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The bell in the Christ Church tower called the colonists to worship through the crisp winter air in early January. John and Betsy Ross slid into their pew across the aisle from General Washington’s empty box with a reverent nod in its direction. News of his battle in Boston on New Year’s Day had reached Philadelphia. The year 1776, ushered in with canon and musket fire, promised more of the same to come. Escalating tensions with England produced challenges on all fronts for American colonists and the Ross’ were no exception.
The couple, married barely four years, enjoyed precious little time together as husband and wife with the rumblings of war and independence troubling their bliss. In fact, to make ends meet, John was forced to join the Pennsylvania militia once their upholstery shop felt the financial impact of scarce materials and job competition because of the war.
But, on the Lord’s Day hope supplants fear. Civilians, officers, and enlisted gather as one family to worship He who commands Heaven’s armies. Class distinctions dissipate when saints gather to pray. In the throes of revolutionary unrest, petitions of both the high-born and the low-born rage fervent. Every word from every lip avails much.
Christ Church, centered on the street a block from the Ross’ home in one direction and the government meeting house in the other, filled to overflow when members of the Continental Congress gathered to govern in Philadelphia. On Sunday morning, statesmen sought the Lord’s wisdom for the historic decisions they had the responsibility to make. Betsy glanced about the congregation recognizing many distinguished men destined for immortalization in history books. She breathed a silent prayer on their behalf. They carried a great burden. With a loving squeeze of John’s hand, she met his eyes, betraying in her weak smile a sense of pride mingled with fear, then turned her attention to the hymn book. Patriots, citizens, soldiers, and seamstresses raised their voices as one in praise and petition to the strains of Amazing Grace.
John and Betsy never shared a pew or sang in worship together again.
Within a fortnight that January, while Congress argued secession from the tyrannical government over-reach of the English king, John Ross became an early casualty of a war yet to be formally declared. Suffering mortal wounds in an ammunitions storehouse explosion, Betsy’s hopes for a happily-ever-after life with him, shattered to pieces. A widow at age 24, she remained to navigate a tenuous future alone, taking any and all work related to needle and thread.
Battle losses prior to an actual declaration of war increased throughout the colonies—especially in the New England states. Representative John Adams of the Massachusetts colony was a fire-brand advocate for independence, making quite a name for himself in the congressional debates. New England saw more than its share of confrontations, becoming a particular hot-bed of dissention due to the influx of taxes required, and freedoms stripped, from the colonists there. Redcoat armies took violent stands to quell the masses. The scene played out with more regularity, spreading like a plague throughout the colonies.
On New Year’s Day in 1776, during the Siege of Boston, George Washington became acutely aware of the need to fly a new flag for the colonist’s cause in the skirmish. Whether Congress agreed that they were at war or not, the fact remained—battle lines were drawn. In the turmoil, the colonial rebels needed a rallying symbol under which to fight.
The colonists, seeking to live peaceable lives under an oppressive rule, spiraled toward a historic moment from which there would be no turning back. The crisis of birth to bring forth new life is not simply the domain of women. Nations are birthed through crisis, too. And in just such a critical moment of history, a widowed young woman would soon make a lasting mark in the birth of a nation through divine providential circumstances.
In February, General Washington arrived in Philadelphia to discuss the need for the colonies' standard under which to muster the troops. A number of flags existed, raised by colonists as part of the campaign towards revolution. For instance, the popular image of a rattlesnake captioned with the challenging tag line “Don’t Tread on Me” effectively stirred crowds to the purpose. But, emotionally charged mantras and imagery seemed hardly appropriate for a united battlefield banner.
A new flag must be designed to distinctly represent all thirteen colonies banded together for independence. This would set the colonists apart from the British Union Jack in battle, and become a new nation’s patriotic emblem. To the purpose, the Continental Congress designated a Secret Flag Committee made up of General Washington; Robert Morris, the wealthiest man in the colonies; and George Ross, John and Betsy’s uncle. By spring, they drafted an idea for the colors and design—red, white, and blue, in stars and stripes.
“But, who can fashion such a thing?” Washington asked.
It had been a couple of months since George Ross lost his nephew in the explosion. He knew Betsy’s skill and her need for work. He also knew her to be a patriot.
