You’ve probably seen the above yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” flag and its rattlesnake image. But you probably do not know what this famous American Revolution historical icon truly represents for Americans, why the snake is on it, and what Benjamin Franklin’s and Colonel Christopher Gadsden’s contributions were. And have you noticed the 13 rattles on the tail? Well, I would like to share with you the flag’s origins, the meaning of its motto, and a brief history of why this important legacy should be accepted as a part of our heritage. This flag is a part of the factual period in our history when the United States was still fighting for independence from Great Britain. This is an opportunity for you to more fully understand this historical heirloom and to stand behind the flag’s meaning and its slogan for freedom and liberty, which still resonates today. To show that you are proud and protective of the many freedoms we have as the world’s freest country. There is a simple step that you can take to show that you support the values of independence, freedom, liberty, and all of the sacrifices our veterans have made for these freedoms and rights. I’ll share this at the end of this article.

Brief American Revolutionary War History and Our Independence

About eight months before the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, in Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a defining moment in our country’s history took place in November 1775. A committee from the Continental Congress drafted a resolution calling for two battalions of Marines able to fight on land or at sea as landing forces for the Continental Navy. Congressman Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, a proven American patriot, led the Sons of Liberty and was initially a Colonel and then a Brigadier General in the Continental Army. He was one of three Marine Committee members deciding to establish, staff, and outfit the new Navy ships. Thus, the Continental Marine Corps was born, as well as the groundwork for the Gadsden Flag, according to revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com.

Volunteer Private Martin and Yellow Drums with Coiled Rattlesnake

For the first mission of the Marines in April of 1776, John Martin enlisted and was the first of several African-American Marines to voluntarily serve during the Revolutionary War. Martin was a slave of a Delaware man and impoverished. Private Martin participated in a cruise that resulted in the capture of five British merchantmen, according to USMCmuseum.com. As a “Sons of the American Revolution” member, I discovered a relative of mine served as Overseer of the Poor and worked with volunteer enlistees and impoverished slaves during the Revolutionary War, helping enlistees like Martin.

Some of the Marines that enlisted were carrying drums painted yellow, adorned with a rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, according to USMCmuseum.com. The drums had the motto “Don’t Tread on Me,” and Martin probably carried this type of drum.

The Gadsden Flag

The Journal of the South Carolina Provincial Congress in 1776 states: “Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, “DON’T TREAD ON ME!” An expression of individual rights and freedom. Col. Gadsden created the flag for the first Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Navy, Esek Hopkins, according to revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com. Revolutionary War hero John Paul Jones hoisted the flag on Hopkins flagship, the USS Alfred.

Benjamin Franklin’s Illustration and Meaning

Although the Gadsden Flag’s origin is not entirely clear, history reports it probably began with a simple illustration accompanying an essay by Benjamin Franklin in 1754. Franklin’s image shows the American Colonies as parts of a divided snake to represent the colonies, which stated “Join, or Die,” per History.com. Franklin’s essay was about the threat of the French and their Native American allies to British colonists in North America. The rattlesnake symbol represented their ambition for self-determination. Franklin had a sense of humor and suggested that the best way to thank the British for sending their convicted felons to America would be to send them rattlesnakes. As the American Revolution evolved, the image became an assertive warning of vigilance and took on a broader meaning for freedom, independence, less government involvement, individual rights, and willingness to act in defense against coercion. The flag has a timber rattlesnake, a reptile that strikes only in self-defense. The Gadsden Flag became known as the “First Navy Jack” and had 13 red and white stripes and a rattlesnake with 13 rattles above the words “Don’t Tread On Me.” A “Jack” is a naval term for a flag flown from a short jackstaff at the bow (forward) of a vessel, while the “Ensign” is a flag flown on the stern (rear.)

What does the Gadsden flag symbolize?

In addition to being used by the Continental Marines as an early motto flag, its design presents a willingness to act in defense against coercion and is associated with the ideas of individualism and liberty.

