A Short History of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag
Americans have always loved symbols: the bald eagle, Smith & Wesson, Superman, great grandpa’s cattle brand. Most of these have a long history behind them. Today, we will focus on the history of the “Don’t Tread on Me” Gadsden flag.
People came to colonial America to be free. Early exploration was encouraged to profit the empires backing the colonies. Most of the colonists had their own reasons for traveling to the new world. They were usually either businessmen who had invested in companies such as the East India Company or people seeking religious freedom.
During the Great Migration (cira 1630-40), many indentured servants came across seeking new life. This group of people pledged to pay their way to the New World by working as slaves for a handful of years after their voyage.
The Dissected Rattlesnake
Many of America’s later settlers were also prisoners. Colonies in the South, such as Florida and Georgia became dumping grounds for Europe’s prisons. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin published a satirical piece on sending rattlesnakes to England as payment for the criminals being sent to the colonies (Leepson 12).
During the French and Indian wars, Franklin once again published one of his snake related ideas in The Gazzette. This time Franklin drew a cartoon of a snake, divided into eight pieces (one for each of the English colonies included in the Albany plan). Franklin’s cartoon is captioned “Join or Die,” suggesting the colonies unite as one force to defeat the French and Indian’s military alliance.
After joining together, the English colonists were able to drive the French from the New World.
Franklin’s snake idea was also used by a man in another colony who had an important part in America’s revolt against England.
Christopher Gadsden inherited his father’s estate and started his own importing and exporting business, acting as the early Amazon Prime of Charleston. Gadsden was one of only three importers in his colony, but the town’s merchants greatly outnumbered the importers.
Gadsden attempted to prevent the selling of English tea in Charleston after hearing that the largely discounted tea had experienced a rise in taxes. He and his competitors joined together and agreed they would not order any more tea or receive any new shipments of the taxed produce.
After 21 days of waiting in the harbor, tea was unloaded from The London against the wishes of the colonists. It was locked up before it could could be destroyed. This tea was never sold, though, through a loophole, the tea the colony already had was still sold by merchants who would rather profit than undermine the British regime (Cummins 83-88).
Gadsden was absolutely crushed when he read about the many other “tea-parties” that had been largely influenced by that which was planned by Gadsden and his local Sons of Liberty chapter. Gadsden wrote about his disappointments to close friend Samuel Adams. While the Charlestonians hadn’t purchased the tea, their colony was the only one that had allowed the taxed tea to touch American soil (Cummins 87-88).
The Intolerable Acts
In 1773 England passed the Intolerable Acts, which reached the New World in 1774. These acts were directed at Boston as punishment for their famous tea party in which all of the tea was split overboard by colonists dressed as Indians. These acts allowed the British to blockade Boston’s harbor, and put an embargo on trade in the same colony.
Gadsden may have been discouraged by his colony’s earlier failure, but as soon as he heard about Boston’s lack of food, he personally began coordinating relief efforts for Boston from multiple colonies and sent it to the starving people of Boston by land. He wrote to Adams, “We depend on your [f]irmness, and that you will not pay for an ounce of the damn’d Tea.” (Cummins 85-89).
Gadsden never gave up. He continued working to undermine the corrupt British tyranny with all his strength. His fellow colonists noticed this zeal and elected him as the South Carolina representative of the 1775 Continental Congress.
The famous John Quincy also picked up on his boldness, and wrote Gadsden was “plain, blunt, hot, and incorrect, and very sensible. Meekness was not one of his Christian virtues.”
As one of America’s earliest patriots, Gadsden stood up for his beliefs and his fellow Americans. He was by no means afraid to show his true colors. Perhaps this is why the famous Gadsden flag is a solid, bright yellow.
This flag is Gadsden’s take on Franklin’s snake metaphor, depicting a coiled snake on a yellow field, with the warning “DONT[sic] TREAD ON ME” printed below it. Mr. Gadsden created this purely American icon to be used by the first American navy, which he not only supported, but also paid for.
Gadsden’s actions and beliefs were two great driving forces of the American Revolution and the Navy only added to the strength of the Continental army.
Gadsden’s flag was later adopted by Virginia’s Culpeper minutemen, who added the phrase “Liberty or Death” to the flag, while printing it on a plain white field.
Today Gadsden’s flag seems to be making a comeback. The modern Tea Party has adopted it, second amendment activists practically use it as a blanket, and where I live, it is flown from tailgates everywhere.
Why is Gadsden’s flag so popular? The motto of the flag says it in a single, patriotic statement. There is no opinion contained in the Gadsden flag’s message, it is simply an all inclusive banner stating, ‘Step on us, and you’ll regret it.’
Everyone can learn something from Gadsden: to create positive change, you must be willing to do whatever it takes. Everything from quitting an addiction, to keeping a corrupt politician out of office, to raising awareness on a moral issue, requires guts, strength, and willpower. If something really is important to you, try doing things the way our fathers would have; with integrity, with transparency, and the perseverance of a patriot.