“Don’t Tread on Me”, the Role of Gadsden’s Flag in American History

The Gadsden flag has a long history with roots in the American revolution. The Continental Navy was formed in 1775 by General George Washington, the Commander in Chief of the Continental Forces. He named Esek Hopkins as the Commodore of the Navy. In October of 1775, a merchant ship named the Black Prince arrived in Philadelphia carrying private letters for the Continental Congress. The letters described the current situation in England and let the patriots know that England had launched two ships laden with arms and gun powder for the New World. Congress decided that America needed those supplies more than the British so they created a Navy with a mere four ships. The Black Pearl was purchased and renamed the Alfred as part of the effort.

To man the new Navy, Congress authorized the mustering of five Marine companies. These marines arrived with bright yellow drums emblazoned with a coiled snake and the phrase, “Don’t Tread on Me”. The symbolism of a coiled snake was very popular in the colonies. Ben Franklin suggested that it become the symbol of America. He anonymously printed a comment about the matter. He argued that the rattlesnake was an animal unique to North America. He 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, never surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling 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 animal; 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?”.

When the Navy was created, Colonel Christopher Gadsden from South Carolina was asked to build one of the companies of Marines and command the Alfred. For his ship and soldiers, he created this flag to fly as his personal standard. The flag that he created depicted a coiled timber rattlesnake with 13 rattles on its tail – one for each of the colonies. This vision of strength and determination became a symbol for a young nation.

Today, this flag is flown as a symbol of American patriotism. It is also used to express dissatisfaction with big government and support of individual civil liberties. It has also been adopted by the Tea Party as a symbol of their movement. The  Gadsden Don't Tread On Me Flag has served to remind Americans that they are unique, strong and individuals, that when bonded together, can accomplish almost anything.

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