If you don’t already own one, you’ve likely seen a Don’t Tread on Me sticker, hat, car decal, shirt, or flag at some point during your life. It’s a symbol that you could say is even more American than our Stars and Stripes or our national anthem.
But where did it come from, what does it mean, and how are people’s perceptions of it changing today? Here’s everything you need to know about the Don’t Tread on Me meaning, history, and modern interpretation.
It’s been around for hundreds of years, but where did the flag and its message come from? To find the answer, we need to delve into the history of the United States before, during, and after the American Revolution.
- What is the Don’t Tread on Me Flag?
- Who Was Christopher Gadsden?
- American Revolution Significance
- Early American Ideals
- Who Coined the Phrase?
- Flags from the Revolutionary Period
- Don’t Tread on Me Meaning: Then and Now
- Controversy & Court Cases
- Comparisons & Racial Connections
- Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?
What is the Don’t Tread on Me Flag?
The noticeable flag is everywhere today, from personal vehicles to storefronts to signs. It features a yellow background and a coiled rattlesnake that appears prepared to strike. Though the use of the rattlesnake could hold many meanings, its origins tell one specific story.
A bold announcement of both American pride and underlying symbolism, the first Gadsden flag came out of observations that Benjamin Franklin had made about rattlesnakes. He praised their constant vigilance and the animal’s innate instinct not to attack unless provoked.
Franklin made references to rattlesnakes in his political commentary, but at the same time, the serpent became a symbol of the then-young American colonies. Especially striking was Franklin’s suggestion that in response to Great Britain sending convicted criminals to the US, so Americans should send back rattlesnakes.
By the time American general Christopher Gadsden designed the flag, Franklin’s metaphor had taken on a life of its own. The rattlesnake represented an American population that was united, docile unless provoked, and deadly to step on.
Who Was Christopher Gadsden?
Officially Colonel Christopher Gadsden, the man we know as the original designer of today’s Don’t Tread on Me flag was an American patriot. While some sources give credit to Commodore Esek Hopkins for the flag’s origins, the consensus is that Gadsden created and distributed the flag.
Gadsden led the Sons of Liberty as early as 1765, later become a colonel in the Continental Army, and served in the Continental Congress. The rumor is that Colonel Gadsden presented the Navy commander-in-chief, Esek Hopkins, with a yellow Don’t Tread on Me flag for his own use. Gadsden also presented Congress with a copy of the flag, which congressional journals recorded.
There is some disagreement over whether Gadsden saw the flag and copied it or created the original version to distribute. Regardless, both his and Hopkins’ names most often earn credit for the origins of the rattlesnake concept and yellow background.
American Revolution Significance
As you may recall, the colonies that were once under the power of Great Britain revolted between 1765 and 1783. With the alliance of France and other countries, the Thirteen Colonies fought for and won their independence and officially became the United States of America.
But leading up to the revolution, a few critical issues stirred the pot. It began with “no taxation without representation,” then led to the Boston Massacre in 1770. Then, of course, there was the Boston Tea Party in 1773.
But the Tea Party, which destroyed 342 chests of “taxed” tea, only caused more issues with Great Britain and its perceived control over the colonies. When the colonies banded together to fight for their rights to govern themselves, they created an “alternative” government.
Still, Great Britain didn’t give up easily. Fortunately, the resulting Revolutionary War eventually got the colonial Americans’ point across.
Early American Ideals
During the time of unrest leading up to the American Revolution, colonial Americans were unhappy with Great Britain’s control over them. Benjamin Franklin’s commentary and “art,” featuring a rattlesnake cut into sections as colonies and imploring colonists to “join or die,” spoke for many Americans at the time.
Although Franklin’s “join or die” caption may have referred to uniting the colonies against the Natives, it later became a colonial catchphrase to encourage a stand against the British. Still, its underlying meaning still alluded to the colonial Americans as their own people and nation.
In contrast with today’s perceptions of the Gadsden flag, early Americans looked to it as a representation of their unity and strength in that unification. They used the symbol of the rattlesnake as a warning to Great Britain (and other powers) that they would not submit.
