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May 14, 2024 - Americas Library

The History of Gadsden Flags

A coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background with the words “Don’t Tread on Me”—the Gadsden Flag is one of America’s most enduring symbols of patriotism. Designed by statesman Christopher Gadsden during the American Revolution, it was used to depict the colonies’ defiance of tyranny. As the nation grew, so did the symbol’s significance. It went from a political cartoon to a recurring image on the front of clothing and a wide range of other products, and it has become a potent symbol for those who believe in individual freedoms and self-reliance.

In recent years, however, the Gadsden Flags have been misappropriated by people with a radical right-wing ideology, and it has been used to express white resentment against blacks. This trend was accelerated after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the emergence of the Tea Party movement, and the proliferation of Gadsden-inspired specialty license plates (as well as other nationalist emblems).

Don’t Tread on Me: Exploring Gadsden Flags

While some of these uses have racial undertones, it is important to remember that the symbol was first developed in 1775 to represent America’s refusal to be enslaved by England. The snake’s trait of honorably cautioning its enemies to beware of its deadly nature was, in Franklin’s view, a perfect metaphor for colonial Americans’ vigilance and magnanimity in their defiance of tyranny.

In 1778, the Continental Congress officially adopted the rattlesnake and motto when it created a Seal of the War Office. Commodore Esek Hopkins—the commander in chief of the Continental Navy—used it as his ensign to show that his fleet was ready to defend America.