The Thin Blue Line

thin-blue-line-flagYou’ve seen it cropping up the past few months on everything from flags and garden banners to hats and license plates – thin blue line merchandise has flooded the marketplace as people scramble to show our brave law enforcement officers their respect and pride for their service and sacrifices in the wake of the fatal shooting of five Dallas police officers this past July.

But what is the thin blue line? The emblem, which features a black horizontal top stripe, a single blue line running horizontally through the center and a bottom black horizontal stripe is representative of three things: the public (the black stripe on top), the criminal element (the bottom black stripe) and law enforcement (the blue stripe in the middle). The phrase is analogous to the term the Thin Red Line, which was a military action by the British Sutherland Highlanders 93rd (Highland) Regiment at the Battle of Balaklava on October 25, 1854 during the Crimean War. During this particular battle, a correspondent for the British newspaper, the Times, wrote that he could see nothing between the charging Russians and the British regiment’s base of operations at Balaklava but the “thin red streak tipped with a line of steel” of the 93rd. This was condensed into “the thin red line”, and the phrase became symbolic of British composure during battle.

Simply put, law enforcement is the barrier, or thin blue line, that protects law-abiding civilians from lawless criminals. AmericanFlags.com is honored to support the men and women of law enforcement by offering a wide variety of Thin Blue Line merchandise.

Nice Try, Early American Flag Designers

You can’t say they didn’t make any effort. There are plenty of designs that didn’t make the official cut, although even the official flag has been modified twenty-six different times. Mostly, of course, to denote new states added to the canton as stars, which always necessitates a redesign of the pattern, some more successful than others.

Rather than a step-by-step showcase of how the field has changed and how it’s likely to change again if new states are ratified, let’s take a look at some of the more exotic offerings our forefathers were planning on for the flag.

We’ll start with a classic: the original “Grand Union” flag, called the “Continental Colors” as well. It has the basic elements: thirteen alternating red and white stripes, and a canton in the upper left hand corner at the hoist, but the star field is not yet a feature. The Union Jack resides there instead, as this was a common feature for Great Britain’s colonies to sport.

Other similar variations on the theme include the “Betsy Ross” flag, although, honestly it’s not clear that she ever had anything to do with the flag––the story that she had sewn it wasn’t presented until nearly a century later.

Definitely great, though. The Cowpens flag is almost the same thing, except with twelve stars in the circle and one in the center; it was carried over the Battle of Cowpens by the 3rd Maryland Regiment and is depicted in the famous painting The Spirit of ’76 by Archibald MacNeal Willard.

The Great Star Flag has twenty stars, arranged in a star shape:

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Which is awesome, but didn’t last long, only flying over the Capitol Dome for six months or so, before more states came in so it had to change again. A later attempt to arrange the stars in a star used different-sized stars and looks, arguably, even cooler:

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Fitting twenty-six stars in an inverted star shape, it lasted eight years.

It should be pointed out that none of these designs were technically ever federally-mandated designs: Congress didn’t designate an actual pattern to the stars on the canton until the forty-eight star flag in 1912. In fact, the colors of the flag weren’t standardized until 1934, which is something you would think even Congress would have gotten around to sooner.

While those are interesting, today’s blog consumer demands more. What about some of the flags that never even made it to non-official status? Glad you asked, straw reader! Let’s look at some now!

Here’s the Brandywine flag, named for Captain Robert Wilson’s company in the 7th Pennsylvania Regiment, after it was carried in the Battle of Brandywine in 1777:

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Yes, it’s square with an entire other flag in the canton. Bold, indeed!

The Green Mountain Boys flag, now being used by the Vermont National Guard regimental unit:

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The stars are arranged in a “natural pattern,” not in a “sewn on while on horseback” pattern like you might have first thought.

George Rogers Clark, the “Conqueror of the Northwest,” had his own flag that was a contender:

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Pretty striking, but perhaps a bit of an eyestrain? It’s probably not even actually the colors he marched under. Some scholars say the red and green may represent the wampum presented by a Piankeshaw chief, symbolic of the local Wabash River.

