Is the Betsy Ross Flag Racist?

Yes, yes it is. It is flown by white insecurity groups to intentionally make black Americans feel unwelcome.

Source: Twitter

Let me explain by way of an example: I was really excited to watch this video about Chinook “electronic warfare” until I clicked on play and a giant Betsy Ross flag showed up as the backdrop.

That’s just wrong. There are some places this American flag featuring a 13-star circle (colloquially known as the Betsy Ross) could be appropriate. This is NOT one of them.

Thirteen stars in a circle was NOT the first flag of America, nor was it the only flag.

“Every historian who’s looked into it has found no credible evidence that Betsy Ross made the first American flag, or helped design it, or even that there was a flag committee,” says journalist and historian Marc Leepson, author of Flag: An American Biography. “It could have existed, but there is no evidence whatsoever.”

Here are some basic history facts that should settle this matter rather quickly.

  • Out of all available records — news, letters and diaries, official papers and memos — neither Washington, Ross, Morris, nor anyone else in Congress of 1776 mentioned a thing about a national flag. June 1777 brings the first discussions about a national flag.
  • Keep in mind one of the first things the First Continental Congress did was appoint Washington to commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. He was gone by July 1775, a full two years before national flags were discussed, and he definitely was not a congressional committee head even by 1776.
  • The push for Betsy Ross to get any credit at all is sourced to Reconstruction (1870, after emancipation and thirty years after her death) when her grandson suddenly creates an unverifiable story about an obscure white woman creating the first American flag with five pointed stars, related to a random visit by Washington in 1777. Canby never claimed the Continental Congress created any committee anytime in 1776 to design a flag.

That last point is perhaps the most important because I haven’t seen enough coverage by historians of the fact that the Betsy Ross story literally originates in the 1870 rise of the KKK. Let me say that again, the Betsy Ross flag story originates in the 1870s rise of the KKK.

And then the Betsy Ross story again becomes popular in the second rise of the KKK around 1915.

What did the KKK have to do with a Betsy Ross design? Guess who used a circle of stars as their official first flag?

Here’s the Confederate South flag design during the Civil War, which looks suspiciously like the alleged Betsy Ross design that suddenly was popularized by the KKK immediately after the Civil War ended:

The actual Confederate South flags as they first appeared. The circle seems… important.

Both times in history (before now) that this Betsy Ross design becomes popular was during rise of the KKK. And above you can plainly see the “last flag” of the Confederacy is a circle of 13 stars. Does this modern patch of the KKK seem like a strange coincidence to you?

Source: Twitter

Hold this thought. It’s important.

Now let’s go back to the 1700s, just to take a minute to recognize that Washington’s actual commander-in-chief flag was very clearly NOT a circle of stars.

Source: Museum of the American Revolution

NOT A CIRCLE.

And here’s a painting by James Peale called “The Battle of Princeton” from 1782, depicting Washington flying his rows of stars in battle.

Source: Princeton University Art Museum

Perhaps you can see the problem with the Betsy Ross story. There could have been hundreds of interpretations of “constellation” of white stars in the Flag Act of 1777, including a “sad face Bennington” you can see here flown recently by operators overseas:

The “Hopkinson” variation of the thirteen stars, which actually has a legit “origin” story, looks remarkably similar to Washington’s flag.

Fun history fact: the Board of the Treasury in a 1780 report rejected Hopkinson’s request he be paid for this flag design.

It was ruled his arrangement of stars had come as a collaboration. This goes even further to blowing up the whole Betsy Ross flag story as weird and bogus worship with very little historical basis.

We may as well rename the Betsy Ross flag a Hopkinson design, except Hopkinson’s actual alleged design was so much better than the fictional one of Betsy Ross.

The Hopkinson design (really the Washington flag, really a collaboration) makes a lot more sense on many levels for anyone who actually intends to fly an “origin” flag of the United States. Get rid of the circle, right?

Hopkinson’s looks so much more like the modern American flag to begin with.

