Did Betsy Ross Steal the American Flag?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the wrong person may be getting credit for putting stars in America’s eyes.
The first bill Francis Hopkinson sent to the Continental Board of Admiralty was polite. Dated May 25, 1780, it listed all the design work he’d completed for his newly formed nation — on several seals, Continental currency and “the flag of the United States of America” — and asked for a quarter-cask of wine in payment. The bill, ultimately refused by the U.S. Treasury because Hopkinson was a member of the Continental Congress and thus already on the payroll, adds intrigue into whether Hopkinson designed what we now know as the American flag.
The image of Betsy Ross, flag designer and maker, has been ingrained in the popular imagination since the 1870s, when her grandson told the world about his grandma’s singular contribution to the American symbol. But there’s actually little evidence that she had anything to do with the Stars and Stripes. Enter Hopkinson, a polymath who composed operas, signed the Declaration of Independence … and, quite possibly, designed Old Glory.
It’s a powerful symbol of unity — and Francis Hopkinson, forgotten though he may be, might just have been the patron saint of graphic designers nationwide.
Flags mean a lot to those who salute them, as recent events surrounding the Confederate battle flag can attest, and the first American flag was a sound rejection of the new country’s former colonial masters. The first U.S. national flag, now known as the Grand Union flag, had the familiar 13 red stripes — but in the upper left-hand corner was a British Union Jack. Once the Brits were banished, the design needed a rethink, and that’s where Hopkinson came in. He had been on one of the committees working on the Great Seal of the United States, and while his design wasn’t chosen in the end — they went with the iconic bald eagle instead — two elements from his personal sketches made it onto the final choice: the shield on the eagle’s chest, bearing 13 stripes, and the constellation above its head, made of 13 stars. “It’s a matter of historical evidence,” says Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography, noting how “there is no good evidence that Betsy Ross designed or made the first American flag.” Hopkinson, on the other hand, sent Congress “an itemized bill that included designing ‘the Flag of the United States of America.’ It’s the only contemporary claim that exists.”
One thing that hasn’t survived in the record is what Hopkinson’s design for the flag looked like, but historians believe it would have included 13 stars in some unknown configuration, because the Flag Resolution of 1777 called for “a new constellation.” “The official order of the stars wasn’t codified until 1912,” explains Leepson, so any arrangement of stars was OK, and “there were thousands of them,” he says. Some flag makers arranged stars in neat rows, in star shapes and even in circles. “All flags were made by hand until about 1840,” Leepson says, noting that there were “all kinds of patterns.” In 1912, President Taft signed an executive order calling for a uniform flag design, which lasted until Alaska and Hawaii became states in 1959.
Hopkinson’s history with the stars and stripes design, combined with his bill, makes a pretty good case for his involvement with the first American flag. So why doesn’t he get any credit? Leepson thinks the truth lies at the feet of Betsy Ross’ grandson, William Canby. He announced his grandmother’s myth to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in 1870 with a research paper based on family stories that, Leepson says, are “about the worst historical evidence” you can find. Other forms of proof — contemporary receipts and letters, for example — just aren’t there for Ross, who worked as a flag maker in Philadelphia, and even scholars in the 1870s were deeply skeptical of Canby’s chronology. But his timing was impeccable, as he unfurled her story right around the centennial of America’s independence, when Revolutionary War figures loomed large in the national imagination, and Betsy, with her needle and thread, emerged as an industrious and distinctly feminine national symbol in contrast to the crusading suffragettes.
Perhaps Canby was simply in the right place at the right time, but historian Marla R. Miller, author of Betsy Ross and the Making of America, comes to Ross’ defense. “There’s no money to be made; there’s no self-interest in the family apart from the self-interest all families have,” she says, defending Canby’s claim. “It’s family pride.” Also, Canby never claimed that his grandmother designed the flag, just that she met George Washington and suggested that five-pointed stars would be faster to make than six-pointed stars, Miller explains, concluding that “there’s probably a germ of truth at the bottom of the whole thing.”
Hopkinson never got his quarter-cask of wine — no doubt requested in lieu of cash because the Continental currency had tanked and was essentially worthless. But more damaging, he’s been denied public acclaim for designing founding documents and symbols of the United States. The American flag is no Declaration of Independence, but it’s a powerful symbol of unity — and Francis Hopkinson, forgotten though he may be, might just have been the patron saint of graphic designers nationwide.