JUNE 1, 2012 — Look around in your town and it probably won’t take long to spy a bright yellow flag with a coiled rattlesnake in the middle and the words, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
This flag, named for Charleston patriot Christopher Gadsden, is a Revolutionary War symbol for national unity and perseverance. But that’s not why the 237-year-old flag is showing up in front yards all over. It’s being inappropriately hijacked by the tea party.
Back in 1754, founding father Benjamin Franklin penned America’s first political cartoon to whip up national support to encourage colonists to fight with the British in the French and Indian War. Franklin’s cartoon featured the words “Join or Die” under a rattlesnake cut into eight parts, each of which symbolized the colonies.
Long a proponent of the rattlesnake as a good symbol for the fighting spirit of colonists, Franklin wrote in 1775 how the snake was vigilant because it had no eyelids. “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders. She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”
That fall, Col. Gadsden, a member of the Second Continental Congress from South Carolina, served on a seven-member committee in charge of outfitting the colonies’ first naval mission due to a British naval threat. Before the colonists’ first ship departed in December, Gadsden presented a yellow flag with a rattlesnake emblem to the new Navy’s commander-in-chief to serve as his personal standard, or flag, on the ship. It went on the ship’s main mast. The following year, Gadsden, presented a copy of the flag to the provincial congress in Charleston.
“I would definitely say it is a symbol of unity — that out of the many parts of the rattlesnake, we would come together and defeat the British,” said Samuel K. Fore, a Revolutionary War historian and assistant director of the Harlan Crow Museum in Dallas.
The Gadsden flag later inspired the first U.S. Navy Jack, a standard of 13 alternating red and white horizontal stripes with a rattlesnake in the middle and the familiar “Don’t Tread of Me” words. Today following a 2002 order from the Secretary of the Navy, that flag is displayed on all U.S. Navy ships, replacing the blue Union Jack with a white star for each state.
Lt. Gov. Glenn McConnell believes the Gadsden Flag, like all flags, should be viewed in terms of their historical importance and not be corrupted. McConnell, as you may recall, knows a little about flags. As a powerful state senator, he was a key player in the controversy of getting the Confederate battle flag off the Statehouse dome and next to a war memorial on the Statehouse grounds.
“When any of us start taking historic emblems and start using them for contemporary political reasons, it starts to create confusion about the historic emblems,” McConnell said. “That flag didn’t belong to the politicians. It belonged to the people who carried it.”
But tea party enthusiasts now are using the flag to show their anger at government — much like segregationists appropriated the historical symbol of the Confederate battle flag to represent hate.
“It’s a shame,” McConnell said, “that the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Daughters of the Confederacy didn’t speak up louder and protest more about the misuse or co-opting of those emblems for contemporary politics.”
Historian Joseph Ellis told NPR in 2010 that the Gadsden flag was an appropriate expression of defiance in 1775 when the British Parliament was taxing colonists without representation.
“Obviously, contemporary tea party advocates have elected representatives,” Ellis said. “They just don’t agree with what they’re doing.”
McConnell said he didn’t think any damage had been done so far to the true meaning of the Gadsden flag. But “over time, the practice [of using it now in politics] will lead to confusion about what the flag was about. There’s nothing wrong with people flying it off their houses. But when you start associating historic emblems with contemporary politics, you start going down a slippery slope.”
Political movements like the tea party need to find its own emblems, not rip off and spoil historic symbols of the past.
Here’s a suggestion: Use the bird that Franklin espoused instead of the bald eagle as our national icon — the turkey.
Andy Brack is publisher of Statehouse Report. You can reach Brack at: firstname.lastname@example.org.