Don’t Tread On Me Meaning – What is the Gadsden Flag?

What is the Gadsden flag?

The Gadsden Flag is a historical American flag bearing a snake emblem that originated during the American Revolution. It was designed by and named after Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina delegate to the Continental Congress and a brigadier general in the Continental Army.

The flag features a yellow canvas with a coiled rattlesnake atop a bit of grass the words “Don’t Tread on Me” printed underneath. The flag was originally used by the Continental Marines in 1775 as an early military standard, and it later saw use by the United States Navy and Coast Guard.

Today, the Gadsden flag is often used as a political symbol appropriated by libertarian and conservative movements as a symbol of social resistance and struggle against the powers that be.

History of the Gadsden Flag

Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden was one of seven members of the Marine Committee during the first naval mission of the Revolutionary War that carried drums painted yellow depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles along with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”

This is the first recorded mention of the future Gadsden flag’s symbolism.

It became famous when, Commodore Esek Hopkins of the US Naval Fleet, before his departure of their first mission at the beginning of the war received a yellow rattlesnake flag from Colonel Gadsden to serve as his standard aboard his ship.

Why did this particular flag become famous is a bit of a mystery. There are several variations of the flag and many stories around what it means and what exactly happened. What we do know is that this symbol has changed over time, and as we shall see, so has its meaning.

Origins of the snakes and ‘don’t tread on me’ on the Jack Flag

One story of a London merchant by the name of Thomas Hart who made a print of Commodore Esek Hopkins (of what he thought he looked like – as they never meet). It was of two ships in the background flying the First Navy Jack Flag and the other flying a white flag with a pine tree and two mottos.

This engraving is allegedly the first time the snake symbol together with the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto appear, coincidentally on the Jack Flag.

The Jack Flag

One theory is that Thomas Hart had been told about both flags, The Gadsden Flag and the Jack Flag, and mistakenly combined the details of both creating what is now known First Navy Jack Flag.

Now, this is where the timeline of the Gadsden Flag and Navy Jack Flag is a bit fuzzy. Though we know this all happened in 1775 right before the start of the revolution, there is not just any clarity on what exactly happened – but it does appear to fit the timeline -that the Gadsden flag came before the First Navy Jack. However, several variations state that it was actually Gadsden who took inspiration from the First Navy Jack Flag, which was already flying aboard Commodore Esek Hopkins’s ship.

Variations of the Flag

navy jack flag

First Union Jack Flag

The First Navy Jack flag was one of the first to use the timber rattlesnake on the flag – the same found on the Gadsden flag. Similar to the Gadsden flag, it has the emblem “don’t tread on me” printed underneath the snake. The First Navy Jack flag has a similar significance and meaning though it has not gained in as much popularity.

The First Union Jack Flag was created in 1775, and accredited to Commodore Hopkins as we mentioned before (though that claim is not entirely substantiated). The flag featured a rattlesnake with 13 stripes representing the thirteen colonies fighting for independence from Britain.

The words “DON’T TREAD ON ME” were also included on the flag, warning the British that the American colonies would fight if provoked. 

The Culpeper Minutemen Flag
The Culpeper Minutemen Flag

The Culpeper Minutemen Flag

Around the same time in 1775, The Culpeper Minutemen (men who could be ready in an emergency in a minute), a group of Virginian colonists raised a militia in response to the increasing tensions between the British Crown and the American colonies. The group took its name from the town of Culpeper, Virginia, where it was formed and adopted a very similar flag to the Gadsden Flag.

The Culpeper Minutemen were one of several militias that were formed in the American Colonies in the early 1770s. These groups were created in response to the British Parliament’s passage of the Coercive Acts, which placed strict limits on colonial self-government and civil liberties.

The Culpeper Minutemen were active during the early stages of the American Revolutionary War. They took part in the Battles of Lexington and Concord and other engagements in Massachusetts and New York.

The flag also depicted the slogan “don’t tread on me” and “liberty or death”. 

The inspiration behind the symbols

Gadsden may have been inspired by Benjamin Franklin, who way back in 1751, published an article in his Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting that the colonists should send rattlesnakes to Britain in return for the convicts that were sent to America.

Some years later during the French and Indian War, Benjamin Franklin published what is believed to be the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette showing a rattlesnake cut into eight pieces. The significance of the cartoon was that each piece represented a colony and etched below the snake were the words “Join or Die”, which was seen as a statement against the disunity of the 13 colonies during the French and Indian War.

Benjamin Franklin Join or Die
Join or Die depiction by Franklin

The image became a powerful symbol of the unity needed by the American colonists to resist British imperialism especially needed after the French and Indian Wars. While the French were united in their governance, the colonies were split and fractured making the coordination of the war effort all the more difficult.

Snake & ‘don’t tread on me’ symbol in early America

The rattlesnake became a symbol of the American colonies’ defiance of British rule. It can be seen popping up in dozens of places in the mid-18th century. The snake at the time was starting to become a popular American symbol used in several newspapers, as well as in political cartoons and newspapers.

In 1774, a snake fighting a British dragon was added to the masthead of the Massachusetts Spy, at the time it was New England’s largest newspaper owned by Isaiah Thomas. It is recorded that Paul Revere made the etching with the phrase “Don’t Tread On Me”.

Massachusetts Spy engraving by Paul Revere

The imagery can be seen as a warning that America will attack when provoked and won’t give up, just like the rattlesnake.

The snake native to America produces a loud rattling noise when threatened though they will not attack unless threatened. They also do not surrender and when attacked, bite back with hypodermic needles for teeth together with a toxic venom. Using the rattlesnake image on a flag symbolizes the colonies’ willingness to fight and defend themselves if trampled on.

