Societal symbols can be as negative as they can be inspiring. Thus, our Stars and Stripes stand in stark current messaging contrast to the Confederate Battle Flag.
It was with great concern, then, that our Stars and Stripes was co-opted by those who chose to ﬂaunt the law at our Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. The flag’s positive messaging lies safe in our hearts. However, our ﬂag appeared in the same frame in many news clips with an often misappropriated ﬂag featuring a yellow background with a rattlesnake along with the message: “Don’t Tread On Me.” The Gadsden Flag.
Always an admirer of the Gadsden Flag, research led me to a “rest of the story” moment. The ﬂag was designed by an iconic Charleston colonial businessman and Revolutionary patriot. Christopher Gadsden was the “Sam Adams” of South Carolina as a founder and leader of the covert chapter of the Sons of Liberty. Appointed a member of the First and Second Continental Congresses from South Carolina, Gadsden left Philadelphia in the winter of 1776 to take up a general’s commission in the South Carolina militia. He became a Revolutionary war hero and prisoner of war in the defense of Charleston.
Perhaps no other national or state ﬂag is as ripe with symbolism as the Gadsden Flag. The ﬂag was adopted as the battle ﬂag for the Continental Marines and taken shipside. Writing under the pseudonym “American Guesser,” Ben Franklin carefully deconstructed the ﬂag while favoring the rattlesnake as our native, national symbol as opposed to the bald eagle. Franklin saw our country’s character as similar to the rattler, content with leaving others alone, but quick to strike when threatened.
Franklin noted the 13 rattles on the snake as representative of the 13 colonies. The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes, and “may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.”
Furthermore, he wrote: “She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. ...she never wounds ‘till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her. ...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.”
General Gadsden was a slave owner who spoke publicly of slavery as a crime, yet never turned away from it in his personal life while operating his city businesses and two rice plantations. Seeing a demand for ship docking space in the late 18th century Charleston harbor, he constructed a wharf just outside the city limits.
Gadsden passed away in 1805. It was only after his death that his son, and the City of Charleston, designated the wharf as the sole sight for slave debarking and auctioning. Tragically, the wharf processed approximately 30,000 captive human beings who were sold into slavery between February of 1806 and January of 1808. It is thus ﬁtting that the sight of the Gadsden wharf has been chosen as the site of the International African American Museum, presently in construction.
Nevertheless the ﬂag itself has been a proud symbol throughout our history. The current eﬀorts to misappropriate it are of concern. A ﬂag that so richly represents us, all of us, lies susceptible to misinterpretation and negative labeling.
As an immigrant society whose many races and ethnicities have struggled mightily, there is no greater symbol than the rattler and “Don’t Tread on Me.” It is uniquely American. We need to protect it from those who would misappropriate and misinterpret its meaning as expressed by Franklin. It should be ﬂown proudly from our statehouse, as well as our state and federal historical sights. It should be recognized in our federal buildings across the land. It has the strength and symbolism to represent a return to a respect for country and fellow citizens in an era where that return is desperately needed.