“I think my niece, Betsy Ross, at the upholstery shop across from Christ Church may be of use there.” he suggested. “You’ve had her mend and fashion some of your shirts, General.”
Washington nodded. He knew the quality of her work, and from Sunday worship was aware she had recently lost her husband to the cause. The committee agreed. Washington, Morris, and George Ross would pay a visit to Betsy Ross. Their errand involved some risk should news of their plan fall into British hands. They chanced arrest for treason, putting Betsy in harm’s way, and had every reason to be concerned for secrecy and stealth in meeting.
“The good mistress has lost her husband of late,” said Morris. “Perhaps we raise the subject of the flag on the pretext of a condolence visit from her uncle and his two friends. In daylight. To avoid suspicion.”
Loyalists to the crown were prevalent in Philadelphia. Spies might be the harmless neighbor next door. John Ross’ tragic death appeared as an advantage now, shielding a military meeting behind the veil of a social sympathy call.
On an early spring day in May, Betsy sat in her front room mending petticoats when she heard a gentle rap on the door. She slid her needle into the fabric to keep her place and set the sewing aside to see who may have come to call.
“Uncle George!” she smiled with delight with a reverent curtsy. “How kind of you to visit.” The last time Uncle George came to her door was shortly after the news of her husband’s death. She weakened for a moment, remembering the few days she tried to nurse John through his wounds to no avail. Uncle George had always been charitable to her. She spoke with him last when they laid John to rest in the Christ Church cemetery.
Blinking the sun from her eyes, she strained to see the two men standing behind him. A cloud drifted into place to cover the mid-day glare, allowing her to focus on the familiar faces of General Washington and Mr. Morris, men of note and accomplishment. Something told her this was not a mere social call with her uncle. A business call, perhaps? Swiftly, she ushered them into her home.
Light pleasantries exchanged between the lady and her visitors, with formal greetings and condolences paid as planned. Betsy shrank in the presence of the three dignitaries. They brought no parcel of clothes for mending. What could their mission be? To simply offer condolences? Surely not. Was the General in the habit of such a thing with so many militia families having experienced similar losses in Philadelphia?
Furtive glances passed between the men before the General nodded. “We shall get straight to the business, Mrs. Ross.” He spoke with a soft, yet commanding voice, motioning her to sit. She did so.
“You see, Betsy, dear,” started Uncle George, “We have need of your services. Your needle and thread.”
Betsy relaxed. “Oh. I see. You have some uniforms, perhaps, that need mending? General Washington, more ruffles for your shirts?”
“Not quite uniforms. And, no—no ruffles this time.” General Washington drew a small sheet of paper from his inner overcoat pocket and unfolded it on the table next to Betsy. “A flag, Mrs. Ross. A battle flag.”
Betsy picked up the paper and studied the hastily drawn sketch of a flag design.
“Do you think you can make a flag such as this within a fortnight or so?” Washington asked.
“Certainly. By the end of the month. Early June at the latest. But . . .” her voice trailed as she pursed her lips with indecision. Betsy was an obliging woman and did not want to appear critical of anything designed and agreed upon by such an august committee as those standing before her.
“You will be paid for the job, of course, Mrs. Ross.” Morris said.
“Oh. Forgive me. No.” Betsy said. “My hesitation is not economy of money, sir, but . . . ”
“Yes? Speak freely, mistress.”
Washington’s voice gently invited her opinion. A rush of confidence welled within her. After all, she was the only experienced seamstress and designer in the room. They sought her out for those very skills. She straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin to face the towering presence before her, and spoke with measured authority. “I hesitate because, I wonder why you have chosen a six-pointed star for the design rather than a five-pointed star.”
The men looked at each other, cut to the quick by her unexpected response. “Is that all?” Uncle George said with a good-humored chuckle in his voice. “Five or six points. Does it matter?”
Washington grinned. “Is not a six-pointed star easier to fashion with equal sides than one with five?”
Betsy lowered her gaze with a smile. “Well, if you’ll allow me to demonstrate, sir.” She rose from her chair, crossing to a long table in the room strewn with fabric swatches and sewing notions—the tools of her trade at the ready. Taking a squared white muslin in hand, she folded it oddly. Once, then twice, then again, and again. Holding fast the bundled fabric, she clipped one end of it with her shears, allowing the material to drop to the table, unfurling from their folds. She picked up one of the pieces and presented it for inspection. A perfectly cut five-pointed star.
