The First American Flag (Betsy Ross Flag)

The First American Flag (Betsy Ross Flag)

"Resolved, that the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field representing a new constellation."

-Marine Committee of the Second Continental Congress, June 14, 1777

The Betsy Ross Story

Although the first American flag is deemed "the Betsy Ross Flag," her actual involvement in its development is highly debated. Most historians and vexillologists agree that Betsy Ross probably didn't design or sew the first American flag, but for more than a century Americans have accepted the story as history.

Betsy Ross' story didn't surface until 34 years after her death, when her only surviving grandson, William J. Canby, presented a paper he wrote to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. The paper included stories he had heard from his grandmother (Betsy Ross) and other family members throughout the years. Canby was 11 years old when his grandmother died, but the stories were kept in his family as an oral tradition.

Below is a condensed version of the Betsy Ross story, according to Canby's paper:

In June of 1776, George Washington, who was a frequent visitor of Betsy Ross' shop in Philadelphia, came to Betsy with a congressional committee comprised of himself, Robert Morris, and Col. George Ross (a relative of Betsy's late husband). The committee appointed Betsy the task of sewing a flag based on a rough drawing by Col. Ross. She offered various suggestions for improvement, including making the flag more symmetrical and using five pointed stars instead of six pointed. They accepted her suggestions, and she made the first American flag. After flying the flag at the peak of one of their vessels, the committee brought the flag to the State House, and Congress unanimously approved it.

The Betsy Ross story was made public after the close of the Civil War. In its state of emotional, economical and social recovery, America embraced the patriotic tale. The story was popularized again as nationalism spread in response to increasing emigration from Europe. Between 1885 and 1892, the American flag was celebrated with the births of Flag Day and the Pledge of Allegiance. The Betsy Ross story was published in books, magazines and newspapers. Today countless children's books depict the tale.

The main reason historians and flag experts do not believe that Betsy Ross designed or sewed the first American flag is a lack of historical evidence and documentation to support her story.

  • No records show that Continental Congress had a committee to design the national flag in the spring of 1776
  • George Washington was not a member of Continental Congress, but rather the commander and chief of the Continental Army, so it would be unlikely that Washington would have headed the committee
  • Although Betsy Ross kept detailed records, no invoice or document was found linking to this transaction
  • There is no evidence to show that Betsy Ross and George Washington knew each other, or that George Washington was ever in her shop
  • In letters and diaries that have surfaced, neither George Washington, Col. Ross, Robert Morris nor any other member of Congress mentioned anything about a national flag in 1776
  • The Flag Resolution of 1777 was the first documented meeting, discussion or debate by Congress about a national flag

Other Ideas & Speculations

The question "Who made the first American flag?" can only be given speculative answers. There are at least 17 flag makers and upholsters who worked in Philadelphia during the time the flag was made. Margaret Manny is thought to have made the first Continental Colors flag, but there is no evidence to suggest she also made the Stars and Stripes. Other flag makers of that period include Rebecca Young, Anne King, Cornelia Bridges and flag painter William Barrett. Any flag maker in Philadelphia could have sewn the first American flag.

As for the design, the vast majority of historians believe that Francis Hopkinson is the most likely candidate. Hopkinson was a Renaissance man of his era. As an artist, writer, inventor and musician, he achieved many feats. Politically he is known for his contribution to the design of the Great Seal of the United States, signing the Declaration of Independence, and serving in a variety of governmental positions.

Hopkinson was a consultant to the second Great Seal committee in 1780, a few years after the first American flag was created. He designed a seal containing a blue shield with 13 red and white stripes in a diagonal pattern and placed 13 six pointed stars above the shield. Although Congress turned down this design, the next committee used many of the same elements with the addition of Congress' Secretary Charles Thomson's design input. This time the Great Seal of the United States of America was approved.

Historians believe Hopkinson designed the American flag before contributing to the early design of the Great Seal. In a letter to the Continental Board of Admiralty dealing with the Great Seal, he mentioned patriotic designs he created in the past few years including "the Flag of the United States of America." He asked for compensation for his designs, and later forwarded a more detailed bill to the Board of Treasury but was never compensated.

A Symbol within a Symbol

To add to the mystery surrounding the first American flag, experts can only guess the reason Congress chose stripes, stars, and the colors red, white and blue for our flag. Historians and experts discredit the common theory that the stripes and five-pointed stars derived from the Washington family coat of arms. While this theory adds to Washington's legendary involvement in the development of the first flag, no evidence exits to show any connection between the two. As further disproof Washington despised those kinds of "trappings".

The true meaning of the symbols in our flag may be tied to ancient history. Stars were a device representing man's desire to achieve greatness. The common metaphor "reaching for the stars" developed from this idea. Another possibility may come from Freemasonry. Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock, Robert Livingston, Paul Revere and other important people of that period belonged to the secret fraternal order. They may have influenced the inclusion of stars in the American flag because, along with pyramids, arches, compasses and the "all-seeing eye," stars were known to be an important icon in Masonry.

The usage of stripes in our flag may be linked to two pre-existing flags. A 1765 Sons of Liberty flag flown in Boston had nine red and white stripes, and a flag used by Capt. Abraham Markoe's Philadelphia Light Horse Troop in 1775 had 13 blue and silver stripes. One or both of these flags likely influenced the design of the American flag.

The most logical explanation for the colors of the American flag is that it was modeled after the first unofficial American flag, the Continental Colors. In turn the Continental Colors was probably designed using the colors of England's Union Jack. The colors of the Great Seal are the same as the colors in the American flag. To attribute meaning to these colors, Charles Thomson, who helped design the Great Seal, reported to Congress that "White signifies purity and innocence. Red hardiness and valor and Blue... signifies vigilance, perseverance and justice." In 1986 Pres. Ronald Reagan altered Thomson's explanation by saying "The colors of our flag signify the qualities of the human spirit we Americans cherish: red for courage and readiness to sacrifice; white for pure intentions and high ideals; and blue for vigilance and justice."

Although we may not know all of the people who influenced the creation and design of the first American flag, the flag itself has influenced great patriotism and continues to do so to this day. Socially, politically and emotionally, the American flag has taken on a meaning unmatched by any other country's national emblem.


Flag: An American Biography by Marc Leepson 2004.

Copyright (c) 2007 Mandy Barberio. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled "GNU Free Documentation License".

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