The Gadsen Flag
The Little-known History of a Patriotic U.S. Symbol
The Gadsden flag (Shown Above) was designed in 1775, during the American Revolution, by an American General & statesman, Christopher Gadsden. The field was yellow and featured a rattlesnake that was coiled and ready to strike. Below the rattlesnake, the printed words “Don't tread on me”. The image of a rattlesnake was used as a symbol of the American colonies from the beginning of the French and Indian War to the end of the War for Independence. It appeared in printed caricatures, newspapers, and paper money, in addition to other media including flags, buttons and even on cemetery monuments.
The timber rattlesnake is commonly found in the Northeast region of the original 13 colonies. The basis of the image of the rattlesnake can be traced back to a satirical article, written May 9, 1751 by Benjamin Franklin, entitled "Rattle-Snakes for Felons."
Three years later, an article dated May 9 appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette calling for the colonies to unite against French aggression. The article was accompanied by an illustration depicting the colonies as a segmented snake and bearing the caption, “JOIN, or DIE.” At the time there was a common superstition that if the segments of a snake were put back together before sunset it would come back to life.
In addition to the Pennsylvania Gazette, four other newspapers included the snake image to encourage unity: the New-York Gazette and the New-York Mercury, both of May 13, the Boston Gazette of May 21, and the Boston News-Letter of May 23.
By 1775, the snake symbol wasn't just being printed in newspapers. It was appearing all over the colonies: on uniform buttons, on paper money, and of course, on banners and flags.
In his letter to the Pennsylvania Journal published on December 27, 1775, Ben Franklin wrote (under the pseudonym "The American Guesser") the following of the Gadsden Flag: "
Pennsylvania Journal - December 27, 1775
Benjamin Franklin, Author
"I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, "Don't tread on me." As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America; and as I have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly my own, in order to divert an idle hour, I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device – I took care, however, to consult on this occasion a person who is acquainted with heraldry, from whom I learned, that it is a rule among the learned of that science "That the worthy properties of the animal, in the crest-born, shall be considered," and, "That the base ones cannot have been intended;" he likewise informed me that the ancients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration – both which circumstances I suppose may have been had in view. Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them, it occurred to me that the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her.
But then "the worldly properties" of a Snake I judged would be hard to point out. This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the Rattle-Snake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished, not only from other animals, but from those of the same genus or class of animals, endeavoring to fix some meaning to each, not wholly inconsistent with common sense.
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.
Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America? The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies. This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence. I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, 'till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. Perhaps it might be only fancy, but, I conceited the painter had shown a half formed additional rattle, which, I suppose, may have been intended to represent the province of Canada.
'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.
The Rattle-Snake is solitary, and associates with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation. In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, while singly, they would probably perish. The power of fascination attributed to her, by a generous construction, may be understood to mean, that those who consider the liberty and blessings which America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave her, but spend their lives with her. She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with her age, "her tongue also is blue and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks."
– An American Guesser
The rattlesnake symbol was subsequently adopted by the Continental Congress in 1778 when a Seal of the War Office was designed and officially accepted, featuring a rattlesnake at the top of the seal holding a banner with the words “This We’ll Defend”. The message being that the American Army was ready to defend our Declaration of Independence and preserve the newly formed United States of America. Since the Revolutionary War, the Gadsden flag has been used as a symbol of patriotism, in support of civil liberties, and as a symbol standing against tyrannical government.
While some would try to characterize the Gadsden Flag as representative of an extremist faction, or even as a symbol of hate or racism, nothing could be further from the truth! The Gadsden flag and all of it's symbolism is rich not only in the history of the founding of our country, but also of the tenacity, the sacrifice, and the patriotism of our founding fathers.
Walter Isaacson, A Benjamin Franklin Reader (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2003)
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, British Cartoon Prints Collection.