In the bedroom of the Betsy Ross House, a reconstruction of where the upholsterer worked on her most famous commission, a long flag with a circle of 13 stars hangs over a Chippendale side chair and extends across the floor. Over the weeks in 1776 needed to complete the project, Ross would have likely knelt on the flag, stood on it and treated it more like an everyday banner — not with the kind of reverence we’d expect today.
“She would not have worried about it touching the floor or violating any codes,” says Lisa Moulder, director of the Ross House. “The flag did not have any kind of special symbolism.”
Flags proliferate every July 4. But unlike the right to assemble or trial by jury, their role was not prescribed by the founders. They would have been rare during early Independence Day celebrations. Only in the mid-19th century does the U.S. flag become a permanent fixture at the White House, scholars believe; only in the mid-20th century was a federal code established for how it should be handled and displayed; only in the 1960s did Congress pass a law making it illegal to “knowingly” cast “contempt” on the flag.
The flag’s evolution into sacred national symbol, and the ongoing debates around it that inspire so much passion and anger, reflect the current events of a given moment and the country’s transformation from a loose confederation of states into a global superpower.
“The flag was really an afterthought,” says Scot Guenter, author of “The American Flag, 1777-1924″ and a professor emeritus of American Studies at San Jose State University. In the beginning, Guenter says, the Continental Congress was more concerned about developing a “Great Seal” because it was needed for papers it would issue.
Congress passed its first flag act on June 14, 1777: “Resolved, that the Flag of the thirteen United States shall be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the Union be thirteen stars, white on a blue field, representing a new constellation.” But the flag is otherwise peripheral to the country’s beginnings.
A spokesman for Independence Hall in Philadelphia says no records exist of a U.S. flag being present for the signing of the Constitution in 1787, or any indications that a national flag would have flown during the following decade at what is now called Congress Hall — a decade when Philadelphia was the country’s capital. Researchers at George Washington’s home have no evidence that the flag was displayed there in his lifetime. (Volunteers there now regularly raise and lower U.S. flags, which are sold at the gift shop as having “flown over Mount Vernon”).
According to the White House Historical Association, no precise date exists for when the flag first had a permanent home at the presidential residence. Researchers at the historical association say the best guess is June 29, 1861, early in the Civil War, when President Lincoln dedicated a flagpole on the South Grounds.
The Civil War, followed by the country’s centennial in 1876, helped mythologize the flag. Americans were in the mood for a good story, and William J. Canby, grandson of Betsy Ross, had one. In a speech given to the Pennsylvania Historical Society, Canby drew upon family memories in narrating the quiet, heroic tale of Betsy Ross, who had died little known beyond her immediate community.
“As an example of industry, energy and perseverance, and of humble reliance upon providence, though all the trials, which were not few, of her eventful life, the name of Elizabeth Claypoole (her married name at the time of her death) is worthy of being placed on record for the benefit of those who should be similarly circumstanced,” Canby stated.
LEGEND OUTWEIGHS FACT
The Ross House bills itself as “the birthplace of the American Flag,” but its origins are uncertain. We have no definitive account. Many credit Francis Hopkinson, a congressman from New Jersey, but others, including Ross, may have added details — and, unlike the Declaration of Independence, we have no original artifact. Whether Ross or another produced the first one, its ultimate destination is unknown.
“We think it would have ended up on a ship mast, to signify that it was an American ship,” Moulder says.
Ross’ place in history also remains in question, even among government institutions. An essay entitled “The Legend of Betsy Ross,” on the website for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, says her tale is “shrouded in as much legend as fact,” with no substantial evidence of her involvement. Says the museum: “While it makes for a nice story, sadly, it is most likely false.”
Ross, who died in 1836, left behind no diary or contemporary accounts of her whereabouts, officials at the Ross House acknowledge. But she was very much a real person who produced various flags before and after the alleged time she was approached by a commission that included George Washington and asked to sew a flag to represent the new country. Officials at the Ross house have no direct proof of Washington contacting Ross in 1776, but they note that a ledger unearthed in 2015 revealed Washington had engaged in business two years earlier with Ross and her husband and fellow upholster, John Ross.
“We know that Washington wanted the Rosses to make bedrooms curtains for his home in Mount Vernon,” Moulder says. “And curtains are the kind of job that Betsy would have taken on.”
As the country grew more nationalized and nationalistic, Ross was added to the early pantheon and the flag’s presence expanded like so much territory across the continent — into state ceremonies and buildings, sporting events, schools and private homes.
THE FLAG TAKES CENTER STAGE
In the midst of fierce labor battles and rising fears of immigration, the minister Francis Bellamy composed the Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. It was tied to the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing but also, as historian Richard White has written, addressed “a time of intense social conflict in an increasingly diverse nation” and was intended “as a hopeful affirmation of America’s future.”
Throughout the 20th century, regulations were proposed and enacted. The first national flag code was drafted in 1923 and signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, with recommendations on everything from how to salute the flag to how to carry it. In the mid-1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower endorsed legislation adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, a Cold War action with origins 20 years earlier.
“In the 1930s, you had conservatives arguing that the New Deal represented slavery and that the counterpoint was freedom under God,” says Kevin M. Kruse, a professor of history at Princeton University whose books include “One Nation Under God,” published in 2015. “So there was a corporate-fueled drive against the regulatory state and it takes on religious tones. In the 1950s, that gets appropriated by the anti-communists.”
Burning American flags dates back at least to the Civil War. But only in July 1968, in response to Vietnam War protesters, did Congress pass legislation making it illegal (the Supreme Court overturned the ban in 1989) and adding other restrictions against “publicly mutilating” the flag. Three months later, the radical activist Abbie Hoffman was arrested for wearing a Stars and Stripes shirt, charges later dropped on appeal.
“He showed up in the shirt for a meeting of the House Committee on Un-American Activities,” says Mark Kurlansky, author of “1968: The Year That Rocked the World,” a social history. “He just thought it would be funny.”
Last month, the Biden administration hosted a Pride Day gathering on the White House South Lawn and hung a Pride Progress flag between U.S. flags on the Truman balcony. Rep. Mike Collins, a Georgia Republican, denounced the prominence of an “alphabet cult battle flag.” Other Republicans alleged that Biden officials had broken federal regulations, which call for the American flag to be “at the center and at the highest point” when grouped with other flags. Defenders of Biden noted that a U.S. flag was flying above from atop the White House.
“The flag is so important because it helps define what we believe in. You have Democrats and Republicans trying to attach meaning to it,” Guenter says. “The flag can intersect with issues of gender and race and sexuality. There’s so much there to think about, and it reveals so much about who we are.”
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