I’ve written a long post for this Fourth of July holiday weekend. It’s a really long one, so feel free to go get a snack and a refill of your festive and patriotic cocktail. Consider this a follow-up to my latest foot-stamping tirade about the So-Called “Founding Fathers” and the endless production of trade biographies thereof. Here’s a biography that, while not exactly about a person you’ve never heard of, managed to be the first serious biography of its subject.
Betsy Ross (1752-1836)–how many of you have thought about her seriously since elementary school? In Betsy Ross and the Making of America (2010), Marla Miller is candid about the challenges of writing a biography of a person whom most of us–especially professional historians–have long since relegated to the kiddie lit/grade school play bin without a second thought. Trained as a professional historian in the 1990s, I assumed Betsy Ross was half-myth, half-misguided Colonial Revival fantasy that romanticized colonial women as spinners and seamstresses. (This is an important theme Miller explored in her first book, The Needle’s Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution, 2006).
Miller writes in her introduction to Betsy Ross, “when I told people that I was writing the first scholarly biography of Betsy Ross, they usually expressed considerable surprise–surely there’s something out there somewhere? No scholarly biography of Ross has ever been published; her legend looms so large that her life itself has been largely overlooked.” There are no Betsy Ross papers–in spite of her half-century of work as an upholsterer and her care for dozens and dozens of extended family members, there are few records of these labors, and none in her own hand. There are no letters or journals that might provide some insight into her inner life as she endured Revolution, war, and widowhood three times over. What Miller says about Betsy can be said about most women subjects: “her descendants saw no need to preserve the letters she wrote, the shop accounts she kept, or any other record of her thought or actions,” 13.
Nevertheless, Miller’s story about the woman known as Betsy, and variously as Griscom (her family name), Ross, Ashburn, and finally Claypoole (her third husband, and the name she kept the longest), is a beautifully written and absorbing tale of the different Bestys, her many families, and of their times in Revolutionary Philadelphia and of the capital city in the Early Republic. She discovers as much about the real Betsy as can possibly be gleaned from archival, museum, and material sources in this impressive definitive biography. From her English Quaker great-grandfather Griscom’s arrival in New Jersey in the late seventeenth century to her death in 1836, Miller shows how Betsy’s family and their fortunes rose and fell with the city’s fortunes. Descended from skilled craftsmen and artisans on both sides–carpenters, cabinet makers, silversmiths, staymakers, and upholsterers–Miller shows that it was nearly impossible for the girls (and the one surviving boy) in Betsy’s family not to be trained in one of these trades. Betsy became a skilled upholsterer, trained first by her great-Aunt Sarah Griscom, a staymaker, and then by a prominent upholsterer, John Webster. Miller’s evocation of Philadelphia in this period is that of a small town filled with early American “celebrities,” kind like Aspen over the winter holidays. The Drinkers (Henry and Elizabeth), Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush, and of course George Washington make their appearances on a regular basis through their various business and personal dealings with members of the extended Griscom, Ross, and Claypoole families. Everyone knew everyone else, and if Betsy didn’t keep a diary about her various sisters’ troubles, you can be sure that Elizabeth Drinker did.
Feminist scholars and early Americanists will wonder: is it really all that surprising that Betsy Ross hasn’t been subjected to serious scrutiny, even after the tremendous successes of biographies of relatively or entirely obscure Americans in this period, like Martha Ballard, George Robert Twelves Hughes, and William Cooper? I don’t think so–because the history of the Revolution and Early Republic has regarded women like Superman regards Kryptonite–very, very cautiously, if at all. Ross is problematic because she’s a woman who was engaged in clearly political work. But, in this field women are either evoked to remind us of their irrelevance in the supposedly he-man experiences of war and governing a new nation, or they’re examined only in their special, and adamantly apolitical “separate sphere.” (A few notable exceptions focus on women’s engagement with politics in this period–Linda K. Kerber’s Women of the Republic and more recently, Rosemarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash, whose very title suggests the problematics of writing about women in the Revolution era.) Miller’s story of Betsy–whateveryouwanttocallher–is particularly valuable because she discards both historiographical conventions and shows that there was no such thing as separate spheres in her workaday world and in the political mentalité of Revolutionary Philadelphia. Separate spheres existed mostly in the minds of men who chose to distribute the rights and responsibilities of colonial and early national citizenship unequally, and who used their power to keep it that way.
