Politics & Policy

‘Don’t Tread on Me’

The history of a symbol of rebellion.

As the House health-care debate entered the homestretch on Sunday, GOP lawmakers interacted with the protesters who had gathered outside the Capitol. “There was a very, very large group of people, and many flags from our heritage were on display,” recalls Rep. Geoff Davis (R., Ky.).

Davis and fellow Republican representative Mary Fallin (Okla.) borrowed one of those flags — a yellow one bearing an image of a rattlesnake and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” — brought it upstairs, and hung it from the building’s balcony.  

 

That flag has become a staple of tea-party rallies nationwide. Its appearance at the Capitol last weekend was only the latest of many times it has symbolized American resistance to government encroachments on individual liberty. 

 

The sentiment behind the flag has roots among the borderland people called the Scotch-Irish, says historian David Hackett Fischer, a professor at Brandeis University and the author of Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. “They lived for a thousand years under two governments that brought nothing but misery,” he says. “They were double-taxed, and abused in every kind of way. They hated government and hated taxation, and looked instead to themselves, their clans, and their families.” 

In America, it was immigrants from this region and their children who introduced versions of the rattlesnake/“Don’t Tread on Me” flag in 1775, the year the Revolutionary War began. It appeared simultaneously among militia units from Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Virginia. One famous early appearance of this imagery occurred when the Second Continental Congress sent a group of Marines to help the Navy intercept and capture some British supply ships. The Marines carried drums that were painted yellow, with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” and the rattlesnake image. 

 

The same year, Christopher Gadsden — who represented South Carolina in the Continental Congress — chose Esek Hopkins to be commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy. Gadsden presented Hopkins with a personal standard: a yellow rattlesnake flag, with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” He also presented the flag to his home state’s legislature in Charleston. Today, the rattlesnake flag’s yellow iteration (other colors were also used) is commonly known as the Gadsden flag

The design soon became a universal symbol of the Revolution; everyone from Minuteman militias to the New Continental Fleet used it. However, Betsy Ross’s Stars and Stripes was adopted as the official American flag in 1777.  

Why choose a rattlesnake as a symbol of America? In December of 1775, writing under the pseudonym An American Guesser, Ben Franklin — whose famous “Join or Die” political cartoon had also used a snake to represent America — noted the Marines’ painted drums. He meditated on the features that set the rattlesnake off from other creatures. After noting that the rattlesnake is found only in America; that its lack of eyelids signifies eternal vigilance; that it never attacks, but it defends itself to the death; and that its fangs are concealed but lethal, he wrote:

Was I wrong . . . in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America? The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies. This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence. 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.

Even after the adoption of the Stars and Stripes, the Gadsden flag did not cease to play a role in American culture. The U.S. military’s various branches, especially the Navy, have used the flag, words, and rattlesnake for various purposes; the First Navy Jack, for example, is a direct descendant. The rock band Metallica featured the rattlesnake on an album cover. The Free State Project — a kooky effort to encourage libertarian-minded Americans to move to New Hampshire and turn the state into Galt’s Gulch — even created a version of the flag that substituted its mascot, a porcupine, for the rattlesnake. 

And now, of course, the tea-party movement has taken it up. “There was never a meeting where we said, ‘This is our symbol,’” says Adam Brandon, press secretary for FreedomWorks, a libertarian group that functions as a service center for tea-party organizers. “But I remember talking to the early activists about imagery when this started rolling. You didn’t want a lot of country music and American flags necessarily, because that gave the idea that it was the Fourth of July and you were celebrating. This flag was patriotic, but it said that we’re kind of upset about something right now.” Brandon adds that the flag’s Revolutionary War roots fit with the tea-party idea. 

 

When Republicans and tea-partiers use the flag, they are true to its meaning, Fischer says — but he is quick to point out that the sentiments behind the flag were not universal among early American revolutionaries. New Englanders saw liberty as a right to belong — a right to vote in town meetings, for instance. Quaker Pennsylvanians thought liberty entailed “the reciprocal rights of everyone,” while Virginians saw the concept in a way that was consistent with hierarchy; there was no contradiction between liberty for them and bondage for their slaves. 

 

Nonetheless, the defiant, autonomy-focused “Don’t Tread on Me” strain of thought was an integral part of America’s Founding. And just as the revolutionaries cast off the oppressions of British rule, the tea-partiers hope to roll back the impositions of our ever-expanding federal government. 

 

– Robert VerBruggen, who edits the Phi Beta Cons blog, is a National Review associate editor.

 

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