Today’s traditional American values of independence and bravery originated in the desires colonial Americans had to govern and defend themselves. As it was initially intended, the meaning of the Don’t Tread on Me flag is full of both American bravado and pride.
Who Coined the Phrase?
Through discussions over the symbolic meaning of the flag and its catchphrase, historians suggest that the phrase itself came from anti-British sentiments. The message was clear: leave America to create its own future, and you won’t see retribution.
However, there is no apparent source for the original quote. Although Ben Franklin made plenty of satirical comments about rattlesnakes, no one seems to attribute the iconic quote to him. That said, it may have been a more common phrase back then, while today it’s less familiar.
With the emergence of the Stars and Stripes design for the United States flag, Gadsden’s creation became a “Revolutionary relic.” However, like other symbols from the past, this one, too, has seemed to change over time.
Flags from the Revolutionary Period
Although the Gadsden flag came about during the Revolutionary War, other flags alluded to the war and didn’t attract as much attention. “Independence-minded colonists” created flags that advertised “Liberty” on a range of backdrops. Another flag included a pine tree and the slogan “An Appeal To Heaven.”
Part of the Gadsden flag’s appeal was no doubt the notoriety of Franklin’s symbolism. But the other piece of Americans’ attraction to the flag was likely its use of an edgier and dangerous symbol. Of course, when would an adversary ever be afraid of a word or a pine tree?
Though in its original form, the Don’t Tread on Me symbol appeared on a flag, it’s available in other formats today. From stickers and vinyl decals for vehicles, windows, and other surfaces to t-shirts and other clothing sporting the slogan, you can find a Don’t Tread on Me quote for any occasion.
Many companies have created hats, apparel, updated flags, and many other items for fans of the Gadsden flag, but many people have reservations about purchasing and displaying such products. However, it’s more about today’s perception of the flag than its original creator’s message.
Don’t Tread on Me Meaning: Then and Now
Like any other symbol or phrase, the iconic Don’t Tread On Me quote and its flag have become murky in meaning over time. Without a concrete understanding of its history, it’s easy to see how the flag may not convey the same ideals as it once did.
In the 1970’s, Americans saw a resurgence in the symbolism of the rattlesnake in some Libertarian groups. The icon appealed to those groups because of its representation of the limits of government intervention in favor of individual rights.
Though it appears to have hibernated for a while, new versions of the Gadsden flag became popular shortly after 9/11. At that time, one could assume that the phrase and ideology of the flag were the same was in the 1700s: don’t mess with the United States or you’re in trouble.
Possibly the most common interpretation of the Gadsden flag today involves gun ownership and rights. Many assume that the phrase is cautioning the government and other people in general against trying to take rights away from gun owners.
Specifically, regarding the Second Amendment, many people proudly display the Don’t Tread on Me flag as a way of asserting their right to gun ownership in a political climate where it seems no rights are guaranteed.
Individual interpretations aside, the overall meaning of the flag could apply to nearly any situation in which an American person’s rights are at risk. In the past, it meant a unity against Great Britain, which colonial politicians and military members saw as the ultimate threat and usurper of rights.
However, many people are reluctant to fly the Gadsden flag because of emerging controversy and disagreement over the symbolism. Whether it means resistance against government overreach or something similarly patriotic, that’s to the individual to decide.
There’s also the use of the Gadsden flag as a symbol for various political parties or motivations. People may avoid displaying the image because they’re unsure how others around them will interpret the action.
Controversy & Court Cases
Because of its use in modern times as a political statement, the Gadsden flag has become something of a controversial symbol. While there are people who use it in hateful ways, there are many more who recognize its historical significance and want to maintain the right to fly it. Here’s more about the controversy surrounding our modern-day Gadsden flags.
While one could argue that the origins of the Gadsden flag speak for themselves, it seems that there is more to its creation than was once thought. Christopher Gadsden owned and sold slaves, according to historians, and although he called slavery a “crime” in a speech, his behavior didn’t change.
