Old Glory unmistakably epitomizes the symbol of freedom, however some feel their freedom and their liberty is being challenged today. Though, not a replacement for the American Flag… but just a further explicative, some American patriots are choosing to fly the Gadsden Flag. It’s a yellow flag with a coiled rattlesnake and the defiant “Don’t Tread on Me” motto.
The Gadsden, named after Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, came about in 1776. It’s inspiration represented a warning from the colonists to the British. The history of the Gadsden flag is intertwined with one of American history’s most electrifying personalities, Ben Franklin.
Benjamin Franklin is famous, or infamous, for his sense of humor. In 1751, he wrote an article in his Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting that, as a way to give thanks to the Brits for their policy of sending convicted felons to America, American colonists should send rattlesnakes to England. What a guy! In 1754, Franklin drew and published the first known political cartoon in an American newspaper. It was the drawing of a snake cut into eight sections. Each section of the snake represented the eight individual colonies and the curves of the snake suggested the coastline of America.
New England was the head of the snake, South Carolina was at the tail. Written under the snake were the unmistakably bold words “Join, or Die.” This had nothing to do with independence from Britain. It was a plea for unity in defending the colonies during the French and Indian War. Interestingly enough, the superstition of the time was 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 rendition of it. For example, the Boston Gazette re-drew the snake with the words “Unite and Conquer” coming out of its mouth. Franklin’s snake slithered its way into American culture as an early representation of independence.
In 1765, The British sought more money from the colonies. The snake symbol was paramount when Americans were uniting against the Stamp Act. Franklin’s snake continued to be used as a symbol of American unity and American liberty. For example, in 1774, Paul Revere added it to the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy and showed the snake fighting a British dragon.
By 1775, the snake symbol was appearing all over the colonies, on banners and flags, on uniform buttons, even on paper money. The snake symbol changed over the past few years. It was usually shown as an American timber rattlesnake. Historically, we don’t know for certain where, when, or by whom the coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning “Don’t Tread on Me”. However, in 1775 there was an interesting article printed in the Pennsylvania Journal by “An American Guesser” that spoke of the “Don’t Tread on Me Motto”.
Here’s the article in part:
“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.”
Most scholars agree that this “American Guesser” was Benjamin Franklin.
How does all this relate to today? Well, just as Franklin alluded to, the rattlesnake never begins the attack but will not back down once provoked. As you drive around and see more and more Gadsden flags hoisted atop flag poles and being worn on shirts and stickers on cars, realize that many Americans feel their back is against the wall and the only thing left to do is fight for their founding liberties. This is not a physical war as it was in the 1700’s but a political war against higher taxes, liberty restrictions and forced unwanted laws and policies. This metaphorical snake will surely “alarm the boldest man living”.