The Gadsden Flag is a symbol of American independence and freedom, which includes a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and a defiant "Don't Tread on Me" motto. The Gadsden Flag, originally seen in 1775 painted onto the drums of some of the first enlisted United States Marines during the American Revolution, was meant to represent the 13 original colonies and their battle for independence from the British monarchy. This flag is available today in many states as specialty license plates. In due course, the Gadsden Flag was also adopted by groups of the Tea Party Movement as a message against big government.
Although Benjamin Franklin helped create the American rattlesnake symbol, his name isn't generally attached to the rattlesnake flag. The yellow "Don't tread on me" standard is usually called a Gadsden flag, for Colonel Christopher Gadsden, or less commonly, a Hopkins flag, for Commodore Esek Hopkins. The Gadsden Flag and similar variants have long been used by the U.S. Navy.
History of Rattlesnake Flags
The rattlesnake symbol and the "Don't tread on me" slogan were at first not used together; in fact, early American snake symbolism, at first, had nothing to do with American independence from Britain. Benjamin Franklin is famous for his sense of humor. In 1751, he wrote a satirical commentary in his Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting that as a way to thank the Brits for their policy of sending convicted felons to America, American colonists should send rattlesnakes to England.
Three years later, in 1754, he used a snake to illustrate another point. This time not so humorous.
Franklin sketched, carved, and published the first known political cartoon in an American newspaper. It was the image of a snake cut into eight sections. The sections represented the individual colonies and the curves of the snake suggested the coastline. New England was combined into one section as the head of the snake. South Carolina was at the tail. Beneath the snake were the ominous words "Join, or Die."
The meaning of "Join, or Die" was a plea for unity in defending the colonies during the French and Indian War. It played off a common superstition of the time: a snake that had been cut into pieces could come back to life if you joined the sections together before sunset. The snake illustration was reprinted throughout the colonies. Dozens of newspapers from Massachusetts to South Carolina ran Franklin's sketch or some variation of it. For example, the Boston Gazette recreated the snake with the words "Unite and Conquer" coming from its mouth. Whatever the reason for newspapers to reprint the rattlesnake symbol, Franklin's snake wiggled its way into American culture as symbolism of an early, shared national identity.
The snake symbol came in handy ten years later, when Americans were again uniting against a common enemy.
In 1765 the common enemy was the Stamp Act. The British decided that they needed more control over the colonies, and more importantly, they needed more money from the colonies. The Crown was loaded with debt from the French and Indian War. Why shouldn't the Americans — "children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence," as Charles Townshend of the House of Commons put it — pay off England's debt?
Colonel Isaac Barre, who had fought in the French and Indian War, responded that the colonies hadn't been planted by the care of the British government, they'd been established by people fleeing it. And the British government hadn't nourished the colonies, they'd flourished despite what the British government did and didn't do. In this speech, Barre referred to the colonists as "sons of liberty."
In the following months and years, the Sons of Liberty became increasingly resentful of English interference. And as the tides of American public opinion moved closer and closer to rebellion, Franklin's disjointed snake continued to be used as symbol of American unity, and American independence. For example, in 1774 Paul Revere added it to the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy and showed the snake fighting a British dragon.
Christopher Gadsden and Esek Hopkins
Although Benjamin Franklin helped create the American rattlesnake symbol, his name isn't generally attached to the rattlesnake flag. The yellow "don't tread on me" standard is usually called a Gadsden flag, for Colonel Christopher Gadsden, or less commonly, a Hopkins flag, for Commodore Esek Hopkins. These two individuals were mulling about Philadelphia at the same time, making important contributions to American history and the history of the rattlesnake flag.
Christopher Gadsden was an American patriot if ever there was one. He led Sons of Liberty in South Carolina starting in 1765, and was later made a colonel in the Continental Army. In 1775 he was in Philadelphia representing his home state in the Continental Congress. He was also one of three members of the Marine Committee who decided to outfit and man the Alfred and its sister ships. Gadsden and Congress chose a Rhode Island man, Esek Hopkins, as the commander-in-chief of the Navy. The flag that Hopkins used as his personal standard on the Alfred is the one we would now recognize. It's likely that John Paul Jones, as the first lieutenant on the Alfred, ran it up the gaff.
It's generally accepted that Hopkins' flag was presented to him by Christopher Gadsden, who felt it was especially important for the commodore to have a distinctive personal standard. Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to his state legislature in Charleston. This is recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals:
|“||Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, "Don't Tread on Me!"||”|
Gadsden Flag History
The snake symbol morphed quite a bit during its rapid, widespread adoption. It wasn't cut up into pieces anymore. And it was usually shown as an American timber rattlesnake, not a generic serpent. By 1775, at the birth of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps, some of the Marines that enlisted during the first month in Philadelphia may have also been the first American citizens to combine the rattlesnake symbol, seen on the Gadsden Flag, with a defiant "Don't Tread on Me" slogan.
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. Franklin is also known for opposing the use of an eagle — "a bird of bad moral character" — as a national symbol.
The Culpeper Flag
The Gadsden flag and other rattlesnake flags were widely used during the American Revolution. There was no standard American flag at the time, not even Betsy Ross's stars and stripes. People were free to choose their own banners. The Minutemen of Culpeper County, Virginia, chose a flag that looks generally like the Gadsden flag, but also includes the famous words of the man who organized the Virginia militia, Patrick Henry: "Liberty or Death."
Allegations of Racism
This flag has no connection or connotation with racism. Despite that, the Obama Administration ordered the United States Postal Service to investigate further a claim of racial discrimination by a worker who alleged that a co-worker “repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag.”
- Chris Whitten. Gadsden Flag History: An American Guesser, Gadsden.info, 2001-2009.
- Diane Macedo. 'Don't Tread on Me' License Plates Become a Growing Trend in the U.S., FoxNews.com, Published November 30, 2010.
- Don't Tread on Me: Gadsden Flag, FoundingFathers.info, July 5, 2001.
- Read, Russ (July 20, 2019). 'Don't Tread On Me' flag has long history of Navy use. Washington Examiner. Retrieved July 20, 2019.
- Rattlesnake Flags
- Chris Whitten. The Gadsden Flag's Namesake, Gadsden.info, 2001-2009.
- The Culpeper Flag