What’s the Meaning of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Flag?

Proudly flown from vehicles or defiantly waved at political rallies, the yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag — with its fearsome coiled rattlesnake — has become a rallying cry for right-wing America. The historical flag, known as the Gadsden flag, originated in colonial times and was resurrected by the modern-day Tea Party movement in 2010.

Today, the Gadsden flag has taken on darker overtones. The coiled-snake flag has been embraced by fringe political groups including the anti-government militias that stormed the Capitol Jan. 6, 2021, where dozens of “Don’t Tread on Me” flags were displayed. Tragically, one of the five protestors killed in the crush of people outside the Capitol was photographed earlier that day carrying the Gadsden flag.

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The history of the Gadsden flag — particularly the symbolism of the rattlesnake — is closely linked with Benjamin Franklin, one of the most beloved Founding Fathers. But sadly, the nearly 250-year-old flag has become so politicized that even some historical flag aficionados won’t fly it today.

‘Rattlesnakes for Felons’

The Gadsden flag is so visually striking because of three elements: the bright yellow field, the words “Don’t Tread on Me” and the image of a coiled rattlesnake with its fangs bared, ready to strike.

The rattlesnake was the first of these elements to be associated with America, says John Hartvigsen, former president of the North American Vexillological Association (vexillologists study the history of flags and their symbolism) and a consultant at Colonial Flag.

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Hartvigsen explains that in 1751, American colonists were bristling over the hated British practice of shipping convicted felons to the 13 colonies. The Crown said that it was doing the colonies a favor by helping them populate faster, but Philadelphia journalist Benjamin Franklin wasn’t having it. With his trademark wit, Franklin penned a satirical article in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, titled “Rattlesnakes for Felons.”

“[S]uch a tender parental concern in our Mother Country for the welfare of her children calls aloud for the highest returns of gratitude,” wrote Franklin, dripping with sarcasm. “Rattlesnakes seem the most suitable returns for the human serpents sent us by our Mother Country.”

Franklin proposed shipping crates of venomous American rattlesnakes to London, where they could slither happily through the city’s parks, “but particularly in the gardens of the prime ministers, the lords of trade and members of Parliament, for to them we are most particularly obliged.”

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‘Join, or Die’

Three years later, in 1754, Franklin created one of the most indelible images in colonial America. Some call it the first American political cartoon. The woodblock print, which first appeared in the pages of the Pennsylvania Gazette, depicted a snake cut into pieces representing the American colonies over the fateful words, “Join, or Die.”

The cartoon wasn’t a call to arms against the British, Hartvigsen explains, because it was published during the lead-up to the French and Indian War. The severed snake cartoon accompanied an editorial by Franklin in which he was trying to unify colonial opposition to the French. He was also lobbying the British to give the colonies more independent governing authority to fight the French on their own. (It didn’t work and the British sent their own army.)

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The inscription, “Join, or Die,” was aimed at the various colonial assemblies and was a call for unity, says Hartvigsen. If you look closely, the snake in the cartoon isn’t clearly a rattlesnake, but there was a superstition in the 18th century that all snakes — even a chopped up snake — could be reassembled and survive.

“The idea of unity was what different symbols of the Revolution were really talking about,” says Hartvigsen, including the circle of 13 stars and 13 stripes on the first American flag.

(Side note: Franklin probably wasn’t the actual artist for the “Join, or Die” cartoon, which he called an “emblem.” The image itself was likely based on French drawing from 1685 of a snake cut in two pieces with the caption “se rejoindre ou mourir,” meaning “will join or die.”)

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‘Don’t Tread on Me’

Over the next decade, as tensions reached a fever pitch between the colonies and Britain, Franklin’s severed snake image went viral like a colonial-era meme. In 1774, Paul Revere redesigned the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy, a Boston newspaper, to include a severed snake facing off with a winged dragon, the symbol of Britain.

Then war finally broke out in 1775. Christopher Gadsden was a firebrand patriot from South Carolina and a brigadier general in the Continental Army. He was elected to the First Continental Congress, where he served on the marine committee. Gadsden decided that the Colonial Navy needed a flag that would distinguish it from pirate vessels and also rally the sailors against oppressive British rule.

