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A Brief History of the Gadsden Flag

In the patriotic fervor that swept the colonies during the American Revolution, several flags and emblems were designed to express the colonists’ growing desire for independence. One of these was known as the Gadsden flag, a yellow banner featuring a coiled rattlesnake and the ominous phrase, “Don’t Tread on Me.” It’s a well-known image, but few Americans know the history behind it.

 

dont tread on me naval jack

A native of South Carolina, Christopher Gadsden was a delegate to the Continental Congress and would later serve as a brigadier general in the Continental Army. He was a fiery defender of the colonies with an explosive temperament. He once argued that the colonies should reject outright any legislation passed by Parliament after 1763, the year that tensions between England and its colonies began to escalate. On returning to his home state after serving in the Congress, Gadsden presented the rattlesnake-adorned flag to the South Carolina Provincial Congress. He also gave a copy to the commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy, which adopted the banner as its first standard.

Gadsden’s image of the coiled rattlesnake is a striking one. It was also one which was commonly used in anti-British propaganda. The rattlesnake, highly venomous and found only in the Americas, seemed to perfectly capture the American colonists’ fighting spirit. Even in the 1750s, before disagreements irretrievably broke relations between Great Britain and the colonies, Benjamin Franklin proposed shipping rattlesnakes to London in retaliation for the Crown’s having sent convicts to the colonies.

ben franklin's join or die design

Later, Franklin would use a snake’s image broken into segments in his famous “Join or Die” design. The image, perhaps the fledgling nation’s first-ever political cartoon, was designed to encourage a sense of unity among the colonists as they fought against the French and their Native American allies in the French and Indian War. He also hoped to encourage the British to support the creation of a unified colonial government. He failed in the latter effort, but the image stuck.

A few years later, amid the controversies that led to the Revolution, the colonists revived Franklin’s image. This time, however, the snake was whole, coiled, and ready to strike. The idea, along with the warning, “Don’t Tread on Me,” was meant to convey to the British in unmistakable terms the dangers of trampling on their disaffected colonies.

gadsden flag design

Unfortunately, as is the case with many potent images, Gadsden’s “Don’t Tread on Me” banner has in recent years been appropriated for less noble purposes. For some, it remains a striking image of generalized defiance. Still, the flag has been adopted in some quarters as symbolic of an anti-government stance, particularly during the administration of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president. The fact that Gadsden was a slaveowner gives the flag, in the view of some observers, racist connotations not unlike that of the Confederate battle flag. Despite the recent misuses of the Gadsden flag, however, historians are generally in agreement that its origins are entirely within the context of the Revolution and that its original meaning was in no way racist.