And then, just like the Revolutionary War, Hopkinson was forced to admit a collaborative effort and not some singular control over the image.

Thus, as a design it just makes so much sense… so you may now wonder why anyone in 1870, in 1915 and in 2016 would bother to put stars in a circle (other than to promote false history or signal chains of oppression… but I’m getting ahead of myself).

The real story here is that flying today any flag commissioned just before the 1780s, whether it was stars in a circle or not, has a giant massive big problem.

Do you know what was a hot topic of the 1780s?

Slavery.

More precisely, abolition was the hot topic. Slavery was openly criticized yet people like George Washington very passively allowed racist tyranny to continue for his own personal gain.

…I’m certain that few of the people involved in these situations actively dislike black people – or think lowly of them. Instead, they’re just people acting normally in a system that promotes and protects Eurocentric power by denying, and at best bracketing, the humanity of Africans and Afro-descendant people. In this world, you don’t have to be a racist to be racist; it’s racist to just passively allow racism to continue.

Let’s be specific here.

Pennsylvania’s Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery of 1780 set forth truly revolutionary concepts like proposing an end to racism — all children born in the state would be free persons regardless of race or their parents’ race.

It followed Vermont’s total abolition of slavery in 1777, not to mention Britain’s abolition of slavery in the colony of Georgia in 1735. That’s right, Britain was telling the colonies of America that slavery was done and needed to end.

In other words, a 1780s flag with stars in a chain might make sense in a video about life in the 1780s that discusses the pressing need to abolish the chains of slavery and the missed opportunity, the unforced error, by American founders.

America not only failed to overthrow tyranny in that truest sense of the word, its flag represented rebranding and expanding tyranny by very intentionally perpetuating slavery.

Think about a display of all the flags in American history (updated 27 times so far), flying side by side. THAT would be a good place to find flags like the Betsy Ross (although honestly there’s no real reason to fly a circle of stars instead of the Hopkinson flag).

The old flag would be among all the later flags, symbolizing a far less-than-ideal chapter from the past when America decided to go backwards and restart and expand slavery despite it having already been abolished.

Kind of like saying “here’s an old flag that we no longer fly, it’s from a time of slavery and we use it to show how far we’ve come since that awful time of Betsy Ross”. It is a flag to symbolize mistakes made, with other flags present to show some direction and progress since that time and contextualize it properly.

Kind of like… the Obama inauguration in 2013, which had a couple Betsy Ross flying abreast the Illinois version (28 stars for 1846 when it became a state) and current American flag. As a timeline for context, in an official capacity for a transition ceremony, it’s acceptable (note also it hangs far below the current American flag flying proudly above).

Source: AP

In fact it would have been an excellent rhetorical prop had Obama pointed to the Betsy Ross and said “this is not who we are, we have come a long way from the KKK” if you see what I mean.

For another example, think about a video where the topic is the history of flags, or a blog post for that matter.

Perhaps the flag would be near some historians discussing what it means (like I’m doing here), or in a museum about what life was like in 1780s and how George Washington opposed abolitionists and secretly violated laws of America to keep his slaves.

Ample opportunity would be given to explain how this flag is from long ago, a time that nobody would want to go back towards because… slavery, not to mention misogyny and a host of other things.

Again, was the Betsy Ross the only flag of this time? Definitely NOT. Was it the primary flag? Again NOT at all. So why was it being promoted out of the blue in 1870, let alone today?

This flag really isn’t really able to speak for itself because on its own it raises many important questions that really shouldn’t be left unanswered.

When flown or shown with no context, as a substitution for the present American flag, it tends to beg whether someone is thinking “forget all the Amendments, never mind all the changes, let’s go backwards to white nationalism of the 1870s and 1780s”.

Or more literally, the Betsy Ross flag typically serves as a warning to Black people they are “neither welcome nor seen as equal”.

To be fair, hate groups tend not to rely on Betsy Ross alone to signal everything they want to say. Nazis and KKK in other words wave this flag along with their other flags, although that might be changing lately.

