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Saturday, July 12, 2014

About that Flag story...

Comments are always welcome on my blog even if Blogger's software isn't as receptive to displaying them as I might prefer.  The Betsy Ross story about making the first flag sparked an off-the-blog dialog with

New Jersey storyteller, Rivka Willick.

Like me, Rivka tells many a historical program.  Being a true lover of her home state of New Jersey, her comment just had to mention Francis Hopkinson and the possibility he was just as likely to deserve the credit for our first flag.  She sent me the link about Hopkinson and it's interesting he not only signed the Declaration of Independence, but even has documented design experience for many official designs including working on the second version of the Great Seal of the United States.  Still his role in the design of the revolutionary flag has never been confirmed any more than we can be sure about the tale of Elizabeth Claypool Ross.

My own response to that, opening emails back and forth a bit, was: Wondered if anybody was going to count on the possible mythical nature of the story. Of course our Public Domain stories include a lot of that sort of thing and some time I probably need to do an article on it.  That's some research that may be overdue or it just may be a case of our storytelling being true even if it's not exactly what happened. Didn't know your specific NJ gentleman, but posted my appreciation for your comment. Wish Blogger let those comments be a bit more visible. Thank you for your own contribution.

Rivka next mentioned Parson Weems' role in our American "mythology", saying: I keep finding 'American History for Kids' as 80 parts myth and 20 parts truth.  Parson Weems wanted to write a book about the childhood of our first president, and when he realized the modesty and styles of the times didn't collect stories about children, he made them up.  If you ask the average person if the George and the Cherry tree is true, they'll say yes.  If you ask them if it's a myth, more will say yes, few know it's a fabricated literary story.  I have a feeling Betsy Ross might fall into that category, especially if the designer wanted to get paid.  The early Congress did a lot of nasty things to avoid unnecessary expenses. 

If you look into Weems' work, he wrote four books in the first  generation of the 19th century titled The Life of (beginning with Washington, then General Francis Marion; Benjamin Franklin, with Essays; and William Penn), but it was The Life of Washington with its cherry tree story, now acknowledged as a myth, which ties his name to Rivka's " 'American History for Kids' as 80 parts myth and 20 parts truth."

It was why I commented back: Ah, yes, Parson Weems.  That and those Childhood of Famous Americans books certainly produced our American mythology.  My problem is when I'm doing historical reenactment programs like an old-time rural schoolteacher, that was precisely the material she used to mold her students.  The material could be called moldy, but it was the character education of our ancestors.  The trick is to find both the truth -- in the sense of facts -- and the value.
LoiS(tarting to feel another project coming on) 
and Rivka replied: Sometimes I wonder if this is the norm of all mythology.  A story gets created and the orginators are forgotten, so we don't know why it was created, we just have the creation. In the last couple hundred years with all of our technology creating cheap printed content, we can trace back the who and maybe even the why.  But I think there will be push back because we crave myth and folklore and maybe we just don't want to know the real story. Just a thought.
Just a thought indeed.  

Rivka had heard yet another interesting story related to Parson Weems, prairie schools, and how this tale of Washington's boyhood honesty and an ax influenced "Honest Abe" Lincoln.  It's a funny story for Lincoln had a way with storytelling himself.  Come back next week as part of my Keeping the Public in Public Domain series to see what I mean.

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