You have probably seen this flag before: A bright yellow banner with the image of a hissing coiled rattlesnake standing over a patch of grass and the words “DON’T TREAD ON ME,” sometimes without an apostrophe.
Variants of this flag’s iconic snake design and motto are a common sight among American gun owners. What does this flag represent, and why is it so popular?
History and Original Meaning
Although often referred to as the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, the correct name is the Gadsden flag, named after its designer, Christopher Gadsden, an American Revolution-era politician.
The Gadsden flag’s history begins in 1775, when Christopher Gadsden, a Continental Colonel from South Carolina, designed the flag and presented it to the Colonial Marines, the American Colonies’ amphibious infantry force.
The Colonial Marines adopted Gadsden’s flag alongside another design (the Moultrie Flag, a blue flag with a white crescent overlaid with the word “LIBERTY”). Both flags served as symbols of the Continental Marines until 1798, at which point the unit transitioned into the modern-day United States Marine Corps.
After the Revolutionary War ended and the United States declared independence, the Gadsden flag fell into disuse, only occasionally flown in Charleston, South Carolina, as a historical symbol, until the flag’s modern resurgence in the 1970s.
Elements of the Gadsden flag
The Gadsden flag originally featured a plain yellow field, a coiled timber rattlesnake facing to the left, and the words “DONT TREAD ON ME.” Although modern incarnations later included the apostrophe, the original flag featured none.
The original Gadsden Flag with no apostrophe
The timber rattlesnake (scientific name: Crotalus horridus) is a highly venomous species of pit viper native to the eastern regions of North Americas. This snake was well-known and feared in all 13 of the original American colonies and was one of the first recurring American animal symbols.
The words “Don’t Tread on Me” are a motto and a battle cry intended to warn the British crown that the colonies will defend themselves if attacked.
The Timber Rattlesnake: An important American symbol
Before the bald eagle became associated with the country’s most prominent symbols, such as the Great Seal, the Coat of Arms, and the Seal of the President, the timber rattlesnake was once one of the most frequently used animals to represent the United States.
The American Timber Rattlesnake
The tradition of using a timber rattlesnake as an American symbol dates back to an issue of the Pennsylvania Gazette published in 1751.
In a well-known article, Benjamin Franklin suggested with sarcasm that the American colonists send rattlesnakes to England in exchange for the prisoners routinely transported from England to the Americas to protest against the British crown’s practices of penal transportation and forming penal colonies.
The Gadsden flag’s use of a snake to represent united colonies and their shared American identity is a call-back to the snake featured on the famous “Join, or Die” illustration, said to have been drawn by Benjamin Franklin in 1754. Franklin’s version of the snake was depicted as dead and cut into segments, each named after a colony or a region.
Ben Frankin's "Join, or Die." featuring a rattlesnake
After the Gadsden flag’s adoption by the Colonial Marines, Franklin later noted in a 1775 issue of the Pennsylvania Journal that the snake “strongly resembles America,” favorably comparing the snake’s many traits with America, reasserting the snake’s significance as an American symbol.
The snake became a recurring element of many other American historical flags, most often used to represent the American identity and the union between the colonies (and later, the states) and as a symbol of defiance against British rule.
The other “Don’t Tread on Me” flag: the First Navy Jack
The First Navy Jack, a United States Navy flag used from 1975 to 1976 and from 2002 to 2019, features 13 horizontal stripes alternating between red and white, similar to the 13 stripes of the American flag, overlaid with a yellow-and-red timber rattlesnake and the words “DONT TREAD ON ME;” with no apostrophe.
The First Naval Jack of the US Navy
Although similar in layout, the background colors (red and white instead of yellow) and the snake’s position (slithering instead of coiled) make it easy to differentiate the naval jack from the Gadsden flag.
The alternating red-and-white stripes are believed to be the first US Navy naval jack’s original design. The rattlesnake and motto were later added to the jack during the 19th century, calling back to the Gadsden flag.
Since the 1970s, the Gadsden flag and its constituent elements (its coiled rattlesnake, and its motto, “Don’t Tread on Me,” and even the flag’s colors) experienced a resurgence and became associated with various movements.
The first modern use of the Gadsden flag dates back to the early 1970s when the rising American libertarian movement began using it as a symbol of individual rights, personal freedoms, and limited government.
Although the flag was once associated with the Libertarian Party, they eventually abandoned it in favor of original designs based on the Statue of Liberty and the porcupine, only retaining the Gadsden flag’s yellow as a symbolic color (similar to how blue represents Democrats, and red represents Republicans).
The Gadsden Flag waved at a Tea Party rally
In 2009, the Gadsden flag experienced its second resurgence when the Tea Party movement and its supporters used it as a government protest symbol. It was later associated with the Tea Party’s other positions and grievances like reducing taxes, government spending, and the national debt.
In other, more general contexts, the Gadsden flag simply became another symbol of patriotism and support for the American nation, used and flown with the same intent as the American flag or state flags.
Significance in the Second Amendment community
In the gun rights community, the Gadsden flag’s meaning is understood to be synonymous with independence, freedom, personal defense, and the willingness to fight for one’s own rights and liberty.
In that sense, the flag, the snake, and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” have meanings similar to other pro-gun rights or pro-self-defense symbols with historical significance, such as “Molon Labe,” “Come and Take It,” or “Liberty or Death.”
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