Have you ever wondered who designed the famous “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden Flag, or when it was designed? Or what motivated its adoption? I recently did some research on this, and was surprised to see that while it has only recently become popular again, it actually dates back to the 18th century.
In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote a satirical commentary in the Pennsylvania Gazette, saying that American colonists should send rattlesnakes to England in appreciation for sending convicted felons to America. Three years later, in 1754, he sketched, carved, and published the first recorded political cartoon in American newspapers; it was a snake cut into eight pieces, with the words “Join, or Die” underneath it. This plea for unity of the colonies during the French and Indian War was reprinted throughout the colonies, and soon became a symbol of shared national identity and unity.
By 1775 the snake symbol was everywhere, on the buttons of uniforms, paper money, banners, and flags, but it was no longer in pieces, and was usually an American timber rattlesnake. In the fall of that same year, Congress authorized the creation of a Continental Navy with the purpose of capturing cargo ships loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops. Congress also authorized the assembly of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on this vital mission, and some of the Marines that enlisted in Philadelphia were carrying drums that had been painted yellow and bore a rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, ready to strike, along with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me”.
In December of the same year, an “American Guesser” (thought to be Benjamin Franklin) 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.
He continued his letter by speculating on why a rattlesnake may have been chosen as a symbol for America; perhaps because it had sharp eyes and could be thought of as a sign of vigilance.
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 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.
So, if Benjamin Franklin was the one to promote this flag, why is it called the Gadsden Flag? Christopher Gadsen was a colonel in the Continental Army, and was one of the three members of the Marine Committee that outfitted and manned the Naval ships on that first mission in 1775. It is believed that Gadsden presented that flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins (commander-in-chief of the Navy) for use as his personal standard on the Alfred (one of the Navy’s four original ships), where it was displayed at the mainmast.
The Gadsden Flag and variants of it were used during the American Revolution. For example, the Minutemen of Culpeper County, Virginia added the phrase “Liberty of Death” (famous words of Patrick Henry) to their flag. The First Navy Jack has an uncoiled rattlesnake making its way across a field of thirteen red and white stripes. Colonel John Proctor’s Independent Batallion (Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania) had a red field, the British ensign in the upper corner, and the rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” motto in the center.
Although the Gadsden Flag was one of the first flags of the United States, it was later replaced by the Stars and Stripes (Old Glory) Flag, and faded from people’s minds. However, since the American Revolution it has been reintroduced several times as a symbol of patriotism, of disagreement with the government, and as a symbol of support for civil liberties.
It wasn’t until 2009 that the Tea Party began using the Gadsden Flag as a symbol of their movement. Since then it has been displayed by members of Congress at Tea Party rallies and has been called a “political symbol” by some lawmakers because of this association.