Benjamin Franklin on the rattlesnake symbol

Why the rattlesnake became such a powerful American symbol has much to do with the animal itself. As Benjamin Franklin was stated to have said in a letter to his friend, Pennsylvania governor James Hamilton, Franklin aptly describes the symbolism of the animal and 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 quarrelling 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 creature; and even when those weapons are shown 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 stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?"

The rattlesnake is a potent symbol in American culture.  The timber rattlesnake can be found in many places throughout America and at the time, represented a distinct identity separate from old-world Britain.

For others, the snake represents a symbol of strength and power, and as Franklin describes there is a characteristic in the snake that matches the colonial struggle.  

Rattle snake flag

Since then, the snake has been used countless times in American culture. It can be found on the Seal of War Office with the logo “this we will defend” as well in modern politics. The tea party as well as libertarians, anti-vaxers, and pro-Trump supporters, all used the flag and the snake symbol to reflect the struggle of the oppressed.

Don’t Tread On Me Meaning & Symbol

The phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” expresses the colonists’ determination to defend their rights. Though the phrase originated during the Revolutionary War, it also carries a lot of symbolic appeal in the modern world. The symbol continues to be used as a way to represent patriotism and one that represents the struggle against the anti-establishment culture of American society.

While it can be seen used in fringe movements, demonstrations, and pro-Trump politics it also has a long tradition of the words being used on the Navy Jack Flag which has been flown in the US Navy during bi-centennial celebrations in 1976.

gadsden flag at the riots
Gadsden Flag flying in the hands of rioters in the Jan 6 storming of the capitol

The word “Don’t tread on me” has become a popular rallying cry for Americans who value individual freedom and self-autonomy. Because of this association, it is often seen to be a pro-militia or pro-gun symbol. It has even been considered to be a racist symbol – as Gadsden was a slave owner.

There was a complaint the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruled that a complainant against the Gadsden flag constituted race-based harassment and had met the legal standard to state a claim, and the complaint should therefore be investigated. However, the EEOC did not make any decision that the Gadsden flag is a “racist symbol”. No legal case was brought forward, but that was enough to create a media storm.

Like many symbols, its meaning depends upon the time and place it is being seen and the force it is meant to represent.

Unfortunately, symbols are not all clear-cut and dry.

Modern Usage of the Gadsden Flag

The resurgence of the flag came in recent times with the presidential election of Donald Trump. Many people who supported him saw the flag as a symbol of his campaign’s anti-establishment and patriotic message.

That being said, the flag has also been used in very-unpolitical ways on some streetward brands, US soccer merch and license plates. It was also adopted by some military units as well as the U.S. Marine Corps.

But more trouble was in store for the flag. In 2017, Jeremy Christian was seen using Nazi salutes in an alt-right march in Portland, Oregon with dozens of Gadsden flags blowing in the wind.

The controversy came again to the forefront of the media when the flag was captured in a picture storming the capitol building on January 6, 2021. It was also used by the perpetrators of the mass shooting in Las Vegas where the shooters dropped the flag over the policemen they had just killed. The shooters reportedly “spoke of white supremacy” and, after they draped the flag over the policemen’s dead bodies, were stated to have a note that read “This is the beginning of the revolution.”

storming of the capitol with gadsden flag

Second Amendment and the Flag

Paradoxically, though the flag has been used at the scene of riots and murder, the flag has also been used by gun rights advocates to show support for the second amendment. The argument now, is that it represents autonomy and the rights of the Constitution. While others say it’s just another example of how our culture glorifies violence, gun activists would like to remind the public that our forefather’s fight for independence was of course – done by the barrel of the gun.

Wielded by gun rights advocates, the flag is used as a rallying point reminding the public that the right to bear arms is a deeply held American right.

So it seems some see it as a sign of racism and bigotry, while others view it as a proud expression of American values and independence. 

Confusing Signals

In 2017, in Helena Montana, at the height of the alt-right movement – and its backlash – protestors took to the streets demanding the removal of a fountain in the state capitol.

The Indian Caucus authored a letter urging the fountain’s removal as “public property in Montana should not be used to promote Nazism, fascism, totalitarianism, separatism, or racism.”

Protesters who gathered to demonstrate against the Confederate-era symbol were seen waving the Gadsden flag. The flag is now being used not as a taunt against imperialism, but rather waved in an anti-Confederate rally. The Gasded flag suddenly jumped the fence and became, for a moment, an anti-Confederate symbol.

While some argue it is an expression of white power, it now seems to be more of an anti-government symbol.

For Jamar Galbreath, a social justice fighter, is quoted in HCN in saying that: “the Gadsden flag evokes something sinister: an 1846 Edgar Allen Poe story, ‘The Cask of Amontillado.’ In it, a man pledges revenge on another man. While luring his victim toward his death, he speaks of his family coat of arms: a snake biting the foot that is stepping on its body, with the Latin words Nemo me impune lacessit — “No one strikes me with impunity.”

Why all the confusion?

It appears the flag has been appropriated by all manner of organizations who sought to use the symbol for their own end.

In the 1960s and 70s radical fringe movements took it as their own; the Ku Klux Klan leaders embraced it, as well as the rather radical Earth First! movement. Jump forward a few decades and you can see it being flown at Tea Party meetings across America.

Gun rights activists and Tea Partiers seem to be claiming in righteousness – heralding the legacy of the Founding Fathers and the original struggle for independence – that they are the true Americans.

Whatever the meaning, its message seems to have shifted – that the treader is ‘no longer foreign, but domestic.’

The debate over the flag’s meaning will likely continue as each side appropriates symbols to rally its cause and appeal to the part of the mind that uses symbols to create an identity. Like all symbols they will change over time; what next iteration of this flag will be, time will tell.

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