As my studies of the American Revolution continue to evolve, I find myself becoming fascinated with the flags that were used to rally both citizens and soldiers to the pursuit of liberty. The title of this blog for instance, comes from the famous “Join, or Die.” flag, based on a well-known political cartoon, created by Benjamin Franklin and first published in his Pennsylvania Gazette in May of 1754. Another flag that has caught my fancy is the “Don’t Tread on Me,” otherwise known as the Gadsden flag.
That standard in particular has become a popular symbol of Americana. I have both of these banners hanging in my cubicle at work and have seen them plastered on everything from t-shirts to bumper stickers. Those of you familiar with my editorials on the Confederate flag know that I’ve never been a fan of flags being turned into imagery on merchandise. That said, I do find it interesting that we have embraced the spirit of the Gadsden flag and made it a modern brand. It has been woven into the fabric of our culture and today we fly “Don’t Tread on Me” in celebration of our past and in dissatisfaction with our own government.
The Gadsden flag was designed by and is named after the general and statesman from South Carolina named Christopher Gadsden. In 1775, the then Colonel Gadsden, presented his design to the Continental Congress to be used as a standard by the commander of the navy. The image was immediately striking with a bright, yellow field, a graphical representation of a rattlesnake in the posture of striking, and the words "Don't Tread on Me” underneath.
As the fight for independence grew closer, the snake began to be used frequently as a symbol of the colonies and their cause. It appears on several variations of flags and one of its biggest champions, Benjamin Franklin, published an essay under the pseudonym “American Guesser,” in which he suggested that the rattlesnake was a perfect match for the American spirit. He wrote:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America? (Source: Franklin, Benjamin. Pennsylvania Journal. December 27, 1775)
Chris Whitten, a fellow Libertarian and Internet entrepreneur, has developed an excellent web site that deals with the complete histories of Christopher Gadsden , the Gadsden flag, and how his snake image is celebrated in our modern culture.
BELOW: Gadsden variation used by the 6th North Carolina Continental Line Regiment. (Photo by Me. "A Day in the Life of Spotsylvania," Belvedere Plantation, 2007.)