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That’s when he came up with his famous yellow flag with its coiled rattlesnake and macho motto: “Don’t Tread on Me.” Hartvigsen points out that the snake on the Gadsden flag has 13 rattles with the nub of a 14th (perhaps an invitation for Canadian provinces to join the fight).

Did Gadsden design the flag himself, including the coiled snake and the warning, “Don’t Tread on Me?” That’s not clear. All we know is that Gadsden presented the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins, the commander in chief of the Navy, which Hopkins proudly flew on his flagship vessel, the USS Alfred. The Continental Marines also flew the flag during the Revolutionary War.

By December 1775, the Gadsden flag and its “Don’t Tread on Me” motto had caught the attention of none other than Benjamin Franklin, who wrote an anonymous letter to the Pennsylvania Journal highlighting the similarities between the indigenous American reptile and the 13 colonies.

“[I]t occurred to me that the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her,” wrote Franklin using the pen name “An American Guesser.”

Referring to the snake’s 13 rattles, Franklin returned to the theme of unity: “‘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.”

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How the Gadsden Flag Made a Comeback

The Gadsden flag wasn’t the only flag flown during the Revolution. Interestingly, there was also a flag called the First Navy Jack that showed an outstretched rattlesnake on a field of 13 red and white stripes with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.”

All these alternate flags were shelved after the Stars and Stripes became the official national flag in 1777. However, during the Civil War, Southern Confederates flew the Gadsden flag alongside the Stars and Bars.

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Popular interest in historical flags was re-ignited around the Bicentennial in 1976. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Revolution, the United States Navy flew the First Navy Jack from its vessels and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” re-entered the national vocabulary.

Around the same time, the Gadsden flag was also gaining popularity among the burgeoning Libertarian movement of the 1970s (the Libertarian Party was founded in 1971).

But 2010 was the year that the Gadsden flag really made its comeback. The Tea Party was a grassroots political movement that fashioned itself as modern-day Sons of Liberty. The enemy in 2010 wasn’t an oppressive foreign king but the United States’ own “big government” spending and over-taxation. The Tea Party adopted the Gadsden flag as its own and their influence trickled up to Congress.

In 2010, Tea Party loyalists in the House unfurled a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag from a balcony of the Capitol to protest President Barack Obama’s signature health care legislation.

“When the Tea Party started using Revolutionary War flags, I kind of chuckled under my breath, ‘This is interesting,'” says Hartvigsen. “The problem is that it’s been carried to such extremes.”

Hartvigsen has watched with dismay as the Gadsden flag and other historical flags have been appropriated by increasingly radical groups. The low point for Hartvigsen was Jan. 6, 2021, when historical and contemporary American flags were even used as weapons to beat Capitol police officers.

Personally, Hartvigsen made the difficult decision to stop flying historical flags for fear of being associated with these “splinter groups,” as he calls them. He says that he’s not alone.

“The tragic irony is that the Gadsden flag, like so many Revolutionary War symbols, represents unity, going back to Franklin’s ‘Join, or Die’ cartoon,” says Hartvigsen. “The real meaning of this flag is unity and coming together for a purpose.”

The ambiguity of the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag can be seen in the fact that the flag has at times shown up at abortion-rights marches and at vigils after the shootings at the Pulse gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, as well as at right-wing rallies and Tea Party events.

There are at least a dozen states that offer a specialty license plate emblazoned with the Gadsden flag. Indeed, Kansas approved its “Don’t Tread on Me” plate just weeks after the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In 2014, an African American postal worker filed a complaint of racial discrimination with the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) against a co-worker who repeatedly wore to work a cap sporting a flag with a coiled rattlesnake and the slogan “Don’t Tread on Me.” The Postal Service dismissed the complaint for “failure to state a cognizable claim of discrimination.” However, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) reversed the dismissal and ordered the USPS to investigate. The EEOC said that while the Gadsden flag originated in a non-racial context, it has since been “interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts” and therefore the complaint met the legal standard to be investigated by the USPS rather than to be dismissed.

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