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The REAL history behind the Gadsden flag

Published in Blog on September 01, 2023 by Jakob Fay

This week, a 12-year-old boy went viral after being booted from class for wearing a Gadsden flag patch on his backpack.

“The reason we do not want the flag displayed is due to its origins with slavery and slave trade," a school administrator informed the boy and his mom.

She would soon receive a history lesson she won’t soon forget.

The boy’s mom fired back that the popular “Don’t Tread on Me” flag has nothing to do with slavery, but represents colonial resistance to tyranny. A viral video of the exchange raked in dozens of millions of views, eventually forcing the school to walk back its actions. Young Jaiden Rodriguez quickly became an overnight sensation, appearing on high-profile conservative podcasts, including The Ben Shapiro Show and The Charlie Kirk Show.

Backlash to the school’s shocking historical ignorance was so fierce, even Colorado Governor Jared Polis, a liberal Democrat, chimed in:

“Obviously the Gadsden flag is a proud symbol of the American revolution and a [sic] iconic warning to Britain or any government not to violate the liberties of Americans,” the governor wrote. “It appears on popular American medallions and challenge coins through today and Ben Franklin also adopted it to symbolize the union of the 13 colonies. It’s a great teaching moment for a history lesson!”

So, what is the real history behind this popular American icon?

In 1754, Benjamin Franklin popularized the rattlesnake as a symbol of colonial unity in his “Join or Die” political cartoon. Published in his Pennsylvania Gazette, the cartoon depicted a snake cut into eight parts, each representing a colony standing on its own in the face of French aggression. America had recently suffered a military defeat in the French and Indian War, and Franklin worried about how the colonies would fare standing on their own. Shortly thereafter, he proposed a unified colonial government at the Albany Convention.

In the decades that followed, the rattlesnake remained a recognizable emblem of American unity. By the time of the Revolutionary War, the snake’s demeanor (generally docile until provoked) would define how the colonists intended to respond to British force. When coiled, the snake—just like the flag that bore its likeness—warned would-be foes that it would not hesitate to defend itself.

“She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders,” Franklin wrote. “She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”

In December 1775, Commander of the Navy, Esek Hopkins, attached a flag plastered with the snake and now-famous slogan to the USS Alfred, the flag’s design apparently borrowed from yellow-painted drums of the brand-new Marine Corps. Christopher Gadsden, a delegate to the Continental Congress who had initially designed Hopkins’ flag, would later present it to the Provincial Congress of South Carolina, which deemed it an “elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, ‘Don't Tread on Me!’”

Although the flag was later employed by both the North and the South in the Civil War, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 2014 determined: “It is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context.”

Whatever political connotations the flag may carry, the claim that it shares "its origins with slavery and slave trade” is patently false. Thankfully, through the courageous life of Jaiden Rodriguez, we can see that the original spirit of the flag is still alive and well today.

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