Here’s how the Betsy Ross used to show up in domestic terrorism meetups:

Source: Brad Warthen

An entire video from 2007 shows how the Betsy Ross is appropriated. Again it clearly isn’t sufficient on its own, they have to surround it with other hate flags to make their point.

There’s an important subtext here, which is that in 2007 Nazis were still very much attached to displaying the swastika and costuming to look like Hitler.

It seems absurd in 2021, but back then it was still a Nazi thing to dress like a reenactment of 1936 Germany.

After 2016 the American Nazis were very much opposed to wearing a swastika (they literally banned it themselves after claiming for decades any bans on swastikas would be immoral). Nazis realized they could just fly Trump flags instead.

Fast forward to today, and the 1870 KKK flag using a circle of stars…

In other words, here’s what hate group meetups look like now in America, and again a Betsy Ross isn’t on its own:

Source: Twitter

Trump plus Betsy Ross = KKK/Nazi (this shouldn’t be news to anyone literate in basic American history).

And on that note, here’s how the Betsy Ross shows up in various domestic terrorism recruitment fliers:

Source: NY
Source: Illinois
Source: Washington

For what it’s worth, the person who took credit for one of these campaigns was found dead after warning he was threatened by others in his group for “not being racist enough”.

That reminds me of how some experts maintain that the Betsy Ross isn’t racist enough yet for them to register it alone as a symbol of hate. Those kind of comments might have been a basis for the KKK to kill their own man.

So what does flying a Betsy Ross represent?

All of this being said, the bottom line is still a Betsy Ross flag probably didn’t come from Betsy Ross, and it absolutely did come from a time when America didn’t consider Black people human and it basically operated as a white police state.

That’s pretty bad on its own.

If there were any real proof the Betsy Ross flag came from Betsy Ross, we might also have to ask whether her design was meant to represent her values of the time (she eloped and intermarried and suffered from American misogyny, in a story not unlike Hutchinson).

Still not great.

It’s like asking the question whether America is racist. The answer is obviously yes, especially at the time of ill-gotten gains under this flag, as Brookings wrote:

When a person critiques America for the racism that is deeply embedded in our social institutions, some feel they are being personally attacked. This is because deep down they realize that they benefit from unearned assets associated with whiteness.

Discussing whether a flag of 1776 America is racist is like someone asking if the “America First” platform of 1915 was racist, or for that matter like asking whether a 1938 flag of Germany was anti-semitic.

Kind of obvious, no?

Washington could have freed his slaves just like his friend Robert Carter. He did not.

Washington could have demanded “all men created equal” was written as all people. He did not.

Washington could have cited the Georgia (1735) or the Vermont (1777) colony formal abolition of slavery as a model for the nation. He did not.

…July 2, 1777. In response to abolitionists’ calls across the colonies to end slavery, Vermont became the first colony to ban it outright. Not only did Vermont’s legislature agree to abolish slavery entirely, it also moved to provide full voting rights for African American males.

Heck, Washington could have spent more than six months at a time in Philadelphia and thus simply agreed to the law of the land — abide by terms of the local 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.

He did not!

In fact it seems the opposite.

While flying his 13 stars and bars flag, Washington is said to have knowingly and repeatedly violated the state’s law (as well as its 1788 Amendment) by constantly rotating his slaves so he could keep them.

Let’s be honest. The American Revolution almost certainly extended and expanded slavery, and repressed women, far more than if Britain had maintained control of its colonies. In the War of 1812 America started enlisting Black freemen to fight against the British and then afterwards taking away the guns and freedoms of the victorious Black veterans (a racist theme that would repeat again in 1899 after the Spanish American War, in 1918 after WWI and so on).

America of 1776 thus can not be separated from the act of forming a new framework of tyranny, especially in Georgia (never forget British abolition of slavery in 1735 was violently reversed by colonists who restarted slavery and said it was impossible for white people to live in America without Blacks doing all their work for them). This is a story repeated in Texas and Florida as well.

