Jun 6, 2009 - Uncategorized    4 Comments

Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag History

Gadsden Flag

Gadsden Flag

Gadsden revolutionary war Don’t Tread on Me flag in yellow. Features a snake who is warning of a potential bite if messed with.

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.

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 Brits for their policy of sending convicted felons to America, American colonists should send rattlesnakes to England.

Three years later, in 1754, he used a snake to illustrate another point. This time not so humorous.

Franklin sketched, carved, and 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 and the curves of the snake suggested the coastline. New England was combined into one section as the head of the snake. South Carolina was at the tail. Beneath the snake were the ominous words “Join, or Die.”

This had nothing to do with independence from Britain. It was a plea for unity in defending the colonies during the French and Indian War. It played off a common 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.

The snake illustration was reprinted throughout the colonies. Dozens of newspapers from Massachusetts to South Carolina ran Franklin’s sketch or some variation of it. For example, the Boston Gazette recreated the snake with the words “Unite and Conquer” coming from its mouth.

I suppose the newspaper editors were hungry for graphic material, this being America’s first political cartoon. Whatever the reason, Franklin’s snake wiggled its way into American culture as an early symbol of a shared national identity.

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.

By 1775, the snake symbol wasn’t just being printed in newspapers. It was appearing all over the colonies … on uniform buttons … on paper money … and of course, on banners and flags.

The snake symbol morphed quite a bit during its rapid, widespread adoption. It wasn’t cut up into pieces anymore. And it was usually shown as an American timber rattlesnake, not a generic serpent.

We don’t know for certain where, when, or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning “Don’t Tread on Me.”

We do know when it first entered the history books.

In the fall of 1775, the British were occupying Boston and the young Continental Army was holed up in Cambridge, woefully short on arms and ammunition. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington’s troops had been so low on gunpowder that they were ordered “not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes.”

In October, a merchant ship called The Black Prince returned to Philadelphia from a voyage to England. On board were private letters to the Second Continental Congress that informed them that the British government was sending two ships to America loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops.

Congress decided that General Washington needed those arms more than General Howe. A plan was hatched to capture the British cargo ships. They authorized the creation of a Continental Navy, starting with four ships. The frigate that carried the information from England, the Black Prince, was one of the four. It was purchased, converted to a man-of-war, and renamed the Alfred.

To accompany the Navy on their first mission, Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. The Alfred and its sailors and marines went on to achieve some of the most notable victories of the American Revolution. But that’s not the story we’re interested in here.

What’s particularly interesting for us is that some of the Marines that enlisted that month in Philadelphia were carrying drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and sporting the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” quoted from Chris Whitten

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 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.”


“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.

Although Benjamin Franklin helped create the American rattlesnake symbol, his name isn’t generally attached to the rattlesnake flag. The yellow “don’t tread on me” standard is usually called a Gadsden flag, or less commonly, a Hopkins flag.

These two individuals were mulling about Philadelphia at the same time, making their own important contributions to American history and the history of the rattlesnake flag.

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 he 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 man the Alfred and its sister ships.

Gadsden and Congress chose a Rhode Island man, Esek Hopkins, as the commander-in-chief of the Navy. The flag that Hopkins used as his personal standard on the Alfred is the one we would now recognize. It’s likely that John Paul Jones, as the first lieutenant on the Alfred, ran it up the gaff.

It’s generally accepted that Hopkins’ flag was presented to him by Christopher Gadsden, who felt it was especially important for the commodore to have a distinctive personal standard. Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to his state legislature in Charleston. This is recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals:

“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!”

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  • I have a book about to be published and would like to use flag. Book is to get the government off our backs and create “Government of the People, By the People, For the People.” I believe it is not under copyright since it represents government property. Please advise. Thank you.

    • You’re more than welcome to use the flag… Congratulations on the book, we’ll be watching for it on the NY Times bestseller list!

  • Thank you for permission. I have some 185 letters to educate us about need for freedom. The book should be ready soon.


    We may only be a few weeks away from seeing the government impose a health care plan that will allow bureaucrats to dictate the kind of care we may receive and the costs will be beyond belief. Dr. J.K. is offering FREE, gratis and it will cost you nothing a plan that will allow each citizen to make all decisions along with his doctor and no dictates from bureaucrats in government or insurance companies. This will not be for illegal immigrants. It is the existence of insurance and use by illegal immigrants that have pushed medical costs to the moon and beyond.

