The most visible and striking image on the various tea party flags is of course the rattlesnake. This image portrays a coiled rattlesnake with its venomous fangs protruding outward and prepared to strike an opponent. The snake represented here is the Eastern Timber Rattlesnake, a snake that is unique to America, as it is found nowhere else in the world. It is also only found in the eastern portion of the country. This is the snake that our Founding Fathers would have come across the most, and therefore, they were in a perfect position to study, analyze, and of course, find symbolism in, this particularly American reptile. But, why did they choose the rattlesnake as a metaphor for their struggle against the British Empire? Why not another, more benign, animal to represent them?
The various tea party flags that use the image of the coiled, Timber Rattlesnake include the Gadsden Flag, the First Navy Jack Flag, and the Culpeper Flag. All three flags have roots dating back to America’s Revolutionary War. However, the use of the rattlesnake as a symbol for the American Colonists fight against British authority goes back even further. Benjamin Franklin first used the rattlesnake as only Ben Franklin could, through the use of satire. When England sent its worst criminals to America, Franklin suggested the unkempt “Yankee-doodles” return the favor by sending boatloads of rattlesnakes back to London. In 1754, Franklin created a woodcut showing a rattlesnake separated into several pieces, each representing one of the 13 original Colonies. The words “Join or Die” were included and this was a clarion call for the Colonies to unite.
It is very clear why the rattlesnake was chosen. This snake never strikes any opponent without first giving a fair warning with its rattler. Franklin and other Founding Fathers viewed this as a noble characteristic. Like the rattlesnake, the American Patriots gave the British plenty of warnings before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord in April 1775. Also like the rattlesnake, the American Patriot was always vigilant, on guard and prepared to do what is necessary to defend himself and his home.
Franklin also noted something very unique about the rattlesnake. The thirteen beads on the rattle are independent of one another, yet because they are also fused together they can project true strength when working in unison. He described this phenomenon as the following: “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.” Does this not sound like a call for the Colonies to unite? Franklin was stating the importance of each individual Colony, but also making the case that when the Colonies united and fought as one cohesive body, America’s real strength would emerge.
Our Founding Fathers had a great admiration for the rattlesnake and we now know why they chose this honorable creature as the defining symbol of their Glorious Cause. The image of the Timber Rattlesnake was everywhere in early America, from political cartoons to the different variations of the Don’t Tread On Me Flag. It is no wonder that groups today, particularly the tea party groups, have given this symbol and these flags a rebirth of sorts. In Colonial times, the rattlesnake image represented a warning call to the British to keep their distance. Today, the same image is utilized by various groups as a message to the government to stay within its Constitutional boundaries and keep its intrusion into our lives as minimal as possible.