grandmothers, with a couple of exceptions, were not trying to shape the nation's history in their families' favor. They were trying to entertain, inspire, and, yes, shape the children they helped care for. Yet those children grew up believing fervently in the stories they'd heard, and in the mid- to late 1800s got them into print and into the history books. Drawing on my interest in children's books, I pointed out how many surviving grandmothers' tales match the qualities of good fiction for kids. (That paper was available for downloading through the U. of Conn., but no more.)

Seeking an uncontested example of a Revolutionary story that every American knows yet every American historian knows is poorly supported, I used the legend of Betsy Ross sewing the first American flag. After all, even the American National Biography entry on Ross concedes that she's included because of her latter-day fame, not her documented accomplishments. The Independence Hall Association's USHistory.org website still argues for the Ross legend, but its logic is less reliable than its transcriptions of the family accounts.

Shortly before the conference, and too late for me to do anything about it, Al Young alerted me to the discussion of the Betsy Ross story in David Hackett Fischer's tome Liberty and Freedom. (I say "tome" because of the book's weight and cost, not because of its style; it's hard to afford but not hard to read.) Fischer argues that Ross did sew a flag for George Washington, as her descendants said she'd told them—but not the flag she's credited with. Instead, Fischer posits that she sewed Washington's headquarters flag. I find some parts of that argument persuasive, others weak. In any event, I now see enough reason for not doubting the Betsy Ross legend that it can't be my uncontested example anymore. Proposals for alternatives are welcome!

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