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Don't Tread On Me Flag - The Significance of the Rattlesnake

Updated on July 22, 2013
Gadsden Flag
Gadsden Flag

From the inception of the Tea Party Movement in 2009, there has been a parallel rise in the use, and display of, the ever-popular Don’t Tread On Me Flag. From tea parties, to political rallies, to residential flagpoles, this flag has been revived from history over the last few years. This flag, created during the Revolutionary War, features the ominous warning of “Don’t Tread On Me” and image of a coiled rattlesnake. Examples of flags that utilize this image are the Gadsden Flag, the First Navy Jack Flag and the Culpeper Flag; each with their own distinct background. The rattlesnake used here is the Timber Rattlesnake; which is found only in the United States.

Of course, the words of warning on the Don’t Tread On Me Flag are very straightforward in nature; and represented a rallying call for the American Patriots, as well as an admonishment to the British authorities to not “tread” upon the individual, God-given rights of the Colonists. The use of the rattlesnake, however, has a much more metaphorical meaning. The first employment of the rattlesnake image as a warning to the British was by Benjamin Franklin. The British Crown had a history of sending England’s worst criminals to the New World to effectively get rid of them. In 1751, in a newspaper established by Franklin, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin satirized that the Colonies should return the favor by sending thousands of rattlesnakes back to England aboard trading vessels.

In 1754, Franklin would again apply the rattlesnake to protest the British authorities. In what was perhaps America’s first political cartoon, Franklin designed his “Join or Die” woodcut; which featured a rattlesnake broken up into eight pieces, symbolizing the Colonies. This was a call for the Colonies to unite. But, why did Franklin use the rattlesnake? Why choose this animal over others? The fact is Franklin saw the rattlesnake, in its appearance, and habits, as very representative of the American Patriot.

Writing under the pseudonym of the “American Guesser” in 1775, Franklin explained: “… (The rattlesnake) has no eye-lids; she 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 and true courage. The weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal…but (these weapons) and their (resulting) wounds however small, are decisive and fatal: Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her. Was I wrong in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

It is clear that Franklin viewed the rattlesnake as a noble creature. The rattlesnake is always vigilant, and never strikes without first giving a warning, and once engaged in battle, strikes blows that are decisive and often fatal. This is also how Franklin characterized Americans and their struggle against the British. There are other interesting facts about the Timber Rattlesnake that correlates strongly with the American character.

The rattlesnake has up to 13 beads on its rattle. Each bead on its own doesn’t amount to much, but when all 13 act in unison, the strength of the rattlesnake is revealed. Franklin wrote: “’Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.” Again, Franklin is calling for unity amongst the Colonies, albeit, at the same time recognizing the independence of each one. The beads of the rattle, while autonomous, are also fused together in an unbreakable bond. It is this bond that is the greatest strength of both the rattlesnake and the early United States.

The significance behind the rattlesnake image on the Don’t Tread On Me Flag cannot be underestimated. Our founding father’s saw the rattlesnake as emblematic of their cause and created several flags to illustrate its importance. These historical flags, often times seen as relics of another era, have become known as tea party flags; as they have seen an explosion in popularity from the Tea Party Movement. There is no question that these flags will gain an even greater following over the next few years as more Americans discover the amazing history and symbolism behind these flags.


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      ML1970Vet 3 years ago

      This information was and is Awesome. I'm glad I looked it up. I have the Virginia plates with the snake and No Tread on Me, from seeing a music video that to me represented 9-11 and how we American was not going to stand down. I had a couple of people tell me that it stood for others things. But this history makes me proud. I'm a Vietnam Veteran, a Proud American and person who believes United We Stand and Together We Fight.

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      Johnf662 3 years ago

      Hi Dear, are you in fact visiting this website daily, if so then you will definitely take fastidious knowledge. ddeaeacdafac

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      Jakethesnake 4 years ago

      Maybe I forgotten this from school? Why is this American history not taught? We should all be proud of our past and truly believe in American exceptionalism.

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      Pamela Oglesby 8 years ago from United States

      Very interesting hub.