Miller’s training in labor history and material culture serve her subject very well. Betsy worked alongside other women and men, and then when she set up her own workshop, she worked alongside one husband (John Ross) whom she worked with in Webster’s shop, and then another (John Claypoole), trained as a tanner. Miller assumes that Ross shared the Whig politics of her husbands (all three of them), and rejected the Quaker pacifism or even loyalism that her father apparently preferred. Miller makes this assumption thoughtfully and with careful attention to all available evidence–the fact that Ross was the nephew of attorney John Ross and his half-brother George, both of whom were heavily involved in Whig politics and the new Pennsylvania state government in the 1770s; the fact that her second husband Joseph Ashburn, a privateer, was captured and died in an English prison; and the fact that her third husband, John Claypoole, did a year of military service in 1777-78 and later enlisted as a privateer, was captured, and ended up in the same prison where Ashburn died. (That’s how Claypoole and Betsy met, as Claypoole knew his fellow Philadelphian Ashburn before he died.) Claypoole proved himself quite the progressive in the 1790s–he joined both antislavery and prison reform societies and played active roles especially in the former, and with his wife joined the Free Quakers, a congregation of former Quakers who had been read out of meeting because of their support for the War of the American Revolution. If she wasn’t a Whig by birth, she became one through the trials of Revolution and the hazards of war, including the occupation of Philadelphia. She must have married all of those Whiggish men for a reason.
Thus, Betsy’s collaboration with the Revolutionary government as a flag maker can’t be dismisssed merely as wartime profiteering or political exigency. Miller offers two full chapters on the question of Betsy’s contribution to creating the U.S. national flag in the late spring of 1777, and concludes that there’s both verifiable merit and dubious myths in the family tales her daughter and grandson told in the nineteenth century. As we have learned about “The” Declaration of Independence, there were many flags for many different purposes and many different flagmakers working in Philadelphia at the time. Miller concludes that Betsy was certainly one of them, and that her work for the war effort as the very young widow Ross probably reflected her real political sympathies. On the other hand, while there’s no evidence one way or the other as to what kind of work she did during the British occupation of Philadelphia in 1777-78, Miller concludes that “it’s hard to imagine her finding among the suffering community of rebellious Philadelphians enough sources of income that she could refuse on principle to fabricate tassels, mattresses, chair covers, or camp equipage for enemy quarters during the entire course of the occupation,” 204-05.
Miller invokes the late naturalist Stephen Jay Gould’s discussion of our fascination with clear and easily identified “firsts” in history–because complexity and ambiguity in history (American history or natural history) is, well, complex and ambiguous. It’s hard to write nationalist narratives that start with, “This is a complicated story, as there were many factors that contributed to the rise/creation/invention of. . . “ Compare that to the clarity and simplicity of ”Betsy Ross made the first American flag!” It doesn’t matter if the clearer narrative is false–it’s clearer, and therefore much more memorable and repeatable and powerful. As Miller, quoting Gould, writes, “‘we seem to prefer the alternative model of origin by a moment of creation–for then we can have heroes and sacred places,’” 180.
Miller is a dogged researcher, and the details she has mined from nearly every archival and secondary source on Revolution-era Philadelphia is truly remarkable. Her book begs the question–surprise!–as to how to write a scholarly biography about an individual who left no written records that were preserved? Miller’s technique is to evoke vividly (and in as much detail as she can muster) Betsy’s world, and to explore meticulously Betsy’s likely reactions or thoughts at important turning points. Unfortunately, like most free women in colonial Anglo-America, Betsy appears in the historical record only when she gets married or has a child. (Advertisements for her shop give Miller more information than we have about most free women in this period.) So, Miller is left to build her story around the relatively greater details she can discover about the men in Betsy’s life–her father, her uncles, and her husbands. This, obviously, is a great danger for feminist biography–following the historical details can lead us into writing (once again!) about the men surrounding a female lead, rather than the woman herself.
Given the choice between doing some men’s history in the service of women’s history, or not writing that history at all, I think the answer is clear. However, the danger of the men’s stories overwhelming the women’s or woman’s story is still something for feminist historians to consider. At a few points–for example, at the very beginning of the book in a few chapters on Betsy’s great-grandfather and his commitment to Quakerism, and at the end of the book with its focus on John Claypoole and his involvement in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society–I thought Miller was straying too far into the men’s history and away from Betsy, but as a fellow historian, I understand the pull. How could she not write about Claypoole’s strong interest in abolition, when she wants us to understand Betsy’s politics? How could she not write about Great-Grandfather’s Quakerism and prosperity when the Griscom family’s strained relationship to their faith and fortunes is such a big part of all of their stories?
Miller’s Betsy Ross gives readers a lot to think about this summer. Lay readers will be absorbed by her great storytelling and her eye for telling detail, and scholars will be fascinated by her craft as a historian and as a writer. This book ranks with Nell Painter’s 1997 biography, Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol for its exploration of the legend of Betsy Ross as well as the life of the real Betsy. And that’s about as good as it gets for serious history books aimed at attracting a crossover audience.
Disclosure: I was contacted by the author who asked if I’d accept a gratis review copy and consider writing about it on this blog. I accepted the book, as it fits clearly into my intellectual interests and the issues I write about here.