Don’t Tread on Me – What It Means Today

In This, That, and The Other by Jesse Mathewson25 Comments

Don't tread on me flag meaningOf the many slogans that have been socially adopted by some as a banner, and others as the new evil to kill, the line, “Don’t tread on me” is easily among the top ten over the past few years. To find out what it means today we need to look at where it came from, and why.

It is a flag, as well as a slogan, and I hope to help you understand it better.

Rattlesnakes, in this case, the eastern diamondback and the timber rattlesnake, were both abundant in North America, and something not found in Great Britain. Benjamin Franklin made many references to rattlesnakes in his commentaries, published from 1751 onward.

In 1754 he published the woodcut of a snake cut into 8 sections with the message, “JOIN or DIE”. Fast forward 21 years and we were on the cusp of a civil war with England.

Contrary to what has been taught for decades in the United States, our war with England was, in fact, a rebellion. Christopher Gadsden designed the Gadsden flag in 1775, this is what we think of today when we hear the phrase, “Don’t tread on me”.

This was the year before the declaration of independence was signed. As a firm believer in the natural rights of man*, I choose to see the benefit of separating from the state of England.

Department of Army EmblemIn 1778 the United States Congress began using the War Office Seal, which was replaced in 1947 for the official document used by the Department of Army Emblem, pictured here. As you can see, the rattlesnake, like the bald eagle and the lone pine tree, features heavily in our history and documentation.

Current day versions of the Gadsden flag can be traced to the Tea Party movement, another maligned movement based in a misrepresented historical ideal.

One article from 2016 says, “The snake, it turns out, was something of a Colonial-era meme, evidently originated by Benjamin Franklin. In 1751, Franklin made the satirical suggestion that the colonies might repay the Crown for shipping convicts to America by distributing rattlesnakes around England, “particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament; for to them we are most particularly obliged.” (Walker, 2016) Modern “educated” writers who cannot be bothered to search further than Wikipedia are in fact the reason why, in our current day and age, any use of the Gadsden flag is seen as hateful by the left – or worse, as supportive of yet more government by the right.

These people use just enough verifiable information that no one questions the veracity of their stories, tweets, and posts.

England and more specifically the East India Trading Company owned or controlled the original 13 colonies, as well as lands spanning what is currently Canada. The colonists had, for many years, dealt with everything from forced conscription in the English naval forces, to forced eviction from homes built and land farmed for years. In addition to these things, there were the many instances of quartering of English troops in colonial residences without any real recompense.

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All of this was done under the color of law and for the colonists’ “own good”. The reasoning was the same as what we are given today when taxes are raised, levies are sought, and new wars and conflicts entered into. Your safety, the safety of (English) interests abroad and the furthering of (English) influence around the globe!

For 258 years the East India Trading company literally ruled the world, and it was all done under English laws and rules. (Rittman, n.d.)

Use of symbols was especially important at a time when many people were not able to read and write effectively. By using figures such as rattlesnakes and bald eagles, these uniquely American animals, the colonial civilians could cling to something that was theirs, and that did not stem from the King or company controlling the leaders of the “civilized” world.

It should be noted that the idea of slavery as an institution and means of profit was originated by Spain, England, and the East India Trading Company. (Please note that while the East India Trading Company is also known as the British East India Trading Company, and the Dutch East India Trading Company, it was originated and founded in London in 1600) The symbol of the rattlesnake was specifically meant to offer a warning to England. A rattlesnake that is stepped on bites in every case.

This is obviously dangerous to the person doing the stepping, hence the term, “Don’t tread on me,” it was meant to convey this warning in terms that even the farmers and working man could understand.

Over the past few years, we have seen extremes, more so than ever before. These extremes are a result of people being classified, labeled, and marginalized by mainstream media and politicians alike. In our modern society, thanks to endless loops of 15-second sound-bytes and directed social media outbursts, we see even more people becoming disillusioned with the status quo.

