Flag Day, June 14, is set aside to celebrate the Red, White, and Blue. In these tumultuous, divisive times, it is important to know why the flag is celebrated and what those colors represent.
Betsy Ross – who lived and died on a Philadelphia street not far from where America was founded at Independence Hall – will always be remembered for sewing the first American flag.
That house is festooned outside with dozens of those flags and is marked by a historical sign saying, “Betsy Ross (1752-1836). Credited with making the first stars and stripes flag, Ross was a successful upholsterer.”
Dr. Peter Lillback, the founder of Providence Forum, has written frequently about early American history. He said of Ross, “She was a seamstress and an upholsterer. When you’re standing in front of the Betsy Ross house, you’re seeing a single mom doing something to take care of her family.”
By age 30, Betsy Ross had become a widow not once, but twice.
The Founding Fathers had worked on a design and colors for the first flag to represent their 13 colonies coming together to form a soon-to-be free nation. Each color meant something special to these Founders.
They’re More than Just Colors
“Red stands for hardiness and valor. We’re going to be people who are strong and brave,” Lillback explained. “White: purity and innocence. When’s the last time you heard anybody in the government say, ‘We need to be a pure nation?’ That’s moral purity and legal innocence. We don’t break the law and we’re pure before God. That’s what white means.”
He continued, “And then when we look at blue, it’s perseverance, vigilance, and justice. We will not give up. As has been said, the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We persevere in what’s right. That’s what the colors mean…red, white, and blue.”
Now, these Founders needed someone to sew their flag. George Washington knew Betsy from Christ Church, which both sometimes attended, near her house. He and some of the other Founders came to her Philadelphia home.
How Ross Talked the Founders Out of 6-Pointed Stars
Lillback said of that meeting, “They come and they say to single mom Betsy Ross, ‘We need lots of flags and we’d like to have lots of stars. And we want them to have six points.’”
Many think the six-pointed star symbolized the spur of a nobleman. There were six-pointed stars on Washington’s personal coat of arms.
Lillback says this professional seamstress gave it to the delegation straight.
“And she looked at that and said, ‘Gentlemen, you need to realize it’s very, very hard to cut six-pointed stars. Lots of work. You’re going to need lots of stars on lots of flags. It’s going to cost you lots of money,” Lillback explained.
“And then she took a piece of cloth, folded it, and with a snip, out came a five-pointed star. She said, ‘If you’ll do this, you’ll save a lot of money and a lot of time.’ They said, ‘It’s a deal.’ And so Betsy Ross is the one who gives us the five-pointed star that’s famous all over the world: the American star,” Lillback summed up.
She Never Put Down the Needle & Thread
Betsy Ross didn’t just sew the first American flag, she went on sewing American flags for the U.S. government for more than 50 years.
Most of that time was right in the house on that Philadelphia street. It’s now where a large gravestone outside memorializes her and her unique contribution to America’s great symbol.
And the nearby historical marker says at the bottom, “As a skilled artisan, Ross represents the many women who supported their families during the Revolution and early Republic.”
“So I like to say that our story of whatever we do includes the moms and the ladies,” said Lillback.
That's the same point Abigail Adams made to her husband and Founding Father John Adams.
“She said, ‘Don’t forget the ladies.’ So here’s an occasion to say thank God for the ladies who have done a lot to make our nation great,” Lillback concluded.
This story was originally published in 2020.