It is not a rare symbol nowadays, the yellow field, coiled rattlesnake, and the bold words, “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” You may see it flown as a flag, on the back of a car, on clothing, or even as a tattoo. It is the Gadsden flag, a historic battle flag that was designed to fly over America’s first Navy vessel.
However, the flag has had a long, interesting journey from battle flag to the symbol we see today. It is not always clear to everyone what the flag actually represents. To answer this, we need to examine its path through history.
Origins & History
The Gadsden flag was designed by Colonel Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden was an American patriot who had led the Sons of Liberty in 1765 before being made a colonel in the Continental Army.
While serving in the Continental Congress representing his home state of South Carolina, Gadsden was instrumental in deciding to equip and man the Alfred, and it’s sister ships as the first fleet.
Christopher Gadsden was an American patriot if ever there was one. He led Sons of Liberty in South Carolina starting in 1765 and was later made a colonel in the Continental Army. In 1775 Gadsden was in Philadelphia representing his home state in the Continental Congress.
He was also one of three members of the Marine Committee who decided to outfit and crew the Alfred and its sister ships to create the Continental Fleet, America’s first Navy vessels.
Esek Hopkins was chosen as the commander-in-chief of the newly formed Navy. Before setting off to sea for the first time, Gadsden presented Hopkins with a flag to use as his personal standard, or battle flag. This would be the Gadsden flag that is known today.
Gadsden also presented a copy of the flag to the South Carolina legislature. An entry into the journals of the South Carolina legislature reads:
“Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”
After the War
Following the war and the adoption of the stars and stripes as the official flag on the United States on June 14, 1777, the Gadsden Flag became obsolete. It was a relic of the war, but there are few mentions of its use in the known records.
It wasn’t until the 1970’s that it began making a comeback. It started to come into popularity with Libertarian groups and was used as a symbol of the desire for small government and individual liberties.
The next wave of interest in the Gadsden flag came after the terrorist attacks on 9/11. Furious and passionate citizens were looking for a way to express their emotions concerning the attack on the country.
The coiled rattlesnake and rebellious words fit the role, and its popularity and usage skyrocketed into the mainstream.
The Gadsden flag would see another increase in popularity with the beginning of the Tea Party Movement in early 2009.
The Tea Party’s desire for reduced government spending and decreasing taxes hearkened back to the rebellious attitude leading up to the revolutionary war, hence the name, which was referring to the Boston Tea Party on December 16, 1773.
After 2009 the symbol slowly began to expand in pop culture. It began to appear on bumper stickers, clothing, accessories, and other merchandise. The flags started showing up on flagpoles flying under the US flag and in novelty shops all over.
Many states now have a license plate available with the Gadsden symbols.
A Modern Symbol
Throughout its long history, the Gadsden flag has been a symbol of intense individualism and rebellion against governmental control.
From its use atop the mast of the Alfred sailing to intercept supply ships from the British to its application by the early Libertarians, the Gadsden symbols have been used by citizens who wanted to express emotions of dissent for the overreach of government, pride for their country, and desire for personal freedom.
While the flag has been used by groups over the years, it has never been about belonging to a group, or the beliefs of the group, but rather the individual’s own convictions.
The fact that the flag speaks from an individual standpoint is why it has been so popular on merchandise and why it has become standard as a symbol to display on an individual’s person or property.
Controversy & Racial Connotations
While for many the Gadsden flag traditionally stands for personal liberty and individual rights, in the past 5 years or so, people have begun to attach different ideas to the symbolism.
There are several incidents believed to contribute heavily to this and serves as the basis for the majority who hold this idea as true.
The first and most prominent is an incident that started in January of 2014. An African-American employee with the United States Postal Service filed a complaint saying he had been subjected to racial discrimination because a fellow employee “repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag.”
USPS dismissed the complaint, but it was later reviewed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who issued a statement telling the USPS to investigate the matter.
This statement and the issue at large was brought to the public’s attention by Eugene Volokh, a professor at the U.C.L.A. School of Law.
Other incidents include the flag being removed by the city of New Haven from its fire station after a black firefighter complained it was racially insensitive to have the flag on display.
There was also an incident in 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada where shooters gunned down two police officers and draped their bodies with a Gadsden flag. The gunmen apparently were outspoken about white supremacy and were presumably making the same statement with the flag.
To determine the meaning of the Gadsden flag in today’s society, you have first to decide if a symbol’s meaning over time can be altered by other people’s views and thoughts.
While it is often said that whatever people want to attach to a symbol is their problem, we need to remember symbols such as the swastika used by the Nazi’s. Traditionally, the swastika was a symbol of divinity and spirituality in Indian religions.
However, its adoption and use by the Nazi party has forever changed the meaning of the symbol.
However, to most the Gadsden symbols are far different from symbols such as the swastika, in that it has never changed what it stood for.
The Nazi party used the swastika, but it was never intended to mean divinity and spirituality, it was just a symbol that Hitler had liked in his youth and decided to make it his own.
People who display the flag and its symbols today are showing enthusiasm as an American patriot. They are presenting the flag as a statement not that they are rebellious against their government, but rather that they are aware of the individual rights and liberties, and that the government does not rule them, but instead exists to represent their best interests.
The symbol also represents the knowledge that an individual is not powerless against a government and that the individual rights of a person shall not be trampled on by the government in an effort to please others.
The Gadsden flag is a way for citizens to let it be known they are not “sheep,” but instead that they are proud, informed, and patriotic. If someone is offended by that, then they are merely ignorant of the history and symbolism the flag represents and has represented since it was first ran up the gaff of America’s first Navy Vessel in 1775.
If you don’t have a Gadsden Flag, you can find one here to fly your patriotism proudly.