There were strange symbols like a “Q” for the group QAnon and “K” for KeK, used by those conspiracy theory groups. However, we should not let these hate groups hijack the “Don’t Tread On Me” motto or flag, officially named the Gadsden flag.
The Gadsden flag is named after its creator, Revolutionary War Colonel Christopher Gadsden. The symbol is a coiled rattlesnake rising from the center with its tongue hissing on a yellow background. The traditional meaning at the time was an anti-monarchy message to the British Colonial Empire.
A rattlesnake does not seek out to bite humans, however if you step (or “tread”) on the snake it will bite. Initially, the British monarchy let the colonies self-govern, however in the decade leading-up to the Declaration of Independence, the British began to impose higher taxes and send troops to enforce new laws.
The colonies were tread on, the patriots rose up and bit back, and the rest is history (and also made Lin-Manuel Miranda’s career).
The origin of the American native rattlesnake as a symbol was created by the meme generator of the time, Benjamin Franklin. In his newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin used the rattlesnake as an example in response to the British government’s policy of sending convicted felons to the American colonies.
He stated that America should, in exchange for the convicts, ship “a cargo of rattlesnakes” to Britain. Like now, no one understands why a meme or symbol goes viral. However, a few years later Franklin printed the famous picture of a rattlesnake cut up into sections with each section representing a colony with the message “Join or Die.”
The symbol was used in 1754, as Franklin called for the 13 colonies to unite with Britain against France during the French and Indian War. Thereafter, the rattlesnake became a symbol in colonial America and adapted into other flags and icons during the Revolutionary War.
The adaption by Colonel Gadsden for his regiment became the most widely remembered.
Today, deployed sailors in the US Navy wear a different type of “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, also referred to as the “Navy rattlesnake jack.” The Navy rattlesnake flag is different in that it has alternating red and white horizontal stripes with the rattlesnake stretched out across it in an upward angle.
The rattlesnake does rise to hiss, but the hissing is not as quite as menacing as the Gadsden flag. The rattlesnake jack has no fangs and sports a Mona Lisa smile. The legend is that the rattlesnake jack was the first flag to be flown on the ships of the US Navy, although that has never been officially documented and is debated until this day.
However, the legend became fact when, in 1975, the US Navy ordered the flag be flown on ships in honor of the bicentennial.
Due to the use of the Gadsden flag during the riot on the Capitol, the layperson may start to connect the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag with racism. Symbols can change meaning over time.
The swastika originally was an ancient Buddhist symbol for prosperity. During World War II, the Nazi party was able to forever vilify that peaceful symbol. We cannot let that happen to the posterity of our nation and how future generations will view history.
Will our grandchildren seeing the Gadsden flag in the Revolutionary War think our forebears were on the wrong side of the battle? When people see Navy sailors in uniform wearing the rattlesnake jack, will they believe members of that unit belong to a white supremacist group?
The Gadsden flag has nothing to do with racism or white supremacy. The symbol and motto “Don’t Tread On Me” is part of our American value of standing up to oppression and bullies.
Two units I served with in the Navy wore the Navy Gadsden flag proudly. We knew its inherent meaning as part of our training to learn about our proud military history. Now, it is time to teach the public, and take back our motto.
And to all you white supremacists and hate groups, you want my Gadsden flag for your ignorant purposes? Don’t Tread on Me.
Michael Arcati is an attorney practicing in Forest Hills and chair of the Queens Libertarian Party.