History of The Gadsden Flag – Don’t Tread on Me FlagDon’t Tread on Me
Gadsden Flag History; Don’t Tread on Me!
The bright yellow Gadsden flag, long a symbol of support for civil liberties and disagreement with government, has its beginning deeply rooted in the days of the American Revolution. The rattlesnake, the Gadsden flag’s central feature, had been an emblem of Americans even before the Revolution. The Pennsylvania Gazette published an article in 1751 bitterly protesting the British practice of sending convicts to America where the author suggested that the colonists should return the favor by shipping them “a cargo of rattlesnakes.” Three years later the same newspaper published what is believed to be one of the first political cartoons in America. It was of a snake cut into eight sections with the words “Join, or Die” below. Each section represented a colony and was warning of the dangers of disunity.
The rattlesnake symbol caught on and became a part of several other Revolutionary War flags. Before the departure of the United States Navy’s first mission in 1775, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden from South Carolina presented the newly appointed commander with a yellow rattlesnake flag to serve as a standard for his flagship. Accompanying the Navy on its first mission were five companies of Marines carrying yellow drums featuring a snake with 13 rattles and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” The Navy later adapted the snake emblem and “Don’t Tread on Me” motto into what is now known as the First Navy Jack. Featuring a rattlesnake stretched across 13 red and white stripes with “Don’t Tread on Me” below, the Secretary of the Navy ordered in 2002 that this powerful American symbol will fly on all naval ships for the duration of the War on Terrorism.
About the same time Gadsden presented the Congress of South Carolina with his yellow flag another variation of the snake theme was gaining in popularity. The Culpeper flag, the white banner carried by the Minutemen of Culpeper County, Virginia, is essentially the Gadsden flag with several additions. A ribbon with the words “The Culpeper Minute Men” was added along with the words “Liberty or Death” in honor of the man who organized the Virginia militia, Patrick Henry.
Although there have been several adaptations of the snake emblem, the Gadsden flag continues to be reintroduced as a symbol of defending freedom and the rule of law. Since 2009, the Gadsden flag has become associated with the American Tea Party Movement, as well as several other protest events. For historical reasons, the Gadsden is still popularly flown in Charleston, South Carolina, in tribute to the man who first presented the yellow snake flag.
In December 1775, “An American Guesser” anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal:
“I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America.”
This anonymous writer, having “nothing to do with public affairs” and “in order to divert an idle hour,” speculated on why a snake might be chosen as a symbol for America.
First, it occurred to him that “the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America.”
The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes, and “may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.” Furthermore,
“She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”
“I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ’till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. …
“‘Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.”
Many scholars now agree that this “American Guesser” was Benjamin Franklin.