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The History and Meaning of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Gadsden Flag

Gadsden Flag

If you grew up in the states, you’ve probably seen the Gadsden Flag about a thousand times. Whether you’re at a sports game, a neighborhood BBQ, or a political protest, the flag’s bright yellow background, coiled snake, and bold “Don’t Tread on Me” are easy to spot waving in the wind.

It’s one of the oldest, and most popular patriotic flags still in use today and has both united and divided the American population for over 200 years.

But what is the Gadsden Flag’s significance?

If you’ve ever wondered what the Gadsden Flag really stands for, where it comes from, and how it has changed overtime, here’s all you need to know.

The Rattlesnake as an American Symbol

Gadsden Flag

Perhaps the most notable thing about the Gadsden Flag is its coiled rattlesnake right in the center. But in fact, it wasn’t the first flag to feature a rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes can only be found in the Americas and was once a candidate for the national animal. So, it’s no wonder why the rattlesnake was a prominent emblem of American national identity in the 1700s.

Plus, rattlesnakes are incredibly powerful. They never go out of their way to find a fight. They only attack when threatened, after giving their enemy a fair warning by shaking their tails. Once engaged in a fight, rattlesnakes rarely back down.

Gadsden Flag

If you’re familiar with the Gadsden Flag, then you’re probably also familiar with Benjamin Franklin’s “Join or Die” political cartoon from 1754 featuring a rattlesnake made up of the American colonies.

But, while Franklin’s cartoon was meant to instill a sense of fear in the colonies to unite them against a common enemy during the French and Indian War, the rattlesnake symbol soon came to represent American strength and identity.

Gadsden Flag

In 1775, before American Independence, the First Navy Jack featured 13 red and white stripes, a rattlesnake, and the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” This flag could still be seen on Navy ships until the 1880s when it was replaced with a newer design.

Inspired by the Navy Jack, a 31-year-old military general, Christopher Gadsden, created his own flag. His flag featured a bright yellow background, a coiled rattlesnake with its tongue bared, and the words “Don’t Tread on Me” across the bottom. Its symbolism united and inspired the colonists during one of America’s most trying times.

The Gadsden Flag’s Significance

Gadsden Flag

Right after Gadsden designed his flag, it became a national symbol of not only unity, but also of American assertiveness, freedom from oppression, and pro-independence.

Just like rattlesnakes, the 13 colonies were willing to hold their ground against all odds if they had to. Their will to defend themselves from tyranny and British invasion was unmatched, and the Gadsden flag was a perfect representation of that.

Overall, the flag sends the message, “whoever tries to mess with us will be struck down.”

Few flags have been able to capture so much of early America’s spirit, and few flags have been able to resonate with so many generations of Americans.

The Gadsden Flag Through History

Gadsden Flag

Since the Gadsden Flag’s creation, its powerful message against tyranny and oppression made the flag into a symbol of rebellion. Because of this, it has been adopted by many political groups and movements advocating for change.
The Libertarian, New Left, and Tea Party movements all used the Gadsden Flag as a protest symbol.

Soon after Gadsden first flew his flag, it became one of the most popular flags of South Carolina, Gadsden’s home state. And in 1776, the flag became the official standard of the commander in chief of the American Navy.
Today, the flag remains a popular decoration in residential yards and has even become a license plate design in 10 states.

The Gadsden Flag has also made its way into pop-culture — it can be seen hanging on Ron Swanson’s office wall in some episodes of Parks and Recreation.

A Shift in Meaning

Gadsden Flag

After the 9/11 attacks, the Gadsden Flag was adopted by right-wing movements to promote American nationalism and patriotism — two things the flag was originally meant to represent. However, in most cases, the flag was flown with racist or xenophobic intentions.

In more recent years, the flag is seen beside Trump 2020 flags and Confederate flags. It was even flown during the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol. In cases like these, where certain groups hijack the flag for their own benefit, the flag’s original meaning gets completely lost and replaced with a message of division.

Because of the flag’s use by certain American groups, the flag is believed to be a conservative, far-right, racist symbol, even though the flag’s original intentions were to unite and strengthen the country.

To different people, the flag may mean different things, but no matter who uses it, the Gadsden Flag always represents ideas of American identity.

Its continuous use through American history makes it clear that there is emotional power held within the Gadsden Flag, and it will likely remain a prominent American symbol for years to come.
Checkout our items honoring the Gadsden  / Don't Tread on Me Flag
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