Betsy Ross: American heroine or racist icon?

5 mins read

By DAVID TAUB

My home was built between 1775 and 1780 and is often referred to as the Independence House.

Daily, we fly the Betsy Ross flag because it is the most appropriate one for the historic antiquity of my house, located in Beaufort’s Historic District.

Sadly, Ross’s Revolutionary-period flag, which contains 13 stars arranged in a circle against a background of red and white stripes has become a raging controversy.

As soon as Nike abdicated its autonomy and left good common sense at the starting line, the media lit up like fireworks even before the Fourth of July.

Gurus of every political/social stripe had an opinion. The more rational pundits and historians told the history of how other American symbols have changed over time, and sadly how some have been kidnapped by special interest groups, such as the KKK, as their own special idol.

Does flying Ross’s flag on the front of my historic home make my wife and me racists, which most certainly we are not? How did this moronic foolishness come to pass?

Historians have frequently warned us of the falsity of trying to understand complex events in history by viewing them in the context of modern ethos, instead of through the values defining their own time. This axiom is critical to understanding the contradictions of Thomas Jefferson’s famous words in the opening stanzas of the Declaration of Independence, and America’s dark period of slavery. 

The introduction of slaves to the colonies came under and through British rule. By the time the Declaration of Independence was signed and published, there were over a half-million slaves in America, out of a total population of about 2.5 million.

The Declaration of Independence spoke elegantly and explicitly on behalf of the 13 colonies, each colony a gift from the Kings of pax Britannica.

George Washington invited Betsy Ross to sew a flag that reflected that constituency; 13 former colonies now united in singular nationhood. Ross’ flag symbolizes that historic reality. 

What is the symbolism embodied in every American flag flying over the Republic before the end of slavery? 

Should we condemn these great American icons as racist symbols because slavery existed at that time? 

Should we believe that only US flags since the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, (passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, and by the House on January 31, 1865) validate the great American dream articulated by Jefferson at the beginning of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We holds these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …”?

A first lesson provided in Anthropology 101 is that in every culture “symbols” are very important to the society and mark the identity of the peoples who have adopted them. It is no different in America today.

In the modern world, every society, culture and empire has used national (and nationalistic) symbols to their own end; some to good, but many others to evil, pursuits. 

Our national flags are the most important symbols in America’s lexicon of icons. Many patriots of all colors, religions and beliefs have given their lives to protect and defend what these flags symbolize, which includes our freedom and democracy. Our flag is the “holy grail” for us, and we must passionately resist all attempts to conflate it with white supremacy, racism and bigotry.

Today, the fallacy of “race” and the racism that permeates from this toxic mythology, is alive and virulent in America. We face many difficult issues, not the least of which is an ugly resurgence in racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. 

Abraham Lincoln, perhaps our greatest president, opined presciently: “To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men.” 

Let us now not be cowards. It is time for all Americans to rededicate ourselves to the most righteous Judeo-Christian virtues of our shared American values and mores. 

Let us be courageous in the face of the evils of bigoted hatred that infect our society. We cannot remain silent; rather we must vigorously repudiate these poisonous curses. 

We must demand that our leaders do likewise, just as we must demand it of ourselves and our brothers and sisters.

 

 

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