The Gadsden flag also known as the Rattlesnake flag or Don’t Tread on Me flag. The Gadsden flag’s central feature, had been an emblem of Americans even before the Revolution.
The Pennsylvania Gazette Published an article in 1751 bitterly protesting the British practice of sending convicts to America where the author suggested that the colonists should return the favor by shipping them “a cargo of rattlesnakes.”
Three years later the same newspaper published what is believed to be one of the first political cartoons in America. It was of a snake cut into eight sections with the words “Join or Die.” Each section represented a colony and was of the dangers of disunity. The rattlesnake symbol caught on and became a part of several other Revolutionary War flags.
Before the departure of the United States Navy’s first mission in 1775, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden from South Carolina presented the newly appointed commander with a yellow rattlesnake flag to serve as a standard for his flagship.
THE RATTLESNAKE FLAG
Gadsden Flag Standard
The letter previously quoted, dated New Providence. May 18, 1776, says : “And their standard, a rattlesnake;” motto — “Don’t tread on me.” This standard is thus described, viz. : —
“In Congress, February 9, 1776.
Colonel 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 the words underneath, ‘Don’t tread on me.’*
Ordered, That the said standard be carefully preserved and suspended in the Congress room.”
Before I proceed, I shall offer one or two remarks on this device of the rattlesnake, to show that it also, as well as the British crosses, was an emblem of union, and that it was seized upon as one then (December, 1775) in use, and familiar.
In 1754, in the Philadelphia Gazette, when Benjamin Franklin was editor of that paper, an article appeared, urging union among the colonies as a means of insuring safety from attacks of the French. This article closed with a wood-cut of a snake divided into parts, with the initials of one colony on each division, and the motto, “Join, or die,” underneath, in capital letters.* (See Fig. 3, Plate II.)
*American Archives, 4th series, vol. v. p. 568. South Carolina Provincial Congress.
When union among the colonies was urged, in 1774-6, as a mode of securing their liberties, this device, a disjointed snake, divided into thirteen parts, with the initials of a colony on each division, and the motto, “Join, or die,” was adopted as the head-piece of many of the newspapers. When the union of the colonies took place, this was changed, for the head-pieces of the newspapers, into the device adopted on the standard, viz.: a rattlesnake in the attitude of going to strike, and into an united snake.
(Under both forms of this device, was the motto, “Don’t tread on me.”)
The seal of the War Department is the only public instrument in use, exhibiting evidence of the rattle snake’s having played an important part as a device in the American Revolution. The old seal of 1778, and the more modern seal now in use, both bear the rattlesnake (with its rattles as the emblem of union), and a liberty cap in contiguity with it; the liberty cap enveloped by the body, so that the opened mouth may defend the rattles, and liberty cap, or union and liberty, with the motto, “This we’ll defend.” (See Fig. 4, Plate II.)
*Franklin’s Works, vol. iii. p. 25.
The following account of this device, supposed to be from the pen of Benjamin Franklin, indicates fully why it was adopted, and will be found in the American Archives, vol. iv. p. 468.
Philadelphia, December 27, 1775.
I observe on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a rattlesnake, with this 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 suppose this may have been intended for the arms of America; and, as I have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly my own, in order to divert an idle hour, I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device, I took care, however, to consult, on this occasion, a person who is acquainted with heraldry, from whom I learned that it is a rule, among the learned in that science, ‘that the worthy properties of the animal, in the crestborn, shall be considered;’ he likewise informed me that the ancients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom; and, in a certain attitude, of endless duration — both which circumstances, I suppose, may have been had in view. Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries ‘are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them,’ it occurred to me that the rattlesnake is found in no other quarter of the world beside America, and may, therefore, have been chosen on that account to represent her.
But then, ‘the worthy properties’ of a snake, I judged, would be hard to point out. This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the rattlesnake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished, not only from other animals, but from those of the same genus or class of animals, endeavoring to fix some meaning to each, not wholly inconsistent with common sense.
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness that of any other animal, and that she has no eye lids. She 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. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her she conceals in the roof of her mouth; so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds, however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her. Was I wrong sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies. This may be under stood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence. 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 number.
Perhaps it might be only fancy, but I conceited the painter had shown a half-formed additional rattle; which, I suppose, may have been intended to represent the province of Canada, ‘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 these rattles singly is incapable of producing sound; but the ringing of thirteen together is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living. The rattlesnake is solitary, and associates with her kind only, when it is necessary for their preservation. In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives : while, singly, they would probably perish. The power of fascination attributed to her, by a generous construction, may be understood to mean, that those who consider the liberty and blessings which America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave her, but spend their lives with her. She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in her youth, and her beauty increased with her age, ‘her tongue also is blue, and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks.’
Having pleased myself with reflections of this kind, I communicated my sentiments to a neighbor of mine, who has a surprising readiness at guessing at everything which relates to public affairs; and indeed, I should be jealous of his reputation in that way, was it not that the event constantly shows that he has guessed wrong. He instantly declared it as his sentiments, that the Congress meant to allude to Lord North’s declaration in the House of Commons, that he never would relax his measures until he had brought America to his feet; and to intimate to his lordship, that if she was brought to his feet, it would be dangerous treading on her. But, I am positive he has guessed wrong, for I am sure that Congress would not condescend, at this time of day, to take the least notice of his lordship, in that or any other way. In which opinion, I am determined to remain, your humble servant.”
The yellow flag, with the rattlesnake in the middle, and the words underneath, “Don’t tread on me,” (see Fig. 5, Plate II.,) the standard for the Commander-in-chief of the American Navy, was probably the flag referred to by Paul Jones, in his journal.
A discourse, delivered at the request of the American revolution society, before the society, and the state of Society of the Cincinnati, on the Death of Gen. Christopher Gadsden, September 10, 1805. (PDF) Available online (12.3 MB)
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