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“Astonishing!” Washington shook his head in disbelief. “My lady, I applaud you.”
For the first time since John’s loss, and for the briefest of moments, peace and well-being washed over Betsy’s heart. To astonish such a man as the General himself was high praise indeed. And in her own home.
“Done. Five-pointed white stars it shall be, on a field of blue—thirteen all; against thirteen alternating red and white stripes.” Washington nodded approval. The committee agreed.
Discussion followed to determine the exact proportions and measurements of the flag, materials to be used, date of delivery, and payment. They instructed Betsy to cut and sew it by hand in the privacy of her own bedchamber to protect herself and the decisive step the creation of a battle flag meant to the revolutionary cause. The gentlemen stayed only as long as necessary, then made a polite exit reiterating their condolences again as they stepped outside where they might be seen and heard.
Closing the door behind them, Betsy realized with a jolt, the implications of what she agreed to do. She felt an active partner with John’s patriotic decision to join the militia, taking a practical stand for what he believed to be true and just. Though schooled in the use of a firearm, her weapon as a patriot would be needle and thread—and years of providential preparation in her trade to fulfill the purpose set before her. John would be proud. Thinking on this brought him nearer to her. A tear welled in the corner of her eye at the fleeting recollection.
But, in the wake of the excitement of the moment, she needed tea to quench the nervous jitters sweeping over her. Barely settling in her chair again with a steaming cup and saucer in hand, fresh from steeping in the teapot, she heard another rap at the door. This time, it was a condolence visit, in truth. Mr. Samuel Wetherill, an old family friend, brought mending and his kind regards in her recent loss. She poured him a cup of tea, inviting him to sit in the comfortable “best” chair she reserved for guests.
“My dear, are you unwell,” he said with a furrowed brow of concern. “You appear flushed and not quite yourself.” He clearly noticed her trembling still, so soon after the flag committee’s visit.
“I am well.” She softly spoke and sipped her tea. An awkward silence followed.
Mr. Wetherill attempted to put her at ease with conversation. “I daresay, I saw General Washington in the street a bit ago. With your uncle and the good Mr. Morris. I expect we’ll see the General at services this week. When did you last speak with your uncle?”
“My uncle?” Betsy clinked her cup to her saucer. Fearing she might jostle the tea to spill, she carefully laid it on the table, folding her hands on her lap with an affected smile. “I just spoke with him, in fact. He is well. Very well, indeed.”
Mr. Wetherill and his family had known Betsy since her youth, the eighth child of seventeen, baptized Elizabeth Griscom. He’d always been like an uncle to her, himself—even when her pacifist Quaker family cut her off after she eloped with John, an Episcopalian. Mr. Wetherill’s family demonstrated Christ’s love and concern for her through that tumultuous season, welcoming the new Mr. and Mrs. Ross into the Episcopal Christ Church house of worship. He was a proved friend and no loyalist. Indeed, his sympathies for independence were profound. And, it appeared he discerned something hidden behind the surface of her vexed countenance.
“Is he. Well you say.” Wetherill said with a knowing smirk.
Betsy sighed. She knew she could not maintain her composure for much longer. Clearly, Mr. Wetherill suspected something amiss. “Oh. I don’t expect I should ever be a very convincing liar.” She paused before leaning forward with widened eyes to reveal her news. “The truth is, Uncle George was just here within the hour with General Washington and Mr. Morris whom you saw in the street.”
Mr. Wetherill nodded. “Excellent! I hope they brought you good custom. Washington and his ruffles and Morris the same. New shirts ordered up, I suppose?”
“No,” said Betsy, shaking her head in disbelief as though coming at once to grasp the gravity of what transpired. She determined to bring Mr. Wetherill into her confidence. “I have been commissioned by the General to create a battle flag for the colonies. In secret, of course.” Saying it aloud for the first time caused her to tremble again. “Oh, Mr. Wetherill. What is to become of us in these troubled days? I am commissioned to create a flag that, should the colonies prevail—which seems impossible against the odds and could only be attained at a great cost in lives—it would become the standard of a new nation.”
