One of the most prominent symbols in the American Patriot movement and possibly the most misunderstood is the Gadsden Flag. Regarded by some as racist or a symbol of oppression, it could not be further from the truth.
The Gadsden Flag found its roots prior to the American Revolutionary War and is one of Americas oldest symbols of our Independence. Its origins are not exactly known, it was earliest recorded in 1751 by Benjamin Franklin in his newspaper, the Pennsylvania gazette. The article contained harsh words protesting the British sending their convicts to America. He wrote that they should send a cargo of rattlesnakes back to England as a bitter sign of resentment. A few years later the same newspaper printed a picture of a snake to remind the delegates of Congress of the danger of disunity as the serpent was cut up into pieces. Each segment was marked with the name of a Colony and the motto “Join or Die”. This was the first political cartoon ever printed in an American Newspaper.
Following this, other newspapers adopted the serpent mascot and by 1774 the segments had formed into a coiled up rattlesnake and the motto had changed to “United Now Alive and Free Firm on this Basis Liberty Shall Stand and Thus Supported Ever Bless Our Land Till Time Becomes Eternity”. In 1774, Paul Revere added Franklin’s iconic cartoon to the nameplate of his paper, the Massachusetts Spy, showing the American Rattlesnake fighting the British dragon.
Moving toward the Revolution and an Independent America, the Rattlesnake symbolized the spirit of America, our Virtues and our rebellion against tyranny. The rattlesnake being unique to America made it a great fit to represent our cause and our strength as a nation. A rattlesnake alone is small in size and produces little sound, but united they can be heard by all; and while it does not attack unless provoked, it is deadly to step upon one.
Benjamin Franklin in 1775 wrote:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eyelids; 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 most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her 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 stepping on her. ‘Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
In the fall of 1775, the Continental Navy was established by General George Washington in his role as Commander in Chief of all Continental Forces, before Esek Hopkins was named Commodore of the Navy. The Navy began with seven ships, called “Washington Cruisers”, that flew the Liberty Tree Flag, depicting a green pine tree with the motto ‘Appeal to Heaven’. Those first ships were used to intercept incoming British ships carrying war supplies to the British troops in the colonies to both deprive the supplies to the British and to supply to the Continental Army. One ship captured by Captain John Manley had 30,000 pairs of shoes on it. However, the admiralty agent demanded his 2.5% commission before he would release the cargo for Washington’s army, so many soldiers marched barefoot in the snow. To aid in this, the Second Continental Congress authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines to join the Navy on their first mission. The first Marines enlisted in Philadelphia and carried drums painted yellow, depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, and the motto ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. This is the first recorded mention of the future Gadsden flag’s symbolism. Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden represented his home state of South Carolina. He was one of seven members of the Marine Committee who were outfitting the first naval mission. Before the departure of that first mission in 1775, the newly appointed Commander-In-Chief of the Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, received the yellow rattlesnake flag from Gadsden to serve as the distinctive personal standard of his flagship. It was displayed at the mainmast. Hopkins had previously led The United Companies of the Train of Artillery of the Town of Providence, before being appointed to lead the Navy. The 1775 flag of the Providence Train of Artillery’s featured a coiled Timber Rattlesnake with the motto ‘Do Not Tread on Me’ along with an anchor, cannons and the motto ‘In God We Hope’ on a gold background. The flag presented to Hopkins as Commander of the Continental Navy is the simplified version of that design.
Colonel Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to the Congress of South Carolina in Charlestown, South Carolina In 1776.
The rattlesnake symbol was first officially adopted by the Continental Congress in 1778 when it approved the design for the official Seal of the War Office, (Headquarters of the U.S. Army). At the top center of the Seal is a rattlesnake holding a banner which says, “This We’ll Defend”. According to the U.S. Army’s Institute of Heraldry, ‘This We’ll Defend’ on a scroll held by the rattlesnake is a symbol depicted on some of the oldest American colonial flags and signifies the Army’s constant readiness to defend and preserve the United States. This design of the War Office Seal was carried forward with some minor modifications into the subsequent designs for the War Department’s Seal, and the Department of the Army’s Seal, Emblem and Flag. As such, the rattlesnake symbol has been in continuous official use by the U.S. Army for over 236 years.