21. Don’t Tread on Me

The Idea

It appears that Benjamin Franklin, as with so many other things, was behind this piece of eighteenth-century Americana. It stemmed from an anonymous article he wrote—identifying himself as “An American Guesser”—in the December 27, 1775 issue of the Pennsylvania Journal, entitled “The Rattle-Snake as a Symbol if America.” Dr. Franklin (so-called by virtue of his honorary doctoral degrees from Oxford University and the University of St Andrews in Scotland) observed the very original design adorning a drum that accompanied a Continental Marine unit being organized in Philadelphia for the purpose of seizing British arms shipments. The drummer had painted on his instrument a rattlesnake that appeared coiled and ready to strike along with a defiant rallying cry, “Don’t tread on me.”

Inspired by what he had seen, and no doubt seeking to (ahem) rattle those opposing the cause of American independence to which he had become passionately committed, Franklin recommended this image as a suitable emblem of the Patriot enterprise. With his customary flair for both humor and trenchant commentary, he noted several points in the reptile’s favor: First, it had no eyelids and therefore represented a worthy symbol of continuing vigilance. In addition, it never initiated an attack but would not surrender once the fight had begun and thus displayed “magnanimity and true courage.” And finally the thirteen rattles on the snake emblazoning the drum matched “exactly the number of the colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the sake which increased in number.”

The Flag

Christopher Gadsden (1724-1805)—a South Carolina merchant who led the Sons of Liberty in that colony starting in 1765 and became a member of the Continental Congress—took Franklin’s suggestion to heart. He designed a yellow flag bearing a rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan that would became a symbol of the Revolution. The flag was carried in 1776 by a young nation’s first Marine units and later by any number of militia regiments. Its designer became a colonel in the Continental army, and to this day his creation is known as the Gadsden flag.

It’s hard to imagine a flag design in Revolutionary America that would have reflected (this gets ugly) a more venomous opposition to Britain’s rule or better symbolized her snakebitten effort to suppress the colonial rebellion. (Cue the biting retort.)