American history has another important representation that many do not know the meaning of – the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag. Americans are proud and protective of the freedom they have, sometimes even referring to themselves as the world’s freest country. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag represents a period in history when the United States was still fighting for independence from Great Britain. Its words still resonant today.
Gadsden and Hopkins
Although he helped to create the symbol of the American rattlesnake, Benjamin Franklin’s name isn’t usually associated with the rattlesnake flag. The brightly-colored, yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag is usually referred to as a Gadsden flag, named after Colonel Christopher Gadsden.
Though this is less frequent, it is sometimes also referred to as a Hopkins flag, named after Commodore Esek Hopkins. Both men were milling around Philadelphia at the same time, with each making significant contributions to the history of the rattlesnake flag, and to America’s history in general.
An American patriot, Christopher Gadsden led the Sons of Liberty starting in 1765 in South Carolina. Eventually, he was made a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He was one of three Marine Committee members deciding to man and outfit the Alfred and its sister ships.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Navy, Esek Hopkins flew the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag on the Alfred. It is historically accepted that the flag was given to Hopkins by Gadsden. Reportedly, Gadsden believed a distinctive personal standard was vitally important for the Commodore to have.
The rattlesnake link
Benjamin Franklin is renowned throughout history for his sense of humor. In the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin wrote a satirical commentary in 1751, suggesting the best way to thank the British for their habit of sending all their convicted felons to America would be to send England some rattlesnakes.
In 1754, Franklin drew, carved and published an American newspaper’s first political cartoon. This one was not quite as humorous as the first. Franklin used an eight-section cut-up rattlesnake to represent the colonies. The snake’s curves were suggestive of the coastline.
South Carolina was the tail, while New England was the snake head. Written underneath the snake were the threatening words, “Join, or Die.” The American people adopted the rattlesnake symbol, and it became demonstrative over the years of the people and their ambition for self-determination.
The snake’s trait of honorably cautioning its enemies to beware the dangers of stepping on it was, in Franklin’s opinion, well-suited to the United States. The implied threat behind the slogan is that real harm will come to any person or group who might plan to step or tread on colonial Americans, in the same way that Prime Minister and Lord Frederick North had.
He saw the 13 rattles as conveying how the colonies came together with unity during times of military action. Many earlier versions used the snake and the motto of the Gadsden flag in different variations.
By the time 1975 rolled around, the symbol of the rattlesnake was not only visible in the newspapers. It could be seen across the 13 colonies on flags and banners, printed on paper money and imprinted on uniform buttons.
The adoption of the symbol was widespread and swift, morphing several times in rapid succession. No longer was it cut up into eight pieces. Additionally, instead of a generic snake, now it was the American timber rattler.
Old vs. New
Gadsden designed the “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag in 1775, during the American Revolutionary War. Along with the Liberty Flag, it was flown as a motto flag by the Continental Marines. Once the United States formally adopted the “Stars and Stripes” as its official flag, the Gadsden flag was mainly only a relic from the Revolutionary era for many years.
It has seen several spikes in popularity after that. The Libertarians revered it for the symbolism it showed to the rights of the individual and a minimalistic form of government during the 1970s. Interest grew again after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, during the emergence of the Tea Party, and when Alabama became the seventh state to give approval to Gadsden-designed specialty license plates in 2014.
Whether you are a fan of the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag or not, the significance behind it is unmistakable. Also easily recognizable is the implied warning from the snake itself, which closely mirrors the beliefs of our country – heed our warning lest we strike out.