History presents evidence that the Gadsden Flag was intentionally designed NOT to convey a racist message but a strong patriotic one of courage, vigilance, no surrender, and unity. Here are some examples of the flag’s meaning and symbolism, as written by Colonel Gadsden’s friend and colleague, Benjamin Franklin, from revolutionary-war-and-beyond.com:

  • The Rattlesnake is unique and found in no other quarter of the world besides America;
  • The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes and “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 (loyalty) and true courage; and
  • The rattle equals the number of the Colonies united in America.

What is the genuine meaning of “Don’t Tread On Me” today?

To many individuals today, it represents the basic principle of individual freedom; that people want to be left alone to live their own lives without outside interference.

The U.S. Navy’s Jack Flag

A “Jack” is a flag corresponding in appearance to the union or canton (sub-division) of the standard national flag. In the United States Navy, it is a blue flag containing a star for each state. For countries whose colors have no canton, the Jack is simply a small national Ensign (small flag.) On a sailing vessel, the Jack is hoisted when at anchor or in port, according to history.navy.mil. Documentation shows that ships of the Continental Navy flew a Jack consisting of alternating red and white stripes, having the image of a rattlesnake stretched out across it, with the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” But, there is limited historical evidence.

Military Units Using the Gadsden Flag and The “Union Jack”

Two American military units of the American Revolution are known to have used the Gadsden “Rattlesnake Jack” and the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto: Proctor’s Independent Battalion of Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania, and Sullivan’s Life Guard during the Rhode Island campaign of 1777. The “Rattlesnake Jack” and the “Union Jack” are different flags.

The “Union Jack,” comprising the national ensign’s blue field and white stars, was first adopted on June 14, 1777. At this time, the Jack’s blue field only displayed the 13 stars representing the union of the original 13 American colonies. The number of stars on the Jack was periodically updated as the United States expanded.

The Rattlesnake Jack and the Modern Navy

The “Rattlesnake Jack” or Gadsden Flag was introduced in 1775. As part of the commemoration of the bicentennial of the American Revolution, in 1975, the Secretary of the Navy directed the use of the Rattlesnake Jack in place of the Union Jack during the bicentennial of the legislation that created the Continental Navy. Later in 1980, the Secretary of the Navy directed that the commissioned ship in active status having the longest total period in active status was to display the Rattlesnake Jack (introduced by Colonel Gadsden) in place of the Union Jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive status. The only warship authorized to fly the Rattlesnake Jack is the USS Blue Ridge, as of June 4, 2019.

The Secretary of the Navy, in May 2002, directed the use of the Rattlesnake Jack in place of the Union Jack for the duration of the Global War on Terrorism.

Is Displaying the Gadsden Flag Racial Harassment

There was a formal complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2013 against a federal agency about an individual claiming discrimination on the basis of race (African American.) The complainant said he found a cap with the insignia of the Gadsden Flag worn by a coworker to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader, and owner of slaves.”

Interestingly, available historical evidence at the time shows that a majority of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and over half of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention owned slaves, according to Smithsonianmag.com. And four of the first five presidents of the United States were slaveholders. Some, including George Washington, freed their slaves. The famous 1818 oil painting by John Trumball depicts 47 founding fathers, of which 34 or 72% were slaveholders, according to politifact.com. At this historical time, slave ownership was very prevalent. In 1776, it was not illegal to own slaves and was legal in ALL 13 of the new states. What is important is that slavery began to be attacked and eliminated from that moment forward in time. Battlefield.org states about our founding fathers that “all expressed a wish at some point to see the institution of slavery gradually abolished.”

EEOC Conclusion

“The EEOC did not make any decision that the Gadsden Flag is a “racist symbol,” or that wearing a depiction of it constitutes racial discrimination,” according to The Florida Times Union in 2016 on jacksonville.com. After the EEOC reviewed the record in the 2013 complaint, they concluded that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a “non-racial context.”

POINT: This flag is based on an actual historical situation that occurred, the American Revolution, to reinforce the ideals of freedom and liberty fought by our brave Veterans. It is a positive symbol of unity, and it is not necessary to erase its history but to learn from some of it. It is not about political views and racial discrimination, and it is inappropriate to tear our country apart with negative and inflammatory accusations. Instead, we should positively recall, commemorate, build up, and show respect for our Veterans and unity for an important U.S. historical event… building support for our freedoms, rights, and liberty. The all-embracing theme of the motto today should be unity for liberty for all.