All light-heartedness in Wetherill’s manner disappeared. He leaned forward and touched her hand, gazing severely into her face. “My dear. You are an Esther, commissioned by One higher than Washington for such a time as this. The God of the impossible calls nations into being and unseats them at His will and for His purposes. History has been wrought in your front room this day. It is His Story! Play your part with confidence and allow God to use it as He will.”
Waves of peace and purpose flooded Betsy’s heart. She burst into a joyful laugh laced with teary eyes for the swell of emotion. A childlike giddiness deposed the gravity of the moment. She sprang from the chair and crossed the room to the table where the pieces to the star she had cut lay.
“I even convinced the General that a five-pointed star was superior to a six-pointed star for its ease in making. I do it with a few folds and a snip of my shears. See here? He was astonished.” She handed the two pieces of cut fabric to Wetherill. “I didn’t want to second guess General Washington, but truly—if I were to commit to making a flag with stars, I would rather the simplicity of five-pointed stars rather than six.” Betsy laughed.
“Well, I’m astonished,” said Wetherill, fingering the five pointed star. “May I ask you—what did you plan to do with this star?”
The question perplexed her. “That star? Well, nothing. It was just a demonstration. I may be able to make use of the pieces in a quilt or patching, perhaps.”
Wetherill stood. “May I be permitted to keep it?”
“Keep it?” Betsy looked at him with surprise. “Well . . . certainly. If you must. But, why?”
“For posterity, my girl.” Wetherill’s response—swift, almost mysterious—chilled her. He lowered his voice with a grave foreboding. “The day may come when we shall need tangible reminders of turning point moments in our national independence story.”
Betsy held his gaze for a moment then looked wistfully away. “Well, it is just a flag, Mr. Wetherill. And, I haven’t even made it yet.”
Wetherill spoke, as if prophetically, “My dear Mrs. Ross, I believe what you haven’t even made yet has a destiny beyond our reckoning, at so early a juncture in this story.”
Betsy Ross, indeed, delivered the General’s flag as agreed one month before the Congress voted for independence on July 4, 1776. Printed dispatches of the formal Declaration of Independence circulated throughout the colonies calling patriots to arms. As a nation at war, one year later, on June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress formally adopted the national flag to promote unity and national pride:
“Resolved: That the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Betsy remained busy throughout the war, sewing more flags for the revolution in the secrecy of her bedchamber. She married twice during the war—tragically losing both husbands in battle. Perhaps, as she sewed, she prayed and wondered about the husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons whose blood would spill under that banner for the cause of liberty and justice. Within a year she was forced to share her home with British soldiers who took up rooms for rent when they occupied Philadelphia. Growing strong through a season of storm-clouds and loss, she bravely served the revolution making musket bullets in a secret cellar room to aid the constant need for ammunition—right under Redcoat noses.
After the war she married, for the fourth time, a man named John Claypole. He was a friend of her first love, John Ross. It was John Claypole who had run to her home with news of the ammunition explosion on the fateful day she lost her first husband. They raised five daughters and maintained a thriving upholstery and flag making business until her retirement in 1827 at the age of 75. She lived a quiet, devout Christian life until her death in 1836 at the age of 84. Through the years she often spoke of the day General Washington came to call with the commission to create the first American flag of the United States.
Her firsthand account of the event passed down through her family as part of their oral history. In 1870, Betsy’s grandson, William J. Canby, encouraged efforts to purchase Betsy Ross’ house and designate it a historical landmark as the American Flag House and Betsy Ross Memorial. A campaign launched to open it to the public through monies raised by an Association. Anyone could contribute and receive an elite document suitable for framing at a cost of only ten cents. The document included a full color picture of the celebrated moment in history painted by association founder, Charles H. Weisberger. It is the same painting used in 1952 to mark Betsy’s 200th birthday with an official US Postage stamp. The house has been a living history museum open to the public since 1937.
But, the most amazing part of Betsy’s story happened in 1925 when the descendants of Samuel Wetherill opened the family safe to discover the star he had taken from Betsy’s house within hours of her visit with Washington on that May day in 1776. He marked it with her name and did, indeed, seal it away for posterity. It remains a tangible slice of American history on display at Quaker Meeting House Museum located a block from the Betsy Ross House Museum in historic Philadelphia.
To learn more about Betsy Ross and the Betsy Ross House Museum, visit http://historicphiladelphia.org/betsy-ross-house/history/
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