[The Gadsden flag:
Don't Tread on Me]
Don't Tread on Me
When it comes to symbolizing freedom and the spirit of '76, the meaning of Old Glory can get mixed up with the rights and wrongs of the perpetually new-and-improved government. The meaning of "Don't Tread on Me" is unmistakable.
There's also an interesting history behind this flag. And it's intertwined with one of American history's most interesting personalities, Ben Franklin.
[Benjamin Franklin's woodcut from May 9, 1754.
Newspaper Serial and Government Publications Division,
Library of Congress.]
The snake symbol came in handy ten years later, when Americans were again uniting against a common enemy. In 1765 the common enemy was the Stamp Act. The British decided that they needed more control over the colonies, and more importantly, they needed more money from the colonies. The Crown was loaded with debt from the French and Indian War. Why shouldn't the Americans -- "children planted by our care, nourished by our indulgence," as Charles Townshend of the House of Commons put it -- pay off England's debt? Colonel Isaac Barre, who had fought in the French and Indian War, responded that the colonies hadn't been planted by the care of the British government, they'd been established by people fleeing it. And the British government hadn't nourished the colonies, they'd flourished despite what the British government did and didn't do. In this speech, Barre referred to the colonists as "sons of liberty." In the following months and years, as we know, the Sons of Liberty became increasingly resentful of English interference. And as the tides of American public opinion moved closer and closer to rebellion, Franklin's disjointed snake continued to be used as symbol of American unity, and American independence. For example, in 1774 Paul Revere added it to the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy and showed the snake fighting a British dragon.
[Paul Revere's modified "Join or Die" snake from the masthead
of Thomas's Boston Journal, July 7, 1774. Newspaper Serial
and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress.]
The birth of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps
[The seal from a 1778 $20 bill from Georgia. The financial backing for these bills was property seized from loyalists. The motto reads "Nemo me impune lacesset," i.e. "No one will provoke me with impunity."]
Benjamin Franklin diverts an idle hour
[Benjamin Franklin, portrait by David Martin, 1767. White House Historical Association.]
"I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, 'Don't tread on me.' As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America."This anonymous writer, having "nothing to do with public affairs" and "in order to divert an idle hour," speculated on why a snake might be chosen as a symbol for America. First, it occurred to him that "the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America." The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes, and "may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance." Furthermore,
"She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. ... she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her."Finally,
"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. ...
"'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. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living."Many scholars now agree that this "American Guesser" was Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, of course, is also known for opposing the use of an eagle -- "a bird of bad moral character" -- as a national symbol.
Written by Chris Whitten
Edited by Celio Azevedo