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. Continue Reading »