“Don’t Tread On Me” – The Everchanging Symbolism of the Gadsden Flag

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Gadsden flag

The phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” appears on the Gadsden Flag, featuring a coiled rattlesnake against a yellow backdrop. It is a phrase that is commonly repeated, but what does “Don’t Tread on Me” mean?

“Don’t Tread on Me” is considered an expression of American individualism and patriotism. It was used during the Revolutionary War as a warning to the British. 

Over the years, the phrase became popular amongst those that believe in a smaller federal government and lower taxes. The phrase is also used among the Second Amendment supporting community. 

The phrase is a commitment to the founding principles of the US constitution, including the right to bear arms. 

Let’s look at the original “Don’t Tread on Me” meaning and its significance today. You will also learn more about the history of the timber rattlesnake in America, the use of the phrase and rattlesnake on the Gadsden Flag, and the modern resurgence of these symbols. 

Appearance and Symbolism of the Don’t Tread on Me Flag

The phrase is most often associated with the Gadsden Flag, including a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake appears coiled with its head facing to the left – or the direction of the flagstaff. 

Gadsden Flag, Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco
Gadsden Flag, Civic Center Plaza, San Francisco. Photo Credit – InSapphoWeTrust from Los Angeles, California, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0

The snake has its mouth open and tongue out. It is ready to strike if provoked, which symbolizes America’s willingness to defend its liberties. 

One of the most significant aspects of the snake’s appearance is its rattle. The rattle includes 13 sections to represent the original colonies. 

Variations in Appearance of the Rattlesnake

The rattlesnake on the flag originally faced left. However, some flag variations have the snake facing to the right. 

The rattlesnake is also shown with or without a patch of green grass. The grass did not appear on any versions of the flag dated from 1885 to 1917. 

The motto “Don’t Tread on Me” did not initially include an apostrophe. The apostrophe was added several decades after the original design. 

History of the Rattlesnake Symbol in America

The earliest uses of the timber rattlesnake as an American symbol come from Benjamin Franklin. The timber rattlesnake was unique to America, providing the perfect symbol to separate the New World from the Old World.

Benjamin Franklin first mentioned the snake in a commentary that he published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751. Franklin wrote that the American provinces should send rattlesnakes to the Parliament of Great Britain in response to Parliament sending convicted criminals to the colonies. 

Three years later, Franklin produced his famous “Join, or Die” cartoon. The woodcut cartoon features a snake divided into eight sections. Each section represented one of the eight colonies that existed at the time. The initials of the colonies were displayed next to the sections of the snake.

Benjamin Franklin join or die cartoon
Benjamin Franklin “Join or Die” cartoon

Franklin’s cartoon is also credited as being the first political cartoon to appear in an American newspaper. 

The rattlesnake was again used as a symbol for America during the Revolutionary War. In the fall of 1775, months after the start of the war, General George Washington established the Continental Navy. Congress soon authorized the creation of five companies of Marines to accompany the newly formed Navy.

Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden was part of the Marine Committee responsible for outfitting the naval mission. He painted the drums yellow with a coiled rattlesnake with 13 rattles. The motto “Don’t Tread on Me” appeared below the snake.

Before the mission departed in December of 1775, Gadsden presented the commander-in-chief of the navy with a yellow flag featuring his original design. The flag served as the personal standard of the flagship.

Along with the Navy, the Continental Congress adopted the rattlesnake symbol. Congress approved a design for the seal of the War Office that included the rattlesnake. Instead of “Don’t Tread on Me”, the design includes the words “This we’ll defend”.

The Department of the Army has continued to use the rattlesnake in its seal, flag, and emblem for over 240 years. You can also find the rattlesnake image on the Culpeper Minutemen flag and several other flags for individual groups, organizations, and cities. 

History and Meaning of Don’t Tread on Me

The Gadsden Flag included the first known use of the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me”. The phrase and the flag were used as a warning to Great Britain. 

The word “tread” means to “step, walk, or trample on something”. The phrase originally warned the British to stop trampling on the liberties of its subjects – the colonists living in the Americas.

Who is Christopher Gadsden?

christopher gadsden

Christopher Gadsden was an American politician that served in several wars, including King George’s War, the Seven Years War, and the Revolutionary War. 

Gadsden was born in Charleston, South Carolina in 1724 but was schooled in England. He initially worked as a merchant before becoming the captain of a militia company. 

In 1774, Gadsden became a delegate to the First Continental Congress. When the Revolutionary War started a year later, Gadsden developed the flag that carries his name. The flag was also presented to the Congress of South Carolina.

He left congress in 1776 to command the 1st South Carolina Regiment of the Continental Army. After the war, Gadsden transitioned to life as a politician. He was instrumental in the development of South Carolina’s state constitution and served as the lieutenant governor. His flag is often seen in his hometown of Charleston, South Carolina.

Main Elements of the Gadsden Flag

Gadsden flag

The Gadsden Flag includes several elements, including:

  • Yellow field
  • Timber rattlesnake
  • Patch of green grass
  • “Don’t Tread on Me” phrase

The flag is depicted with a coiled timber rattlesnake on a plain yellow field. The snake is facing toward the flag hoist and sits on a patch of green grass. 

The rattle at the end of the snake’s body includes 13 rattles. The 13 rattles represent the original 13 colonies.

The words “Don’t Tread on Me” are displayed below the image of the snake on the grass. The phrase is typically written in a serif or sans-serif typeface. 

Why is the Timber Rattlesnake an Important American Symbol?

When Gadsden chose the rattlesnake as the symbol for his flag, the timber rattlesnake was already becoming accepted as an important American symbol. Benjamin Franklin produced his famous cartoon just a few years earlier. 

