Don’t Tread on Me is a very strong statement in the United States with very deep historical roots. The phrase was written under the image of a rattle snake and emblazoned on a yellow flag. This is known as the Gadsden flag and falls within the historical flags of America.
What Does It Mean?
The symbolism in the flag partnered by the image holds deep meaning. Basically, the “Don’t Tread on Me” phrase combined with the snake ready to strike is a warning. This tells people not to step on or take advantage of the Americans or they will strike. Unfortunately, it appears that different groups and individuals throughout the country, interpret the symbol to mean a whole lot of other things besides its original intent. For example, in 2014, an African American postal worker submitted an official complaint which made its way to the courts, alleging that he was discriminated against by a co-worker who simply wore a hat with the snake symbol. Apparently, it was racist in his eyes.
Some have said that because some Tea Party backers like the flag, it’s now a symbol of “anti-government overreach, 2nd Amendment enthusiasts”.
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The use of the snake or more specifically the rattlesnake did not happen by chance. The fact is that the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the timber rattlesnake were both fairly abundant within the colonies. In a satirical article, Benjamin Franklin suggested that the Americas send rattlesnakes to Britain as a response to their sending of convicted criminals to the colonies. In one of America’s earliest political cartoons, Franklin published a picture of a segmented snake to symbolize a divided America. His point was to admonish all colonial Americans to unite or die. Whatever one may say of, or think of the symbol of the “don’t tread on me” flag, there is no doubt that its actual origin is 100% pro-revolution and anti-British. It was conceived of and developed in a totally non-racial context during the revolutionary war.
The unfortunate truth is that often, the meaning of symbols is fluid and changing. Even the much-hated-for-good-reason Nazi Swastika was used in numerous contexts before the conception of the Nazi party. Believe it or not, it was even used in some official contexts within the American Military! Among other meanings, it is clear that it is often adopted by the those with a general or even vague approval or even outright enthusiasm for the concept of minimal government and freedom of rights for individuals.
Development of the Flag
The Gadsden flag was created by Christopher Gadsden who was an American statesman and Brigadier General in the Continental Army. Other Independence-era symbols came out around the same time as Gadsden’s logo and slogan, but none has stood the test of time like this one! Currently, there are several variations of this flag but the message remains the same. Following are some of the minor changes that may be found for the Gadsden flag.
- The typeface can either be serif or sans-serif.
- The word “Don’t” may be written with or without the apostrophe.
- The earliest versions of the flag show that the rattlesnake is facing to the left. However, some versions today show that the snake is facing the right.
- Most representations of the flag dating from 1887 to 1917 show a completely yellow background where the snake is resting. A recent addition, however, is the green grass beneath the snake.
- Some parts of the United States today have declared the flag unsavory with some uncomforted reports about arrests on people who have the flag on display. Fair recently, the city of New Rochelle, New York have actually removed the flag from their military armory. The reasoning was that the flag is often used by the tea party movement.
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Uses of the Flag
Upon development, the flag was used by various groups within America. The Continental Marines is one of the most popular groups that used this flag, unfurling it side by side with the Moultrie flag. The United States Navy also utilized an earlier version of the flag.
The first use of this flag, however, was by Commodore Esek Hopkins. He was the first Commander in Chief for the New Continental Fleet. His ships sailed for the first time in the year 1776 on the month of February. It was then shown by Colonel Christopher Gadsden to the Continental Congress.
Today, the flag is being used by the Tea Party Movement (as previously mentioned) – which is why the symbol is currently getting some bad reputation. Still, the rattlesnake is still a powerful image and is actually being used by Nike in support of the US national soccer team for the males. Even the band Metallica has recorded a song entitled “Don’t Tread on Me.”
In spite of its wide variety of uses and meanings, it’s disheartening to see that even those who collect all types of flags have mostly shied away from flying it (as most collectors like to fly some of their flags on occasion) because it can reflect an ideology or political viewpoint that may offend some! The crazy thing is that many who are intimidated from displaying the flag, don’t even know who they are offending or why it’s offensive (since it originally spoke of freedom from British domination)! Yes, it’s gotten that bad!
Why Is This Important?
The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag is a very important representation of American history. Nowadays, the United States is proud of its freedom – sometimes even stating that it is the freest country in the world. The Gadsden flag, however, represents the time when America is in the process of fighting for its freedom. Therefore, it is a wonderful symbol of the country’s strength and willpower- leading it to become the world leader it is today. Young Americans will do well to know the impact and underlying meaning of this flag to their history. If you’re fascinated, or even just a tad bit curious, check out some excellent collector’s items for both flag enthusiasts and freedom proponents HERE!