The Gadsden Flag -the notorious yellow flag portraying a rattlesnake on a defensive stance- is a historical piece of American history. Its motto “Don’t tread on me” might seem like a political statement, but for those that carry -or believe in- this flag prefer to think of it as an open declaration, or a way to live the American lifestyle.
This flag was designed in 1775 and waved as one of the first flags of America, as a symbol of patriotism and freedom. 200 years later, it was associated with Libertarian ideas, similar to those from the flag early beginnings. If it’s the first time you encounter this flag you might wonder what does “Don’t tread on me” means? Current political times may mistake it for a racist symbol but that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Historical and modern meaning.
“Don’t tread on me” is used in different scenarios. It is first and foremost a warning. The bold statement coupled with the rattlesnake is a clear indicator of who should not be bothered. This warning is a two-fold statement.
First, it is a warning to anyone looking for America from the outside. The American land and its citizens are free to do as they please according to their rule of law and constitution. This warning was given to European powers -especially to the British crown at first- when the American revolution started and was kept after Americans were free – nobody was going to take advantage of the American people anymore.
But the “Don’t tread on me” warning has evolved to convey another meaning to different people. Libertarian thinkers have adopted both the flag and the motto as a political stance to their government. They believe the American system is compromised and those in power are responsible. Backed by the Gadsden Flag and the American constitution, libertarians believe the government should not tread on them with abusive policies such as high taxes, weapon bans or any other authoritarian policies.
Other people, less politically involved, have simply used it as a way to be left alone. To live a quiet, easy life away from the noises of big political arenas. Farmers will proudly live the “Don’t tread on me” lifestyle not bothering anyone but making sure everyone knows they are not to be bothered.
It’s also used by many members of the military as a long-lasting tradition that started with the Continental Marines using the Gadsden flag.
Due to its importance, several groups of people have paid homage to the flag in different ways. The heavy metal band Metallica recorded a song called “Don’t tread on me”, Nike has used the rattlesnake to support the National Soccer Team.
It is not used in the United States alone. People inspired by the “Don’t tread on me” motto have adopted the flag for their country’s political movements. Certain conservative sectors in Argentina have used the flag and the “Don’t tread on me” motto to show where they stand politically.
Why a Rattlesnake?
Using a rattlesnake as a companion to the “Don’t tread on me” motto was not a coincidence, it was deliberate. When Americans started to plot and fight for their freedom, two animal-related symbols appeared to represent that fight: the American Bald Eagle -the well-known national bird of the U.S.- and the rattlesnake.
There are several theories on why the rattlesnake was chosen. First, it was a common animal found throughout the thirteen colonies. More specifically, the timber rattlesnake was. This animal is venomous and caused trouble to whoever came close to their habitat. Hence, the “Don’t tread on me” nature of the animal.
It is also believed the idea of a rattlesnake to combat British forces came first from no other than Benjamin Franklin. He published a satirical commentary found in the “Pennsylvania Gazette” suggesting Americans should send timber rattlesnakes to Britain as a thank you present for their efforts.
Finally, a political propaganda piece started to become prominent amongst revolutionaries. The piece depicted a rattlesnake cut in eight different pieces. Each piece represented a different colony under the motto “Join or Die” as a way to convey that unless the colonies found themselves together fighting the common enemy, they would all perish.
“Don’t tread on me” On the flag controversy
Despite its political and historical importance, people have begun to consider the Gadsden flag as a violent or racist symbol. This is probably related to the Tea Party -the most conservative wing of the Republican party- the adoption of the flag.
It is also believed it was used by American white supremacists as a symbol of their movement. In response, different sectors such as progressives, liberal and overall left-wing leaning circles have begun to prosecute anyone who uses the yellow flag.
Ironically, they expect the government to do something against a flag that represents freedom from oppression whether it’s a foreign power or an authoritarian government.
This persecution is also a sad state of affairs showing the lack of understanding of American history. People have decided to willingly or unwillingly ignore the true meaning behind one of the first American flags and instead have decided to place their own meaning on it to pursue their enemies, no matter the cost. And even if the liberal wing of American politics is right and the flag has been used by fringe movements, this should not possibly outweigh the cultural and historical relevance of the Gadsden flag. Especially because of what it conveys: Freedom and the willingness to fight for it.
Both the Gadsden flag and the “Don’t tread on me” motto are important for their historical value and their symbolism. It is a living testimony of what America lives for and represents. Fighting for freedom and doing whatever it takes to be free. It was a way of living that started in the United States in 1776 and it is alive in most of the country still.
It is also an opportunity to show that no matter who’s trying and why -whether it’s a foreign power or certain political groups from America itself, whether it’s white supremacism or liberals-, America will still stand for the freedom of their citizens and their right to wave the Gadsden flag, no matter what.