Before “old glory” there was another symbolic flag that united our cause for American independence, the Gadsden flag. All but forgotten by many, there has been a rebirth to rediscover the history of our founding fathers and what they designed as a government in the 1700s.
The flag’s design dates to before the start of the American Revolution, and is named for Christopher Gadsden, a colonel tasked with raising the first company of Continental Marines. The meaning of “Don’t Tread on Me” was unmistakable to the colonist at the time, and there is a very interesting history behind this patriotic flag. It’s intertwined with Ben Franklin, one of American history’s most interesting personalities.
Benjamin Franklin is famous for his sense of humor. In 1751, he wrote a satirical commentary in his Pennsylvania Gazette suggesting that as a way to thank the British for their policy of sending convicted felons to America, the colonists should send rattlesnakes back to England. In 1754, he used a snake to illustrate another point. Franklin on his own, published the first known political cartoon in an American newspaper. It was the image of a snake cut into eight sections. The sections represented the individual colonies. Beneath the snake were the ominous words “Join, or Die.”
Now this had nothing to do with independence from Britain at the time. It was a plea for unity in defending the colonies during the French and Indian War. An old wise superstition of the time: a snake that had been cut into pieces could come back to life if you joined the sections together before sunset. Being America’s first political cartoon, for whatever reason, Franklin’s snake wiggled its way into American culture as an early symbol of a shared national identity.
In 1765 the common enemy was the Stamp Act and the snake symbol came back into play. The British wanted more money and came after the colonist to pay the debt for them. Therein lies the term, “it’s all about the Benjamins.”
In the following years the Sons of Liberty, coined by Colonel Isaac Barre, who had fought in the French and Indian War, became increasingly resentful of English interference in the colonies. As the American public opinion went toward rebellion, Franklin’s disjointed snake continued to be used as symbol of American unity, and American independence.
By 1775, the snake symbol was appearing all over the colonies, on uniform buttons, paper money, also on banners and flags. The snake symbol morphed during this time. Not cut up into pieces anymore, it was shown as an American timber rattlesnake, not a common serpent. Although it’s not known for certain where the coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning “Don’t Tread on Me.”
It is known that it first entered into our history during the fall of 1775. Our buddies the British were occupying Boston at the time and the Continental Army was camped out in Cambridge. Our side was very short on arms and ammunition and during the Battle of Bunker Hill, General Washington’s troops had been so low on gunpowder that they were ordered “not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”
During this same time frame the colonist found out that the British navy was sending a couple of their ships with arms and gunpowder for their troops to get us all back line, so to speak. Well, we needed the supplies a lot more than they did, so a plan was hatched to capture the British cargo ships. This was our growing navy’s first mission of this type, so of course they brought along five companies of Marines to do all the heavy fighting and secure the victory. Interesting enough as the story goes, some of these Marines from Philadelphia carried drums to the fight painted yellow, emblazoned with a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and sporting the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” These courageous men went on to achieve some of the most notable victories of the American Revolution thus helping to the founding of our nation.
A few months later in December 1775, “An American Guesser” anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal: “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 writer 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 none other than our own Benjamin Franklin.
I think a lot of us understand that freedom has never been free throughout history, it seems we have to fight for it daily. My dad who fought in WWII told me, “Son, during that time the nation was brought close together because everyone was affected in some way or fashion. We had no choice but to fight as one, evil forces were against us.”
With all that has happened since that time in history, it’s not like that anymore, we are fragmented. There is definitely a tear in the fabric that I can hear ripping and it has to be mended. Dad just warned me not to take things for granted or get lazy with liberty, because the bill will come due at some point in time.
Keep the Faith!