Shortly after Gadsden introduced his flag as the personal standard for the Navy, Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to the Pennsylvania Journal explaining the importance of the rattlesnake. The letter appeared in a December 1775 issue of the journal and was submitted by an anonymous writer. However, historians agree that Franklin likely wrote it.

Franklin mentions the flag with the painted rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me”. He then lists his reasons why the rattlesnake is a good symbol for the American spirit:

  • The rattlesnake has no eyelids, making it vigilant
  • The rattlesnake does not attack until provoked
  • The rattlesnake never surrenders
  • The rattlesnake is highly independent

Franklin also explained how the rattlesnake depicted in the flag had 13 rattles in its tail. None of the rattles would work independently, which was a symbol of the unity of the 13 colonies.

About two years after the Revolutionary War, the rattlesnake appeared on the $20 bill issued by the state of Georgia. The bill featured the rattlesnake with the phrase “Nemo me impune lacessit”, which is Latin for “No one provokes me with impunity”.

Georgia $20 Bill, May 4th, 1778. Photo Credit - https://coins.nd.edu/colcurrency/currencytext/GA-05-04-78.html
Georgia $20 Bill, May 4th, 1778. Photo Credit – Coins.nd.edu

The timber rattlesnake is also the state reptile of West Virginia. The state adopted the rattlesnake as its state reptile in 2008.

What is the Timber Rattlesnake?

Timber Rattlesnake
Timber Rattlesnake. Photo Credit – Peter Paplanus from St. Louis, Missouri, CC BY 2.0

The timber rattlesnake is native to the eastern parts of North America, including many of the original colonies. It is a venomous species that was first discovered in 1758.

Adult timber rattlesnakes grow up to 60 inches in length. They are still found throughout the eastern United States, from New Hampshire and Minnesota in the north to East Texas and Florida in the south.

The timber rattlesnake is one of the most dangerous snakes in North America. However, it has a mild disposition and does not typically attack unless it feels threatened. 

The rattles are loose sections of keratin that form at the tip of the tail. Each section is called a “button”. When the snake feels threatened, it shakes its tail, which produces a rattling sound. 

Young timber rattlesnakes have a single button on their tail. As they grow and molt their skin, they gain room for additional buttons. 

While the timber rattlesnake featured on the Gadsden Flag had 13 rattles, the snake typically has five to six rattles.

What is “The First Navy Jack”?

The First Navy Jack is another flag that features a rattlesnake with 13 rattles and the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me”. The US Navy used the flag from 1975 to 1976 and 2002 to 2019. 

First Navy Jack flag
First Navy Jack flag

The flag includes 13 red and white stripes. A red and yellow timber rattlesnake is stretched across the flag. The navy’s flag was likely inspired by the Gadsden Flag, as it was the original flag of the US navy. 

During the late 18th century, the US Navy began using a flag with red-and-white stripes. The rattlesnake and the phrase were added during the 1800s. However, the flag was not officially used until 1975.

The navy’s flag also has several distinct differences from the Gadsden flag. The snake is stretched out in the navy jack and coiled on Gadsden’s flag. The colors are also different. However, the motto “DONT TREAD ON ME” does not include the apostrophe. 

Modern Resurgence of the Don’t Tread on Me Flag

While the navy eventually stopped using the Gadsden flag, the flag has seen a modern resurgence among political groups and in pop culture. Some of the groups that have used the flag in recent times include:

  • Libertarians
  • The Tea Party
  • Conservative groups
  • Gun rights advocates

The libertarian movement was one of the first groups to adopt the Gadsden Flag in modern times. The libertarians began using the flag as a symbol of their movement in the 1970s. 

Libertarians uphold a commitment to liberty. They believe that the government should have minimal control over the lives of citizens. 

In the early 2000s, the Tea Party started using the rattlesnake flag. The flag was often seen at Tea Party rallies and political events. 

Many groups continue to use the flag today. For example, it has become associated with conservatives. Images of conservative political events over the past few years often include people carrying the rattlesnake flag.

For most people, Gadsden’s flag is still seen as a symbol of patriotism and individual liberties. While it is often used in connection to political movements, it also appears in streetwear and throughout pop culture. 

Significance of “Don’t Tread on Me” for the Second Amendment Community

Second Amendment Rally Against Gun Control
Second Amendment Rally Against Gun Control. Photo Credit – Fibonacci Blue

The meaning behind “Don’t Tread on Me” resonates with members of the second amendment community. The flag represents freedom and personal liberty, which are core values for the gun rights community. 

The second amendment of the US Constitution states that the government shall not infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms. 

The symbolism of the Gadsden flag, the rattlesnake, and the motto all speak to the rights that the second amendment community wants to protect. Displaying the flag is a symbol that pro-gun rights advocates can use to demonstrate their conviction to the importance of the constitution. 

Conclusion

The phrase “Don’t Tread on Me” first appeared during the American Revolution. The phrase appeared on a flag used by the navy.

The phrase is credited to Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden added the phrase and the coiled rattlesnake to a yellow flag in 1775, at the start of the war.

Close to 250 years later, the Gadsden Flag symbolizes America’s liberty and freedom. It is used by many patriotic groups, including conservatives, libertarians, and backers of the second amendment.

Displaying the flag or the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” lets others know that people should think twice before infringing on their rights and liberties. 

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Brady

Hi there, I'm Brady and I'm the owner of GunMade.com. I have been an avid gun enthusiast and hunter since I moved to the Midwest over 15 years ago. It's my passion to share my knowledge and expertise to help you find the best guns in your price range.

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