On a personal note, the past few years have been difficult beyond any other years before in my life. The hatred is being stoked to further divide the population, much like what happened in France prior to their revolution, and here in the United States prior to ours.

This has led to people using old slogans and catch phrases to promote alternatives to the status quo. “Don’t tread on me” is just such a slogan. I embrace this slogan though I do not embrace all who use it. This is extremely important to understand.

Americans, and humans in general love to use others to validate their beliefs. There are those of us who realize that only the facts matter in the end. This means that in some respects we have to understand that the data is simply that, data. There is a current phrase being used, “Big Data”. I see this phrase for what it is, the philosophical ramblings of Political Science majors who have no concept of facts outside of how they may prop up their positions.

1778 20 dollar bill from Georgia

1778 20 dollar bill from Georgia

Consider this, in recent decades, this country has been in a state of upheaval. Financial destruction, millions of hard-working Americans jobless, increasing inflation, and hundreds of new laws and protest organizations. Certainly, there is blame to go around, and it should be directed at each of us. We are to blame for our own life decisions and approaches.

This being said, when you have a government that cannot listen to the people, or people who are more interested in emotional outbursts than facts, these slogans and their history become that much more important! I will not blame a single man or woman, but rather a mindset that infects and affects all of us.

This malaise and division are embraced and promoted by those in control as well as many who prop them up with financial and “moral” support.

Modern usage of this term was meant to generate a sense of patriotic furor and has been associated with the Tea Party movement, a more recent movement originally designed to protest extremely high taxes and government overreach, but which was co-opted and devolved into mainstream political infighting.

Between the mainstream media (all sides), and political finagling (on all sides), what could have been a positive thing was subverted, perverted, and eventually demonized by many Americans – simply due to ignorance being given platform over facts.

Commodore Hopkins

Commodore Hopkins

In looking at the history of the Gadsen flag in use we find that the first to use it was Commander Esek Hopkins, the first “admiral” of the newly formed naval forces. He was widely known to have not been enamored with Washington and other “leaders” of that time.

He was, however, an active privateer prior to, and during, the Revolutionary War. In his words, “the two new ships are Launched & will be soon ready if men could be had.” (Hopkins, 1776) He was speaking about the fact that Washington and Gates were requisitioning all the men and not leaving any to man the newly formed fleet.

Washington later sacked him, many believe this was a result of Hopkins inability to hold his tongue when someone was doing something he saw as stupid.

When using historical symbols, my personal approach is to learn as much as I can about them and to absorb the real history surrounding them. This is a reason I have not adopted the rather common “Molon Labe” phrase. In the case of the “Don’t tread on me” flag, it was brightly colored and easy to read.

Also, over the ocean in sailing craft where it could take an entire day or longer for one ship to overtake another, this allowed for a sense of dread to build and to be felt by the crew of ships being overtaken. Modern times have seen a resurgence in the use of this flag and phrase, and while many who fly it are a part of the failed Tea Party movement, many others, like myself, have and fly this flag as a symbol against tyranny.

Tyranny being quite simply, “oppressive power”, which can be applied to the approaches used by modern media, activists, and politicians alike. Thomas Jefferson once said, “for I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” (Jefferson, 1800) In my personal study of the founders** I embraced the writings of Jefferson, Paine, Henry, Mason, Lee, Yates, Singletary, Warren, Clinton, Smith, Fenner, Martin, Samuel Adams, and Monroe as well as others seen to be Anti-Federalists or from who the Anti-Federalists drew their inspiration.

How does this apply to the phrase, “Don’t tread on me”?

The idea promoted with this phrase is simple, “leave me alone to live in peace, to do what I do best, and as long as my actions do not cause physical harm to others there is no need for your intervention”.

Christopher Gadsden, the author of the phrase, made clear his intent to represent an idea to the British overlords at the time when he penned this phrase, attached as it was to a coiled rattlesnake.

