The Gadsden Flag, with its yellow background and warning “Don’t Tread On Me” printed below a coiled timber rattlesnake, was a statement to the British during the American Revolution. This symbol should be easily recognized as a symbol of our struggle to obtain freedom from the British Crown back in the late 18th century. Did you know, however, that the use of a snake symbol occurred in the colonies some 20 years before the Revolution began?
Ben Franklin created what is known as the first printed political cartoon in 1754. Franklin was known for his use of satirical humor, and had published in 1751 an article suggesting that the colonists send rattlesnakes to England to “thank” the British for sending convicted felons to the colonies. On May 9, 1754, Franklin created a wood cut depicting a snake cut in eight sections. New England was combined into one section as the head of the snake, and South Carolina was at the tail. Underneath the print were the words “Join, or Die”. (See illustration) This print was made to call for unity of the defense of the Colonies during the French and Indian War which threatened the security of the colonies. Many newspapers carried the print, and the snake soon became a recognized indicator of the unity required to keep all of the colonies strong. By 1775 the symbol of the rattlesnake had begun to show up in many different media: buttons on uniforms, paper money, and on different flags. The snake was no longer cut into pieces but was whole.
The yellow background, coiled snake with thirteen rattles and “Don’t Tread On Me” was first utilized on drums by a contingent of Marines who were mustered into service for the first authorized U.S. Navy ships. These four ships were commissioned to capture British cargo ships laden with munitions that were much needed by Washington’s Continental Army, then billeted in Cambridge, Massachusetts. An anonymous writer sent a letter to the Pennsylvania Journal in December, 1775. This “Guesser” is thought by most historians to be Ben Franklin. Portions of his letter follows:
“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.”
“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.” This is writing as only Ben Franklin’s pen could produce.
The name Gadsden is commonly attached to the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. It was named for Christopher Gadsden, an American patriot. Gadsden led the Sons of Liberty in South Carolina starting in 1765, and was later made a colonel of Washington’s Continental Army. In 1775 he was in Philadelphia representing South Carolina in the Continental Congress. He was also one of the men responsible for the muster of the Marines for the new Navy. Gadsden and Congress chose a Rhode Island man, Esek Hopkins, as the commander-in-chief of the new Navy. Gadsden is said to have presented the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag to Hopkins as his personal standard. Some sources still refer to the flag as the Hopkins flag.
The Gadsden Flag has become a symbol of the Tea Party movement and of those who seek a more conservative federal government. Seen at rallies, on bumper stickers, and displayed in yards nationwide, the slogan “Don’t Tread On Me” is back, 235 years after its first display on a military drum head in the colony of Massachusetts.