I admit, sometimes we'd laugh at the tourists snapping countless pictures, reading signs, peering at maps, buying outrageously expensive soft pretzels (everyone knew you don't buy them in the tourist areas!), pitching pennies on Ben Franklin's grave (years later, I understood why they did that--they were paying homage to the man who coined the phrase in his Poor Richard's Almanac, "A penny saved is a penny earned"--but at the time we thought it was a pretty silly thing to do.) Hey, we were kids.
But I'm sure if someone had asked, we'd have been able to give a decent enough explanation of the events leading to the break with Great Britain, maybe something about John Hancock and Thomas Jefferson, etc. Heck, I'm sure we could have offered up the great tale of how Betsy Ross was asked by none other than George Washington himself to create the first American flag. And how that flag she sewed, with its unique star pattern, helped inspire a burgeoning nation to independence and unity. Or something along those lines. You don't mess with Betsy Ross.
But as a historian now, I look back and question how history and legend became intertwined with our local popular memory and national identity. Only a little digging reveals that few vexillogists (people who collect and study flags, and also my new favorite word) and historians agree with the popular conviction that Philadelphia seamstress Elisabeth Griscom Ross (a.k.a. Betsy Ross, revered national icon) actually made that first flag (let alone that General Washington commissioned it).
Indeed, the evidence appears to be scant one way or the other, and heavily anecdotal in nature. Much of the sentimental legend appears to have derived from a popular account put forth by Ross's daughter, and related in full by her grandson, in the late nineteenth century. Even then, however, scholars seemed a bit skeptical about the veracity of the legend, but the romantic quality seems to have captured the imagination of Ross's biographers, and the legend somehow became true. (Noted historian Laurel Ulrich offers an excellent discussion of how this transpired, and why Betsy Ross is still an important figure in U.S. history).
Even though legends about Betsy Ross and the flag are enjoyable, I think it's important to consider their origins. But what do you think?