It seems quite obvious that he believed very strongly in the real separation between England and the colonies, and that his loyalty was also very much in the colonies with his family, friends, and those who wished to see us free of the grip of the corporate overlords of the East India Trading Company and England.

Interestingly, there is not much known about this individual, and I have searched everywhere I have access to. Feel free to write a comment below with any links or books that may have additional information on him.

So there you have it, the modern use of “Don’t tread on me”, as well as its history – and my somewhat anemic commentary. If you have any added information or knowledge in this arena, comment below. I learn from what others share with me, and from what I study and research. While I feel confident that my knowledge in this arena is extensive, there is always more to learn. Thank you for reading, and of course, commenting and sharing.

*When I use the term “man” I am referring to humankind as a whole, using the classic sense of the word.

**There were 3 sets of founders, first you have the Declaration authors than the drafters of the Articles of Confederation and lastly the Constitution drafters. These individuals are not the same though there is some minor crossover between them, many of the original Declaration signatories rebelled against the passage of the Constitution, and some of them were very vocal in their belief that this “document” would be a problem in the future.

Hopkins, E. (1776). Founders Online: To George Washington from Commodore Esek Hopkins, 22 May 1776. Retrieved from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-04-02-0300

Jefferson, T. (1800). Founders Online: From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 23 September 1800. Retrieved from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0102

Rittman, P. Rise and Fall of the British East India Company. Retrieved from http://paulrittman.com/EastIndiaCompany.pdf

Walker, R. (2016). The Shifting Symbolism of the Gadsden Flag. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/the-shifting-symbolism-of-the-gadsden-flag

Also, please visit my other site Concealed Carry Today!


Comments

  1. Thanks Jesse for another good article. Much of the Revolutionary War history is blurred or overgeneralized and made into historical ‘legend’ versus the reality of what was going on. Much like Washington throwing a coin over the Potomac river.
    Gadsden made a simple statement that has occasionally been used correctly and occasionally not. Your interpretation seems accurate to me. “Leave me to be in peace and do what I do and I will offer you the same” seems the best interpretation to me. Like you, I like the Gadsden flag and what it stands for, but do not necessarily endorse those who would use this flag for their own purposes.
    Thanks again for letting us remember our history accurately.

  2. Thanks Jesse for your article on the Gadsden flag. I had forgotten exactly what he meant. I’ve used don’t tread on me for years as a saying when cornered or I. Conversation. You are correct in organizations using this flag, I believe, not as it is intended. I prefer less government, more independence, and struggle with the socialist views on matters. I might just fly this flag for display when we vote in November. Thank you. It’s about time I got mine out. Great article.

  3. Hi Jesse,

    A very timely article, and thank you for posting it, and thank you as well to MD for hosting it.

    There was an old typing exercise back in the day, it went like this:

    “Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country”.

    Today, the majority of our countries population is walking around, having never even been asked to read the Constitution of the United States. Unfortunately, this has been true for 100 years. Unless you are intent on political science, or possibly law as a career, it’s not an education that people get, in spite of the fact that our education requirements loosely include it.

    Starting back around 1900, the progressive movement began. Teddy Roosevelt started with it, but it really took off under Woodrow Wilson. FDR expanded it, so did Harry Truman to a degree. There was another massive expansion under LBJ. Then Clinton and Obama. Bush Senior and Junior were globalists and they had no problem with progressivism. The progressive movement has created what basically amounts to an unconstitutional government that does not directly answer to the people, and it is completely housed within the executive branch of our government under the president. It is known as the presidents cabinets, the government agencies, bureaucracies etc. Congress has little control over them other than funding. If we’re still confused as to who they are, Think of them as the three letter acronyms that we having our government. The Fed, the IRS, the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the EPA, the TVA, and the list goes on and on.

    This is what the progressives have done in our country. Taxation runs between 40 and 50%, and most of it goes to fund those Government agencies that do not necessarily answer to anyone, create more law than Congress, which is not actual Constitutional black letter law, and has grown up around the constitutional government in this country like a cancerous tumor, and is squeezing the constitution to death.

    And how did we get this? We voted for Democrats because we did not know the Constitution ourselves, and we assumed that the people we elect would follow the Constitution on our behalf, but they don’t.

    There is a mandate. Article 6 of the constitution is quite clear, please see clauses 2 and three. 5USC ss 3331 is the oath of office. Pay particular attention to the verbiage. This is the out of office for every elected official in the federal government except the president. It is also largely the same language used for the oath’s of office for nearly every state in America, and is usually copied into their State constitutions. It’s a double bind contract, but it has no reprisals except for those of the voter.

    What do I mean by the voter? The voters supposed to know the Constitution, they have consented to be governed. They elect people, citizen representatives to go back to Congress and represent them. They assume that those who represent them will follow the Constitution and do the right thing, but this isn’t the case. And those elected know that nobody is watching, in fact they don’t even know their constitutions and their captain distracted by everything in the world except politics, and so they do what they please. They commit treason and treachery on a daily basis, but you’ll never hear those words uttered from the mouth of anyone serving in Congress. And how do they get away with it? Nobody knows the Constitution, so the voters won’t enforce what they don’t know. Term limits? We already have those. We can reelect a member of the House of Representatives every two years, executives four years, senators six years. And in the case of the Senate, we can change one third of it every two years. But we don’t know our constitutions and we don’t pay attention to what they do, so incumbents enjoy reelection when they should be replaced.

    Through our ignorance, Gadsden has become an irony. Those of us to fly that flag probably know, the people who wonder why we do don’t understand, and they definitely do not know. And even more unfortunately, they are the majority. Thankfully this is not a democracy, it’s a constitutional republic. Had it been a democracy we would’ve already lost it. It probably would not have survived the Civil War.

    I’m not giving Republicans a free pass either but they are the better of the two when it comes to this particular situation. A check of your calendar watch will show you that this is The day after the hearings or should I call it the tribunal we’re a federal court judge had his reputation hammered by there democrats who sit on the Senate Judiciary committee. Not a single constitutional thing came out of their mouth. That tribunal was a complete and total disaster, and a violation of that man’s fifth and sixth amendment rights. How did they get away with it? The Democrats preferred to call it a job interview.

    Don’t tread on me is bringing new meaning to the concept of being American every day. We, if we are aware, are watching ourselves descended back into battle just as our forefathers left off, this time fighting with our own countrymen, this is not the Cold War, where we were trying to keep it different culture and country from promoting and spreading socialism, this time it is Americans.

    A naturalized American is required to read the constitution, learn it well, because they will be tested on their knowledge of it. Then they will swear an oath that is similar to the oath we all swore as veterans that we will protect and defend the Constitution. We need to come to terms with the fact that we now have a domestic enemy of the Constitution and it is the left. The leftist. The liberal. The Democrat. And just remember when you deal with them that smiling faces tell lies.

    Learning the Constitution is the beginning. It’s important. It’s not the entire picture, but it gives you eyes to see, and knowing it becomes your leg that you can stand on. It is the document that makes you an American. And it is the document that keeps you that way. Benjamin Franklin is often quoted as saying, “we have a constitutional republic if we can keep it”.

    If we can keep it indeed. I hope the people who come to this website read and learn everything they can from you, Jesse, and MD. Because in the coming times, they’re going to need it. Another wise thing that Benjamin Franklin said…” we must all hang together, otherwise we will most certainly hang separately”.

    Executive summary, read, study and learn your constitution, but don’t stop there. But make sure you get that one down, and it really only takes 30 minutes to read it, this study and learn part takes longer. But get started. Because once you’ve got that, you can see right through every tinfoil hat there is. It forms solidarity with others. It underscores the necessity to be ready.

    It would be good, even great if most Americans were constitutionalists instead of Democrats or Republicans. We don’t need a political party as much as we need to recognize that “We the people” are the sovereign in America. And the Constitution of the United States makes that so.

    If anybody wants a formal education about the Constitution, Hillsdale College offers free courses online. They are excellent, I can’t recommend them highly enough. It’s important to know.

    Free The Mind…

    1. I agree on the Hillsdale College information. It’s free and downloadable. I’ve listened to all the lectures from Introduction to the Constitution and plan to listen to more.

      Yes, we have a Gadsden flag in our home too.

  4. Jesse, it is good to see folks care enough to do deeper research, especially on our US history. Thank you for taking the time to research, write and post this article. I will for sure be sharing this with my beautiful Filipina bride, Maria surprises me frequently with the understanding she has about the US from long years as an academic writer working for many US-based clients. Once in a while, I bring up a subject she has not yet learned about. I know she will enjoy the read.

  5. We fly three flags here: The American Flag, The Christian Flag, and The Gadsden Flag. Good article!

  6. Howdy All ! ! !

    MRS B WROTE ” and struggle with the socialist views on matters. ”

    I personally do not struggle with the views of the Progressive / Socialist Democrats . Most have no clue the Progressives ( beginning in 1893 ) received help from Socialist Organizations in the USA at that time and continue to do so up to today . And of course the Communists gave support to American Socialist Groups who in turn supported Progressive Democrats ( The Republican Party purged Progressives 1920 to 1923 if memory serves ) . Elite Progressives know their way is superior to Socialism but do not understand the people and money that has supported them now for 125 continues to pulls their strings .

    ” If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle . ” ……….. Sun Tzu , The Art of War .

  7. Jesse, I really liked your article and it is so timely. I am also a student of history so it breaks my heart that our public school system has condemned true history and modified some of America’s history to meet a progressive agenda. Now days, the destruction of American historical statues being sanctioned by local governments reminds me of the Islamic destruction of non-Muslim historical sites in the middle east. The current attitude of “if it is not my idea, or my history, or my speech, it will be destroyed,” leads directly to a socialist dictatorship.

  8. Our homes may be built differently, our clothing is styled differently and we have tons of new devices and machines, but we are still American citizens and we can choose to follow the constitution or sit idly by, like brain dead zombies and let arrogant elitist abuse their positions and run over our rights and freedoms or we can throw the constitution at them and say enough of your anti-constitutional and anti-american governing.

    As time passes, the idea of a civil war or rebellion seems more plausible. It would be such a mess as people choose which side to join and who to oppose. Everybody would be tested, their loyalty and morals questioned, and eventually the threshold would be reached where it’s either oppression that wins or an all out war of patriots versus the oppressors and those who have yet to change sides or prefer to choose safety and rewards over whatever risks is involved to promote freedom and liberty.

  9. Jesse:

    I like the article.

    I especially agree with “I embrace this slogan though I do not embrace all who use it.”

    I have my views, and my beliefs. Of the three “boxes”, I hope never to have to use the 3rd, but stand ready.

  10. The U.S. Navy flew the Gadsden flag on their ships jack staffs the entire year of 1975 leading up to the bicentennial.

  11. I surely enjoyed this read. So much research went into it, it is not just an opinion, but it promotes an informed, correct opinion. Thanks, Jesse.

  12. Another good source for constitutional teaching is Krisann Hall , she has a web site and podcast you can access.she teaches not just the constitution but the reason the founding fathers did what they did. And is a speaker traveling all over giving talks on the constitution.

  13. Shirl. Thank you –

    Northern, I dont actually know of her. But will check her work out. I spent over a decade collecting every bit of written material I could afford from the listed *in article* founders. I’ve owned first edition paine as well as letters from Jefferson and many many more. Used to contribute to the guttenburgonline eventually the liberty library gathered far more and so now I digitize and enjoy what I have –

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