Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla R. Miller
April 27, 2010
Henry Holt, 467 pp., $30
Review copy from publisher, thank you!
The Burton Review Rating:
Betsy Ross and the Making of America is the first comprehensively researched and elegantly written biography of one of America's most captivating figures of the Revolutionary War. Drawing on new sources and bringing a fresh, keen eye to the fabled creation of "the first flag," 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 peopled the young nation and crafted its tools, ships, and homes.This is one tough book to crack. Instead of being focused on Betsy Ross, it is a portrait of Philadelphia and how the colonies reacted to British authority before and during the American Revolution of 1770's. For the first twenty years of Betsy's life, the book comprises of about 100 pages of the aforementioned history of America with accounts of the extended ancestry of Betsy Ross. It is very wordy, but once a chapter winds down, we get a small morsel of what could have been with an entertaining foreshadowing tidbit of how something horrid is going to happen that will change Betsy's life forever. That happened several times, I turned the page excitedly, and we were back to the history lesson that was an automatic sleeping pill.
Betsy Ross occupies a sacred place in the American consciousness, and Miller's winning narrative finally does her justice. This history of the ordinary craftspeople of the Revolutionary War and their most famous representative will be the definitive volume for years to come.
Betsy Ross whose given name was Elizabeth Griscom at her birth in 1752, is known as the legendary patriotic woman who met with George Washington in her parlour and sewed America's first official flag. As it is the stuff of legend and most probably not very true, the author Marla Miller sets out to establish the facts surrounding Betsy, her work, and other flag maker's work. In this all encompassing account of Colonial America, the author explains the political views of Betsy's immediate family and those that she came across or married into, which was a mixture of radicals, loyalists, patriots and conservatives. We do read about how Betsy gets her start in the seamstress business as she works as a young lady in an upholstery shop. The vision of Betsy simply sewing flags is shattered as we learn that Betsy was much more skilled than that as she was a part of the decorator business with chair coverings and the rare window coverings and many other household items.
Betsy's heritage and her great grandfather the talented builder Andrew Griscom are a strong focus in the book. The Boston Tea Party and the events that lead up to the Americans rebelling against the British rule who kept on taxing the Americans comprises the first half of the book. This brings us to the sad event of Betsy's first husband, John Ross, when he died mysteriously. No one really knows for sure what happened to him; he could have been injured while working with military weapons, or he could have been afflicted with a mental sickness that had also plagued his mother.
Interestingly enough, the author recounts how many citizens of America wanted to simply not be be subject to the taxes of the British, but were not expecting to actually go to war. It was the radicals who were loud enough to be heard that seemingly forced the rest of the citizens to go along with whatever was going to happen. Independence was not something that was on the colonies' minds as they opposed the Stamp Act or took part of the Boston Tea Party. The author also explains how Philadelphia was very much a capital of the the colonies, while others looked to Philadelphia for guidance. Bostonians thought they were doing Philadelphia a favor as they destroyed the tea, but Philadelphia was actually a bit chagrined.
The author writes the book with the promise that this is a story of stories, as she mentions several times that it was the grandchildren and heirs to the legend of Ross that have perpetuated certain stories that could be myths; and as such, there is indeed little proof of anything. So in order to bulk up the book, the author turned this would-be biography of Ross into something that could have sufficed as a semester of American History as well as upholstery.
This is a well-researched history of families in colonial America, but I was disappointed that it did not jump right into Betsy Ross' own life. It meanders around it and mentions Betsy or her many family members at certain intervals, but not enough to keep me entertained or ..awake through its entirety. I was once a little girl who cherished a toy bank that portrayed Betsy Ross on her yellow rocking chair as she stitched the American Flag, and even though I learned more about the times of Betsy Ross, this book did not satisfy the desire to know more about that whimsically magical person in the rocking chair. This was a book that would be better served with the title "Evolution of Colonial American Upholstery and Government, featuring Betsy Ross's Family".