Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Marla Miller's "Betsy Ross and the Making of America"

Marla Miller directs the Public History program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where she also teaches courses on the American Revolution and early Republic.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, and reported the following:
My book, Betsy Ross and the Making of America, is the first scholarly biography of the famed seamstress, the alleged maker of the nation's first flag. The book aims to get past the Betsy Ross of folk legend and historical pageantry and recover the world of Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole (1752-1836), a Philadelphia upholsterer and flagmaker for more than sixty years. One of the main challenges of the book is that, since Ross wasn't yet famous at the time of her death, none of her papers were saved for posterity. The legend of the making of the first flag is preserved wholly in affidavits signed by descendents and other family members decades later. The book, then, seeks to tell her story by restoring it in the context of Revolutionary Philadelphia, and the large Griscom family (Betsy was one of 17 children) who weathered the rebellion and its aftermath together.

Page 99 introduces one of my favorite episodes in that family history, the disownment of Betsy Ross from the Society of Friends, or Quakers. On that page -- the second page of Chapter 6, "Domestic Rebellions" -- I'm just warming to the topic of resistance in the household of Betsy's parents, Samuel and Rebecca Griscom, who were having as much trouble controlling their "unruly subjects" in the late 1760s and 70s as was George III.

People who know a little bit about Betsy Ross usually know that in order to marry John Ross (who, as the son of an Anglican minister, was off-limits to Quaker girls like Betsy), she had to elope to New Jersey; she was disowned from the Society of Friends for marrying, as they say, "out of unity." Much has been made of this romantic episode--Betsy Ross as headstrong, and lovestruck. So on p. 99 I am just introducing the story of how Betsy's four older sisters, as it turns out, had each, also, been disowned for marrying "contrary to discipline"--one of them, in fact, for having had a child our of wedlock. As I explain how each girl, in turn, was chastised by the church, and how some of them managed to drag the deliberative process of disownment out for months and months, I set up the story of Betsy's own elopement and disownment, events that end far more abruptly as she quickly reports that she will be leaving the Society, so there's no need for any long conversation about possible regret, forgiveness, and the restoration of unity with that community of faith.

This is one of the juicier sections of the book, and contains some of the most fun stories to tell, and I'd say too that it is indeed pretty well representative of the larger book because it's mainly about Betsy's sisters, but ends by yielding new insight into Betsy, too, since her comparatively quick decision to forego the traditional means by which such breaches are resolved suggests--to me at least--her very decisive nature. In the Myers-Briggs typology, as I suggest elsewhere in the book, Betsy Ross was rock-solid "J" (quick to make judgments), and this episode helps me to show that.
Read an excerpt from Betsy Ross and the Making of America, and learn more about the book and author at the official website.

--Marshal Zeringue