How about the Guilford Courthouse flag?

Well, it’s probably not even really a flag, technically speaking; at least, never meant to be presented as an actual consideration for a national flag. It was common practice for soldiers and sailors to make a flag that was evocative of the nation’s flag but distinct enough to use as a regimental or company flag. The reversed colors, the shape, the elongated canton, the eight-pointed stars―all point to this being exactly what was going on here. Too bad, too; it’s definitely a memorable design.

The Easton flag, now being used to represent the city of Easton, Pennsylvania:

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A very classy, inverted design. This was used as the company flag for Captain Abraham Horn during the War of 1812, and some think it might date from that era rather than the frequently claimed 1776, hoisted at the reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8th.

There was no shortage of fascinating designs provided by the vexillologists of our past. As the country’s needs evolve, perhaps the flags of our future will be just as intriguing.

I Claim This Land … The Flags of Global Colonization

The world as we know it today is astonishingly different from what it was over five hundred years ago. The Age of Colonization was a groundbreaking time of discovery, one where unexpected, dramatic (and occasionally traumatic) voyages changed cultures and ecology across the globe.

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Main sea trade routes discovered during the Age of Exploration.

Starting with the largest naval powers of Europe (Portugal, Spain, and England), explorers set out to discover valuable assets. Spices, furs, timber, rich fabrics, rare scents, and more unusual goods were sought all over the world. There was a race, so to speak, to seek out and claim the most valuable territories and their treasures. These colonies enriched and lent value to their conquering empires.

Throughout the Age of Exploration, the globe was marked with the flags of European occupation, some firmly held, others hotly disputed.

The Spread of Empires

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the map of the world was a pattern of Imperial and Royal flags. Some of these can still be seen in the standards of now independent countries or states. Indeed, it did not matter if a place was already inhabited. As long as it was unclaimed by a European power, the land was fair game.

The energy, curiosity, and rampant greed of the time makes for fascinating storytelling. Anyone who got hooked on the Showtime television series “The Tudors” can attest to this fact.

Ambition and Early Invention: The Portuguese

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The modern Portuguese flag.

The Portuguese were great traders and merchants, and were always seeking intriguing and exotic merchandise. Some of the most valuable commodities were caravanned across the Sahara Desert at great expense––salt and gold, as well as ivory, rich cloth, and slaves.

Desert travel was dangerous, expensive, and time consuming, so the Portuguese began exploring alternate routes––less harrowing ones––in order to make better profits. With the Sahara covering 3.629 million square miles, the option to go around it by land was impractical, but a sea route was highly desirable.

Exploring Africa under the sponsorship of Prince Henry the Navigator, the Portuguese established lucrative trading ports along the Atlantic coast. Small pockets of Portuguese influence began appearing on the Arabian Peninsula, India, and, later, Brazil. They also invented an elegant new cargo ship, one that was nimble, swift, and elegant: the caravel.

It was through these travels that they discovered the Azores and Madeira, destinations that are still exotic and beautiful to this day.

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The Azores: A Portuguese colony.

Spain: Gold, Silver, and Conquest

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The modern Spanish flag.

Christopher Columbus’ famous journey marked the emergence of Spain as a major sea power. It is arguably one of the single most important journeys ever made, because it marks the discovery of the New World. Others had reached there beforehand, but none had planted a flag and claimed the land in the name of their sovereign. Spain was the first, starting with that initial landing in the Bahamas. From there, it claimed the lion’s share of South America (excluding Brazil, of course).

Spain kept a tight grip on its overseas colonies for their vast riches of gold and silver. It is for this reason that the Age of Exploration and the Age of Piracy have considerable overlap, especially in the Caribbean. While they each jealously guarded their colonies, there were considerable clashes between the Spanish, French, and English, and much dispute over ownership, taxation, and jurisdiction in these areas.

In red, Spanish colonies claimed during the Age of Discovery.

The Tudors and the Elizabethan Age

After repelling the Spanish Armada and its failed attempt at invasion in 1588, England emerged as the greatest sea power of its time. Great riches poured into the coffers of King Henry VII, allowing him to set up great economic and political stability. The New World––North America, this time––furnished the empire with timber, fish, and rare furs. India was a wellspring of lush fabrics and rare spices.