While Gadsden’s link to slavery doesn’t mean the flag had anything to do with the practice, the fact that he was a slave owner is significant to many people. Although it doesn’t suggest any racist ideals, and in fact, many slave owners collaborated on our Constitution, it’s still a historical indicator of past values.
In Gadsden’s time, his values involved owning and selling people. That connection was enough for the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission to investigate a case where an employee complained about a co-worker wearing a hat with the Gadsden flag on it.
The anonymous writer claimed that a co-worker was committing racial harassment by donning the hat, and the EEOC agreed to look into it. The investigation concluded that use of a symbol could be harassment, depending on the context.
Political Apparel Decision
In another case, a man who wore a T-shirt with the flag and slogan into a polling place was initially refused access to the polls because of his attire. His state, Minnesota, maintains a ban on political apparel at the polls, and the court argued whether the shirt and its message counted as political in nature.
The EEOC had already decided that wearing a Confederate flag T-shirt constituted punishable harassment, but they also extended that ruling to other political speech. It’s possible that the Gadsden flag could soon be part of the blacklisted symbols from American history.
Like Americans now dispute the meaning behind the Gadsden flag, there’s also a question of what constitutes “political” as far as freedom of speech is concerned. Eventually, the Minnesota man was able to vote, but the election worker took down his information after the disagreement.
Free Speech and Intent
Overall, these court cases struggle to pinpoint modern society’s interpretation of the flag and the message depending on the circumstances and setting in each event. What means one thing to one person may signify something entirely different to another.
When it comes to speech, it’s even harder to connect racially-charged intent with the apparel someone is wearing. There’s also the fact that today’s Tea Party also uses the imagery, but the use of a political party’s imagery isn’t, on its own, an act of racial harassment.
Comparisons & Racial Connections
Because Great Britain is no longer a threat, does that mean the flag should fade into obscurity as a Revolutionary relic? While we can argue the relevance of historical flags to no end, many people choose to compare the Gadsden flag with other potentially racially-charged symbols.
For example, the use of the swastika began long before the Nazis took it over. Native Americans, Buddhists, and even American brands used that or a similar symbol before World War II. But after Nazis adopted it, the emblem lost its appeal across our country and the world.
Further comparisons pit the Gadsden flag against the Confederate battle flag. Though the Confederate flag has changed versions multiple times and held different meanings for both sides, many people consider it a symbol of regional pride.
But at the same time, people posing with the Confederate flag while committing crimes or expressing hate have served to change the meaning of the historic symbol. Unfortunately, despite the original designer’s intent, every object, however patriotic, is up for interpretation today.
Critics of the Gadsden flag suggest that it’s not the original meaning of a symbol or object, but instead the current perception. That’s true of any emblem, flag, or another object throughout history.
Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?
Ultimately, it depends on both who you ask and how the imagery is being used. In most cases, historians agree that the Gadsden flag is not racist. Some caution that because Christopher Gadsden was a slave owner, people who fly his flag may be perceived as racist.
Political groups or parties may hold an opinion based on whether they use and agree with the underlying message of the flag. An individual may purchase a sticker, flag, or apparel to show their support for the Second Amendment, free speech, or any other right they want to endorse.
Many Second Amendment supporters, including gun owners, use the symbolism of the rattlesnake and the historical quote on apparel or other products with gun owner rights images or wording. Others use the image in politically-driven products or promotional materials.
While the flag itself is older than many of our other American traditions and symbols, it has much more than one simple history or meaning. While every American is free to interpret the Gadsden flag any way that they want, there are limitations on the use of the imagery when it comes to others’ rights.
But perhaps what’s most intriguing about the Don’t Tread on Me message is the fact that banning it from polling places, political debates, and flags flies in the face of what Gadsden and other colonial Americans intended when they revolted against Great Britain.
In America’s birth, there is not only a strong sense of pride but also a sense of independence and dedication to what’s right. In a way, the Gadsden flag is the perfect symbol of those values, if you choose to take it at its original meaning.
But you could also argue that we have a bigger and better symbol of American unity, strength, and righteousness- the Stars and Stripes. Beyond these symbols, however, every American should recognize the responsibility that comes with the rights we have, from free speech to gun ownership and beyond.