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    We are hoping that as people learn of this plan – called the Medical Allotment Plan (MAP) – WE THE PEOPLE will quickly contact all in Congress and demand that they study it and agree to this plan which allows free enterprise to bring us the best care. Our medical costs are now high because we have not allowed real free enterprise to work.

    Below is a partial explanation of what MAP is all about. It is taken from ideas in Dr. J.K.’s latest book, UNTROUBLING A TROUBLED WORLD – PEACE 4 EVER. We are not now asking you to buy this book because it may take several more weeks for the publisher to get it out to book stores. We are sending this out now because Congress is so close to a vote which will enable government to dictate the kind of health care we may receive. This would be an egregious loss of freedom. The book is full of answers to most problems plaguing our nation and the world. You will surely be hearing about it.

    The following is a partial excerpt from the article whose basic concepts are in the book.


    Our congressmen and senators are in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which was placed into that document to guarantee equal treatment to all citizens. Since they set up a special health care plan just for their benefit, they established themselves as a privileged class. Citizens who voted for them, put them where they are today and pay their salaries, have been turned into mere peasants and left to struggle with HMOs which have turned into another government maize and an amazing failure.

    … we must come into compliance with the XIV Amendment by requiring that all citizens, even members of anyone in government, including those puffed up members of Congress, will henceforth receive the same medical care as any other citizen in the country.

    It is proposed that the government set aside X number of dollars for each citizen (not for illegal immigrants) for medical care for the forthcoming year. If at the end of the year, the entire fund is not spent, this money can be added to his or her personal social security retirement account which will be owned by the citizen, but not available until retirement.

    By establishing a Medical Allotment Plan, the patient will look carefully before spending willy-nilly! He will have reason to make sure he is not being charged for services not rendered. Fraud would be much less likely. Money saved can go to his retirement fund. This would be an incentive for each consumer of medical services to not overuse the system and to seek doctors who accept a reasonable fee for what needs to be done. This is called competition. Remember that capitalistic word?

    The doctors will benefit in a number of ways, mostly their administrative and paper work will diminish considerably. The plan would stop unnecessary testing which doctors now feel compelled to use to protect themselves from lawsuits. The patient need only sign a paper that he, along with the advice of his doctor, decided the test was not necessary and he would not pay for it and the patient understood that the doctor would not be later held liable for not taking the test. This is called personal choice, competition and a bit of common sense. For extraordinary medical expenses, the doctor would send the bills to the proper government agency for full payment. This only kicks in after the patient’s yearly allotment is used up. The philosophical basis behind this is the belief of the author that “we are our brother’s keeper.” The costs of extreme illness and needed care should not be left as a burden only on the one unfortunate enough to be stricken; it should be considered as a humane social responsibility to care for those in such need.
    The above is by the author of the soon to be published book
    Please immediately send this to all you know, especially doctors.

    IF RECEIVED BY NEWSPAPERS, Please print the above. Since margin calls make it impossible for me to pay for advertising, I do not ask you to print what is below. Thank you

    The author, Dr. J. Knowname, must use a pseudonym as the last author to write such a book had a fatwa issued against him, an order to all Muslims to kill him on sight. Lovely chaps! The book is dedicated to “The Good People of Iraq.”

    The book explains how the patient can control his own health care, choose his doctor, PAY LESS and receive first class medical care.

    Initially the author was determined to contribute at least 85%
    of proceeds from his royalties to a PEACE 4 EVER Charitable Trust for medical research, for payment to a hospital and/or to an organization to further world peace. But severe stock market losses now allow him to contribute only 15% of royalties should any come in.

    The book lays out a clear path for establishing and maintaining WORLD PEACE and how to make it impossible for individuals or corporations from adding to their wealth as a result of war.

    The author explains succinctly how our country, Russia and any other nation can have a Government of the People, by the People and for the People and have a capitalist, free enterprise system free of corruption that can benefit the masses.

    There is also a chapter in this book on how to END ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION in a humane way. It also explains the serious impact and burden on our medical care across the country and covers just about any controversial problem you can think of and offers sound solutions. In his spare time he is working toward doing away with the combustion engine and replacing it with electric cars.

    * * * * * * * * * * *
    If you wish to receive one of the first copies of
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    Type CODE 198 in the Subject Line
    Send NO MONEY!
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    to NEWSPAPERS if you can.
    This will be your good deed for the day!

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