The Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden Flag is named after its designer, Christopher Gadsden (1724 – 1805), a merchant, politician and general who created the flag during the American Revolution in 1775.

The flag is rectangular with a yellow field. A stylised Timber Rattlesnake occupies the centre of the flag with the text ‘DONT TREAD ON ME’ positioned underneath.

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The Timber Rattlesnake was prolific in the American north east at the time but has since been mostly extirpated. Its symbolism in representing the original thirteen Colonies was originally conceptualised by Benjamin Franklin. A year earlier Franklin had published a drawing of a snake, cut into eight sections, with New England represented by the head and the all following segments labeled as one of the colonies following their order along the coastline with South Carolina as the tail.

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Underneath the snake was written ‘Join or Die’. Franklin appreciated the Rattlesnake and felt that it could be a good choice for the embodiment the American spirit. While originally intended as an appeal to unite the colonies during the French-Indian wars, the symbolism gained traction with the colonists as a uniquely American creature exemplifying American principles.

Paul Revere added Benjamin Franklin’s drawing to the name plate of Isaiah Thomas’s newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy where it was pitted against a British Dragon.

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The quote above the snake is taken from the play, ‘Cato, a Tragedy’, written Joseph Addison in 1712. It is based on the last days of Cato the younger, a Roman stoic who best known his incorruptibility and his resistance to the tyranny of Julius Caesar. ‘Do Thou great Liberty inspire our souls, And make our lives in thy possession happy – Or our deaths glorious in thy just defence’.

The Continental Navy was established in 1775. The navy flew the Liberty Tree Flag which depicts a pine tree on a white field with the words ‘Appeal to Heaven’ written underneath. In order to assist these Navy ships in ship-to-ship actions as well as conduct amphibious attacks, the Second Continental Congress authorised five companies of Marines to be mustered to accompany the Navy ships.

The first Marines to be enlisted came from the City of Philadelphia. They supposedly carried drums depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles and used the motto ‘Don’t tread on me’. Christopher Gadsden represented South Carolina at this Congress. Before the departure of the first naval mission, the new appointed commander, Commodore Esek Hopkins, received a yellow rattlesnake flag from Christopher Gadsden to serve as the personal standard of his flagship.

More recently the Gadsden Flag has reappeared, being claimed by conservative organisations and various libertarian groups as a banner representing their particular dogma.

Jo. I really like the concepts of libertarianism and if I was under duress to identify with a particular ideology I would likely tick the libertarianism box. Having said that, I don’t really understand this desire to build a club, create a secret handshake or indeed appropriate a historical flag to represent a group of people. I suppose I can broadly appreciate the marketing value of a ‘cool’ flag and the group psychology involved, I’m just weary of the identity echo chamber, group-think and getting wrapped up in libertarianism the brand. Also yellow just isn’t my colour. But just because I have no interest promoting my political beliefs by draping the Gadsden across my living room wall doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Each to their own. I more of a… 

‘Do not commit to any side or cause but yourself’ – Robert Greene.

kinda guy. The history, however, is fascinating.

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