That’s right, I keep bringing up the year 1735 for abolition of slavery in the colonies by the British. America’s Revolutionary war was fought by whites who fully intended to restore and extend slavery, and who were setting the stage for an even bloodier Civil War a century later on the same principles of tyranny.

Britain (as well as France), to put it simply, had been debating release of slaves in the 1700s and then freed them. Yet during that same time in America was doubling down on slavery and violent white militias were killing anyone who even dared report on mistreatment of Blacks or speak of abolition.

To be fair, France — like America — decided to restart slavery after it had been abolished.

“The decision to reestablish slavery isn’t just a stain on Napoleon’s legacy, it’s a crime,” Louis-Georges Tin, campaigner and honorary president of the Representative Council of Black Associations (CRAN), told DW. Napoleon’s decision in 1802 to reinstate slavery not only betrayed the ideals of the French Revolution, it also condemned an estimated 300,000 people into a life of bondage for several more years, before France definitively abolished slavery in 1848.

At least 250,000 slaves were liberated in Texas alone, but almost two decades later.

Even more to the point, America after 1808 decided to build a whole new slavery economy based on the state-sanctioned rape of Black women by any white man available… Black children were forcibly birthed (roots of the anti-abortion movement) so they could be bought and sold in the millions! It wasn’t about cotton, it was systemic racism for profit — human trafficking.

Thus if you’re showing a Betsy Ross flag without some clear reason and some context to be displaying the militant symbol of a white police state that ruthlessly trafficked humans and murdered the press to silence speech, what are you even doing?

On its own it begs the important question whether you actually meant to be flying a Confederate South (treason) flag, or you have a 14/88 tattoo somewhere. What’s your context for the 13 stars instead of 50?

I mean to put it another way, even Nazis and KKK bring context whenever they fly it. The Betsy Ross flag amplifies such messaging for very clear reasons despite being unable to carry a hate tune on its own. It both leads people to Andrew Jackson, as well as Barack Obama, but on its own it’s an open question.

It’s obvious why hate groups like such a flag. When they fly it on its own it’s like a subtle invitation to normalize and talk up white nationalism without revealing their full regalia. Psssst, hey kids do you like Washington? Yeah? How about Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson?

In dissolving the 1776 Commission on his first day in office, President Biden helped end one source of misinformation about our past, a reminder that, as we work to restore democracy, we will need to restore honest inquiry and accurate history as well.

It’s an encoded signal to recruit for extremism. Much like flying the various flags of Germany — the revision you choose to fly reveals a lot.

If America had always had one flag this would be an entirely different story, yet this flag is tied only to a particular time of systemic racism and oppression by whites.


Update May 2021: Research suggests use of a national flag has damaging impact to social cohesion

“Flags are tricky,” Kemmelmeier says. “If you allude to a collective and say, ‘This is us,’ there’s always somebody that’s not included.”

Decades of research has demonstrated that simply assigning a symbol, such as a flag, to an arbitrary group can cause a hardening of attitudes. A study published in 2016 by social psychologists Shannon Callahan and Alison Ledgerwood found that people perceived others as less warm and more threatening if the group was assigned a flag. “A consistent picture emerges,” writes David Smith, a psychology lecturer from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. “Flags bond insiders but make outsiders feel unwelcome.”

Again, one simple way of explaining the Betsy Ross is racist is to say it’s a flag flown by white insecurity groups as an obvious way to make blacks feel unwelcome.

2 thoughts on “Is the Betsy Ross Flag Racist?”

  1. Every time I read any article about different causes or symbols of racism I become more and more educated about this country! I have a sense of loyalty, being a intergral part of a collective society, above ethnic groups. Not like some “invisible man” character! The time I feel a part of belonging most is when I am within a collective, like the man who is truly part of a country!

  2. Agree. The Betsy Ross Flag is racist. It is used by some for racist purposes. Therefore, the original cancel culture and hate mob flies it to keep others out of the room. Great article here.

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