Your Opportunity to Show Support to Veterans Who Fought for Our Liberty

Regardless of your political affiliation, recall that the Gadsden Flag or Rattlesnake Jack was designed and flown by Continental Marines as a part of our history during our American Revolution. Today, it is meant to symbolize liberty, freedom, and unification for all Americans, regardless of their ideology, traits, personal characteristics, race, color, religion, and sex.

Several states have generic license plates available for Veterans to honor their service. Some have unique, specialty license plates which have a more specific theme but still apply to Veterans, e.g., Florida (Don’t Tread on Me), Texas, Arizona, Virginia, Nevada, Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee.

My state of Florida, as one of the three U.S. states with the largest population of veterans, has more than 1.5 million veterans, according to the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The Florida Veterans Foundation is the direct support organization of the Florida Department of Veterans’ Affairs and has a valuable project to raise funds solely for the good of Veterans. This project to raise funds for our Veterans is to sell the Gadsden Flag specialty license plate (see above image from the FL Veterans Foundation) with the coiled rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” at a nominal price. The Chairman of the Florida Veterans Foundation, Commander Dennis Baker, has said that as dictated by the Florida Legislature, “95% of the funds raised will go directly to helping Veterans.” YES! As a Florida Veterans Foundation Board member myself, I know funds are designated to help fight Veteran suicide, homelessness, and Opioid addiction, help Veterans affected by past toxic exposures, educate Veterans about disability compensation and provide transportation and emergency financial relief to Veterans who have been impacted by job loss, homelessness, or other issues caused by the pandemic.

When it comes to raising funds for the good of Veterans, the specialty license plate symbolizes that effort. Hope you will support our Veterans who gave so much for us. To order your Gadsden Flag License Plate for yourself or for someone else in Florida, visit HELPFLVETS.ORG/SPECIALTY-LICENSE-PLATE. Thank you!

Conclusions

The indisputable significance behind the Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag is unmistakable, whether you are a fan of it or not. Its motto and symbols are a part of our history for freedom and liberty. Easily recognizable is the implied warning from the snake itself, which mirrors just one strategy of our country… heed our positive warning lest we strike out.

We live in an uncertain, divisive, and dangerous time now. Sadly, our U.S. history and its factual events and symbols are being rewritten, destroyed, misinterpreted, and/or forever changed. Certainly, our historical events, people, ideologies, and artifacts existed. While some of them we are not proud of, we cannot deny that events and actions really occurred and are a part of our history. Do not forget our Veterans and the roles they have played and are playing in supporting our great country. We must take a positive approach rather than a destructive and divisive approach, so ALL can recognize and learn from the past, not repeat mistakes, and make the future even better for EVERYONE. But, we must first identify, report, and have a plan for improvement with the cooperation of all parties involved and affected. We must be united in our pursuit of liberty. Our flags in our history are intended to show our patriotic support and positive representations of historical events and desire for liberty at that time. This basic premise and desire for liberty and freedom still exist today. Why do some criticize a motto or symbol with a narrow perspective and not see their historical significance, genuine meaning, and authentic learning opportunities? Why do some consider them negative and racist depictions? How does this lack of the “big picture” perspective, lack of respect for the past sacrifices of others, and the desire to cover up our heritage contribute to growth and improvement?

Our Gadsden Flag is a positive symbol with a veritable message to represent and to reinforce the liberty we all desire. It reminds us of the appreciation and support for Veterans who have sacrificed so much for our liberty.

Together we must respect and honor our Veterans and our united American spirit of liberty for all. We each must accept this responsibility and take positive action to show this. We must work together for a Win-Win-Win result for all involved Americans. Be Proud of the Heritage we all share and the chance to learn and grow even more as a “United” group of “States” and individuals.

Success and Peace, Loyal American Citizens!

Lead Photo from Wikipedia Public Domain by Christopher Gadsden, 1775. Other Photo by Permission of Florida Veterans Foundation, Dennis Baker.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense, and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

Written by Colonel Ben Findley, FVF Ambassador