Though this collection is from a later time, the evidence of British colonization is reflected in numerous flags around the world. The echoes of colonial history still linger to this day.

The rule and excess of the court of King Henry VIII is partially due to the ready availability of so much wealth. And, while his reign makes for interesting reading for both his scandalous love life and religious reforms, he also set the stage for his successor, one of the most powerful women ever to rule England.

Elizabeth I never married, yet was not deterred by her single status. She singlehandedly guided her country into a new age of enlightenment, fueled by colonial riches and bolstered by the growth of intellectualism. It is peculiar to think that the availability of pepper and beaver pelts allowed for the emergence of Shakespeare, but, without these foreign riches, it is unlikely that he would have achieved the immortality he has in the literary world.

Antiquity vs. the Modern World

Today you can see how the marks of older inhabitation have molded former colonies into modern independent nations. Some still carry badges of their former colony flags in their own heraldry. Others display distinct attitudes and political systems that hearken back to their original colonial status.

Either way, the flags of colonization have transformed their locations and have been reinvented in fascinating new ways. Though new ways thrive in these places, the flags planted in their soil have left indelible marks in history and in the modern cultures that thrive there today.

The First Official National Flag: A Historical Debate

It seems like a simple quest, searching for the oldest national flag in existence. In reality, the actual historical trail gets much murkier. Legends, national heroes, personal standards, and religious visions all figure into a much more complex picture.

Just to make everything more interesting, the ancient tradition of heraldry, both personal and family, complicates the issue. From the foggiest scraps of historical records emerge the usage of flags and symbols to identify people and tribes. Official adoption of those symbols by larger groups comes much later, and it is harder to trace the actual beginning of a flag as national identity.

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Contender #1: The Dannebrog

One version of history is easy enough to accept. The Dannebrog, the national flag of Denmark, has been in continuous usage since a battle in 1219 AD.

The legend is a little richer in romantic details. On June 15th, King Waldemar II defeated a force of Estonians with a banner that descended from heaven above (or so the story goes). It is interesting to see this legend falls into the formulaic vision of “under this flag you shall be victorious,” which was a common religious metaphor of the age. With a strange twist, though: “cross from the sky” type miracles were much more common in the Iberian peninsula, where clashes between Christians and Moors were not unusual.

This was the Dannebrog, the flag of the Danes, or simply “the red flag.” Simple and elegant in appearance, it features a brilliant white cross against a red background. Through the course of history, this particular design was also used by the Portuguese Order of Christ and by the Knights Hospitaller from the Baltic states (both crusading orders).

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Contender #2: The Saltire of Scotland

The white-on-blue X-shaped cross of Scotland is intensely familiar to most people, if only as part of the combined heraldry that makes up the modern Union Jack. It can also be seen in the provincial flag of Nova Scotia (a.k.a. New Scotland) in Canada.

Much like the Scots themselves, the history of the Saltire itself is contentious and contrary. What is documentable and historically accurate is that the Saltire has been in continuous usage since 832 AD, in one way or another. And, much like the Dannebrog, the Saltire has its roots in an ecstatic vision.

The night before a huge battle in 832 AD , the Pictish King Angus II was preparing for a clash with the English King Aethelstan. In the midst of planning and strategy, Angus was struck by a vision of St. Andrew (soon to become the patron saint of Scotland). The martyred saint promised victory for the outnumbered Picts, and the dream bolstered King Angus II’s faith and hope in the coming battle.

The next day, Angus’ troops were struck by the vision on a massive white Saltire blazoned against a brilliant blue sky. Heartened by the omen, the Picts vanquished their enemies, and the Cross of St. Andrew began its association with Scotland.

Which One Is Older?

The difference here is subtle. The Saltire simply is older. But, with its inclusion in the Union Jack in 1603, with the union of England and Scotland, Scotland is no longer its own independent territory. Inclusion has done nothing to nullify the rich, bloody, and fascinating history of Scotland, but its inclusion means that it is not an independent state. The Danish flag has been used continuously to represent a single, discrete national entity for over 700 years.

