Betsy Ross and the Making of America

Marla R. Miller

St. Martin's Griffin



Trade Paperback

496 Pages



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Betsy Ross and the Making of America is the comprehensive biography of one of America's most captivating figures of the American Revolution. Drawing upon new primary sources and examining the creation of "the first flag" with a fresh eye, Marla R. Miller thoroughly reconstructs the life behind the legend. This authoritative work provides a close look at the famous seamstress while shedding new light on the lives of the artisan families who crafted our young nation.


Praise for Betsy Ross and the Making of America

"In an engaging biography, Miller shows that even though the flag story is riddled with improbabilities, the life of the woman who came to be known as Betsy Ross is worth recovering . . . Through skillful use of small details, Miller sustains her repeated assertion that the future Betsy Ross was often 'only a handshake away' from the men who made the Revolution . . . Miller's admiring biography will warm the hearts of those who love the Betsy Ross legend. It may also convince skeptics (Miller refers to them as 'naysayers') that there is something in the flag stories worth considering."—Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, The New York Times

"Marla Miller's Betsy Ross and the Making of America is a stupendous literary achievement. It's not easy to accurately write about a real folk legend. Miller does so with historical accuracy, vivid descriptive language, and an encyclopedic knowledge of her subject. The Revolutionary War era comes alive in these fine pages!"—Douglas Brinkley, author of The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of America

"Marla Miller's incandescent biography of Betsy Ross is a joy to read. She brings alive an ordinary Philadelphia woman who is far more interesting than the mythical seamstress of the first American flag. Through prodigious research and elegant writing, Miller chronicles the life of a thrice-married woman so vividly that the entire world of women and work, family and church, and war and politics in revolutionary and post-revolutionary Philadelphia comes alive. Surprise after surprise tumble from the pages of this beautifully stitched account, where the importance of everyday women and men in the birth of the nation becomes abundantly evident."—Gary B. Nash, author of The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America

"Some might think that Betsy Ross is merely America's most famous seamstress. Marla Miller brings her to life in all her glory and in the rich context of Revolutionary America. Moreover, she does so in a prose style that is accessible, compelling, at times even lyrical."—Joseph J. Ellis, author of the forthcoming First Family: Abigail and John Adams

"What a fascinating book! Marla Miller looks closely at Betsy Ross and places her in the context of her Philadelphia. We learn of the contributions of the artisans and tradespeople to the Revolution and beyond as we witness them surviving the British occupation, rejoicing in American victory, suffering through yellow fever epidemics, reveling in their status as the capital city. And we can't help but marvel at the woman at the center of the story—Betsy Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole—as she runs her business, buries three husbands, raises her own large family plus those of her sisters, and provides flags for the new nation."—Cokie Roberts, author of Founding Mothers and Ladies of Liberty

"A full-length biography of an American icon. Miller (History/Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst) paints a detailed portrait of the woman credited with the creation of the Stars and Stripes. In fact, the story of George Washington's visit to Betsy Ross (1752-1836), in which she showed him that five-pointed stars were easier to make than the six-pointed ones he wanted, is impossible to verify. The documentary record shows only that Ross, who earned her living as an upholsterer, was one of several Philadelphians paid by the Continental Congress to make flags for the American forces during the Revolution. With so little evidence for Ross's main claim to fame, Miller digs into colonial and early federal history to examine the life of a working-class woman of the era. She covers Ross's Quaker upbringing, her apprenticeship in the trade she would follow all her life, her three marriages, the impact of the Revolution on daily life and the growth of the young republic. Ross's circle of relatives and acquaintances gives the author plenty of fodder for a survey of the changes in politics, religion, domestic life, social customs and economic trends of the time. For example, we get a look at conditions in an English prison where captured American sailors, including her second and third husbands, were held during the war; at controversies within the Philadelphia Friends meeting, which had expelled the young upholsterer for marrying outside the fold; and at the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic of 1793, in which she lost her father and her sister. With copious notes and an extensive bibliography, Miller provides an exhaustive picture of the life of a craftswoman in colonial times."—Kirkus Reviews

"The myth and legend surrounding Betsy Ross and the creation of the American flag looms large in American history. While many children's works have recounted and perpetuated the basic stereotypes, the question of who Betsy Ross really was remains unanswered. Through wide-ranging research and a skillfully crafted narrative, Miller (history, Univ. of Massachusetts, Amherst; The Needle's Eye: Women and Work in the Age of Revolution) has not only broadened our understanding of Elizabeth Griscom Ross Ashburn Claypoole but also the men and women of revolutionary America who 'went to work every day and took pride in a job well done.' Recounted are rich scenes from the City of Brotherly Love ranging from revolutionary upheaval to the yellow fever epidemic of 1793. With this distinct and persuasive biography, Miller weaves Ross into the fabric of the rich revolutionary tapestry. Fans of Woody Holton's Abigail Adams and Mary Beth Norton's Liberty's Daughters: The Revolutionary Experience of American Women, 1750–1800 will be drawn to Miller's compelling account.—Brian Odom, Library Journal

"Many Americans accept as true the story of Betsy Ross's role in creating the first American flag. Many modern historians believe the tale is apocryphal. But Miller, an associate professor of history at UMass-Amherst, says the story perpetuated by Ross's family is 'neither altogether right nor altogether wrong.' There is no doubt, Miller says, that the skilled needlewoman was one of Philadelphia's most important flag makers from the Revolution through the War of 1812, and that Ross is important because she offers a unique lens on Philadelphia in that era. Ross's uncles were deeply involved in the Stamp Act protests; a Quaker who left her church to marry her first husband, herself a supporter of the colonies' rebellion, Ross was twice widowed by the Revolution and was married again to a war veteran. The lives of her family members were claimed by the yellow fever epidemic brought by refugees from revolutionary Haiti who flooded Philadelphia in 1793; her artisanal family's prosperity was sacrificed to war and political upheaval. This first-rate biography of Ross (1752–1836) is authoritative and engrossing and goes a long way toward recovering the history of early American women and work."—Publishers Weekly

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  • Marla R. Miller

  • Marla R. Miller is an associate professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and the director of the public history program there. She has won the Organization of American Historians' Lerner-Scott Prize for the Best Dissertation in Women's History and the Walter Muir Whitehill Prize in Colonial History. In 2009, she was awarded the Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship from the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience.