Of 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.
In 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.
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.
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