Either way, both flags have impressive and heroic pedigrees. But there are other contenders with equally impressive historical lines.

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An Interesting Contender …

The flag of Austria.

Though its roots are in a dynastic family and not an ecstatic vision, the flag of Austria is both very old and very rich with its own legend. Medieval times were brutal to say the least, and the origin of this banner is nothing short of gory.

The tale begins in 1189 AD during the Siege of Acre (in modern Israel today). Duke Leopold V of Austria was entrenched in a particularly vicious and bloody series of conflicts. When he finally could lay down his sword, his pristine white surcoat was completely drenched in the blood of his foes. On removing his sword belt, a single wide white swathe was revealed: a design so striking that Leopold adopted it as his personal heraldry.

Though used continuously in one form or another (mostly as a family crest), it was finally adopted as the national flag of Austria in 1230 AD. So, while being extremely old in its inception, its official usage came much later than both the flags of Denmark and Scotland.

Old Flags, Older Traditions

Simple designs last the longest and remain the clearest in people’s memories. It makes sense for a couple reasons. Clear color blocking schemes like straight lines and crosses are rudimentary enough for even illiterate peasants to recognize and replicate.

It is for this reason that the legends––the spoken tales––of these flags stretch further back through time than the written records we use to authenticate true historical records. Regardless of their origin story, each flag has an intriguing past with both practical and mystical aspects flavoring the tale.

Remembering September 11, 2001

9-11The world as we knew it was forever shattered on the morning of September 11, 2001, when three commercial airliners hijacked by Al-Qaeda members struck the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, DC in coordinated terror attacks. Another hijacked airliner crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the flight’s crew and passengers attacked the terrorists in an attempt to take back the plane. All on board each plane were killed that day, along with thousands of innocent civilians and emergency responders on the ground and in the buildings.

Fifteen years later, our hearts and prayers continue to go out to those who perished and those who were affected on that fateful day. Below is a list of broadcasts commemorating the 15th Anniversary of September 11, 2001. All times are Eastern. We will never forget.

9/11 Memorial Livestream — The livestream will begin at 8:40 a.m. on Sept. 11 at 911memorial.org. Stay connected and join others in sharing how you are commemorating the 15th anniversary by using #Honor911 on social media.

FOX News Channel 9/11 15th Anniversary coverage — Full-day coverage beginning at 6 am.

Washington Journal: Remembering 9/11 — Sept. 11 at 7am on CSPAN.

Sunday TODAY on NBC— Sept. 11 at 8am

White House Moment of Silence for 9/11 — Sept. 11 at 8:30am on CSPAN.

9/11 Ceremony in New York City — Live — Sept. 11 at 8:35am on CSPAN.

9/11 Ceremony at the Pentagon — Live — Sept. 11 at 9:30am on CSPAN.

9/11 Ceremony in Shanksville, PA — Live — Sept. 11 at 10am on CSPAN.

9/11 Ceremony in New York City — Live — Sept. 11 at 10:30am on CSPAN.

2016 National Anthem Sing Along – Friday, September 9, 2016

Patriots, mark your calendars – and warm up those vocal cords! Join the American Public Education Foundation from your home, school, or business for the 2016 National Anthem Sing Along on Friday, September 9, 2016 at 10 a.m. PST and 1 p.m. EST.

This is the largest National Anthem sing-a-long in the country and the third annual simultaneous sing-a-long event created by the APEF-9/12 Generation Project, whose focus is to bring students together in the same way the world came together on September 12, 2001. Students from across our great nation will learn about the words and meaning of the flag and sing the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner.

The organization is hoping to beat its record of over 277,000 singers so make sure to sign up now with all of your family, friends, classmates, and colleagues to participate in this historic event! Registration is free at http://www.theapef.org/national-anthem-sing-a-long

And just in case you want to brush up on the lyrics before the sing-a-long, here’s the first stanza, so you can practice!

Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?
Whose broad stripes and bright stars, through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
O say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?