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.
You can do an online search and find lots of details about the phrase “don’t tread on me” and how it’s connected to the Gadsden Flag and Benjamin Franklin, etc. Not all the stories or timelines are the same. Here’s a good overview to give you a really good idea of it’s general history from inception to present day.
The short answer to “where did it come from” is – The War of Independence in the United States (also known as the Revolutionary War) in the 1770’s. The United States was not actually the United States at all at that time. It was known as the “American Colonies” ruled by the world’s superpower at the time – Great Britain.
As the story goes, during late 1775 when the rebellion against the British rule of the colonies was already well underway, the American army (known as the Continental Army) was waiting in Cambridge, Massachusetts under orders from their General George Washington. At the same time the British were occupying Boston. The Continental Army was not well-equipped and disease and other hardships were taking their toll on the troops. This was around the time of the famous battle of Bunker Hill where George Washington’s troops were so low on gun powder that they were ordered not to fire until they saw the “whites of their eyes” because this would mean their enemy was in close range which would increase the odds of hitting their target.
Around that time, an American merchant ship returned to Philadelphia from England with information regarding several British supply ships that were soon to sail for America laden with ammunition and military supplies. In order to take advantage of a strategic opportunity to capture those supplies and gain an advantage against the British troops, the Continental Congress (U.S. Government at the time) devised a plan to intercept the ships. The key element in that plan was to create a navy (The Continental Navy). It was a fledgling navy with just 7 ships, but it was a start.
As part of the grand plan to create and deploy this Navy, Congress authorized the assembly of five companies of Marines. As it happened, a number of the Marines that enlisted shortly after that were carrying yellow drums bearing the image of a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, and bearing the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Christoper Gadsden was an American “patriot” or “rebel” depending on which side you were on! He was a merchant (and yes, like Benjamin Franklin, a slave-owner in South Carolina), a soldier and a politician. He was an American statesman and Brigadier General in the Continental Army. At this point in history, Gadsden was a delegate to Congress and was also a member of the Marine Committee. In addition, he was the commander of the First South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army.
The Gadsden flag was created by Christopher Gadsden and while other Independence-era symbols came out around the same time as Gadsden’s logo and slogan, none has stood the test of time like this one! He presented a copy of this flag to his state legislature in Charleston, S.C. and its popularity soon soared!
In 1775 before the departure of the first mission of the American Navy, a copy of the Gadsden flag was given to the Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Commodore Esek Hopkins. He used it on the mainmast of his ship (the Alfred) as a unique personal standard.
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. He wanted to establish the rattlesnake as a “mascot” for American colonies because of the qualities it represents. A quote from Franklin explains:
“She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”…”but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds til 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?”
Franklin went on to outline to his friend Christopher Gadsden, the qualities of the rattlesnake that he admired as it related to the American struggle for independence:
- The Rattlesnake 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.
- She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage
- The rattle = the number of the Colonies united in America
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 Gadsden Flag was intentionally designed not to convey a racist message, but a patriotic one.
HOWEVER, It appears as though the meaning of the flag has changed (and is changing) from a historic symbol of patriotism (and more recently a general expression of personal freedom and God-given individual rights) to something much more insidious and dishonorable.
While many today use the dont tread on me flag as both a tribute to American resilience AND an expression of their own desire to remain free and liberated (much like many people display the Stars and Stripes for the same reason), things started to change in the early 2000’s. Somehow, the Gadsden Flag became associated with extremism in the “conservative” ranks like various libertarian causes, gun-rights advocates and far-right political groups. In a word, it was politicized!
Then, to add to the confusion and misrepresentation of the flag, some supporters of some of these groups were accused of being racist. The critics of those supporters then decided to use the flag itself as a symbol of bigotry and racism.
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 because in his own words he stated;
“Christopher Gadsden was a slave trader and owner of slaves”
…and so that means his flag (whatever it was meant to mean) is now racist. We often forget that many “slave owners” did not fit the profile of what we’re told is accurate history in the movies. Benjamin Franklin himself was a slave owner who treated his servants as family and gave them grace, mercy and opportunity.
Some have said that because some Tea Party backers like the flag, it’s now a symbol of “anti-government overreach, 2nd Amendment enthusiasts”.
This is ABSOLUTELY THE BEST collection of Don’t Tread on Me Patches ever assembled in one place! Seriously!
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.
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 those with a general or even vague approval or even outright enthusiasm for the concept of minimal government and freedom of rights for individuals.
Currently, there are several variations of this flag but the message remains the same. The following are some of the minor changes that may be found for the Gadsden 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.
As mentioned earlier, the first use of this flag 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 men’s soccer team. 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!
In all my research, I still can’t figure out why many otherwise seemingly rational left-leaning liberal or “progressive” citizens of the USA persecute those who fly this flag. We understand that there have been white supremacist groups who have used the flag as part of their own symbolism, but most rational people can understand that just because a fringe group adopts a national symbol, that is no reason to persecute those who display the symbol (since most who display the symbol probably display it as a symbol portraying its original meaning).
Can you imagine if every Conservative Republican decided to persecute anyone who displays a photo of a rainbow because it has been adopted by the LGBTQ community? The rainbow was originally a symbol of a promise given to us by God to never again destroy the earth with a flood. The symbol has been taken by the gay community to symbolize their lifestyle and agenda which has nothing to do with the original symbolism of the rainbow. I don’t see widespread denunciations of rainbows in this world by those who oppose the LGBTQ lifestyle! Can you please return the favor?
In the case of the Gadsden flag, the symbolism is that of American independence and pride, telling England (and any other would-be America-haters) to “lay off – we bite if you screw with our freedom!” I am not a racist and I appreciate that symbolism. If you are a Democrat, appreciate a “women’s right to choose”, whole-heartedly celebrate same-sex marriage, really like Hilary Clinton, contemplated moving to Canada when Trump was elected, or otherwise appreciate a left-wing, liberal, progressive social and political agenda, YOU ARE WELCOME HERE AT KNIFEUP! However, please don’t go off on a tantrum about how everyone who loves America and displays the Gadsden flag as a symbol of our great country is a Trump-loving, woman-hating, immigrant-hating, Nazi-loving, Republican racist. It’s simply not true and I sincerely believe you know that in your heart.
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!
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