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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Monday, July 06, 2009

The Philadelphia Connection

Yesterday I reproduced much of the account of the creation of the so-called “Grand Union Flag” from Robert A. Campbell’s Our Flag, published in 1890. That book credited the design to an eccentric, unnamed professor meeting in Cambridge with Gen. George Washington, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, and two other delegates to the Continental Congress.

Campbell acknowledged, “There is no record of any congressional action upon the report of this committee; nor, indeed, any record of any report made by the committee.” But remember the wife of the meeting’s host, who became secretary of their committee? Campbell wrote that he based his account “upon her notes made at the time, and upon her subsequent correspondence.”

And he claimed to have other papers from her as well:

The following memoranda is in the handwriting of the lady who made the notes of the Franklin Committee-meeting in Cambridge, and in the same hand bears this endorsement:

“By direction of Dr. Franklin, now in Paris, I made this copy of the Professor’s memoranda; and today I delivered the original of the same, and also a sealed letter (marked ‘private’ and tied up with it), into the hands of General Washington May 13, 1777.”

The following scrap in the same handwriting and evidently from a letter—but not showing either date, address nor signature—is full suggestion:

“You know how much interest I have taken in the new flag. It seems that there has been considerable attention given to the matter, in a quiet way, by some of our prominent men; and that the Professor’s design is almost universally pleasing to them. Last Friday afternoon I was invited to be present at a little gathering where the subject would be considered; and you may be sure I was greatly surprised, and not a little confused, to find myself the only woman there, while there was men around a dozen. They read the Professor’s memoranda and discussed the design. That is they one and all approved it. I explained to them how I came to be the custodian of the papers, and why they had not been sooner delivered to General Washington. The matter is finally settled, however, for the very next day the Congress here adopted the Stars and Stripes as the flag of the thirteen Colonies. And now that the matter is brought to such a satisfactory issue, you can not, I am sure, at all imagine how pleased I am with the result, and how proud I am with the accidental and humble part I have had in its consummation.”

This letter evidently refers to a meeting held on the afternoon of Friday, June 13, 1777, the day before congressional action upon the adoption of the Stars and Stripes.
Campbell never stated the name of this woman or her husband, and of course no one has produced those historical documents.

Because they never existed.

Our Flag was reprinted by a small Utah press in 1976. Its editor, in an attempt to correlate all American legends about the creation of the flag, suggested that the woman who wrote those papers, who carried the Professor’s design from Cambridge to Philadelphia, was none other than...Betsy Ross!

In late 1775, she did still have a husband, John Ross. But he was an upholsterer in Philadelphia, not the owner of a large house in Cambridge. Details, details.

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