What “Don’t Tread on Me” Really Means

By on December 10, 2018

“Don’t tread on me.” More than likely, you’ve come across this phrase at some point in your life. Perhaps you encountered it in your history class, but you can’t quite remember what it means. Or maybe you’ve even seen it stamped on T-shirts or printed across flags. These days, you can encounter the phrase in a variety of settings, both on and offline.

The Gadsden Flag - Don't Tread on Me
The Gadsden Flag

But what does it really mean?

In order to answer this question, we need to go nearly 240 years back in time—to the era of the American Revolution.

Though no one knows who first uttered the phrase “Don’t tread on me,” it is clear that the message originated during the American Revolution. In its original sense, the phrase had two meanings: one was a message of philosophical individualism, and the other was a message of strength against the British Empire.

Let’s look at each, in turn, starting with the first.

In the centuries predating the American Revolution, the American colonies were subject to the British Empire. Despite being thousands of miles away, the thirteen colonies were ruled by the British monarchy and were often the victims of unfair laws and taxes. Over time, these unfair practices, coupled with the extreme distance between the colonies and the motherland, created tension that would ultimately split the two and pit them against each other in war.

In the years prior to this split, the American colonies witnessed an increase in the spirit of individualism. Centuries of being apart from the motherland led to the colonies developing their own mindset and slowly inching away from the traditional monarchist way of governing. Particularly in places like New England, home to great Enlightenment thinkers such as Benjamin Franklin, the spirit of democracy had existed since the time of the pilgrims.

As time wore on, this sense of democracy and individualism became part of the American way of life. American pioneers and survivalists began to wonder why they must be subject to a kingdom essentially thousands of miles away. Many Americans even viewed the colonies as a scapegoat for British debt and failed policies.

In this midst of this political turmoil that would eventually lead to the American Revolution and the development of the United States of America, the phrase “Don’t tread on me” was born. In its original sense, it meant that the colonists were not going to be unfairly subjected. It signified that the British practices of unfair taxation without representation and tyrannical rule were unacceptable. It championed the idea that the individual had the right to a fair say in what laws governed him and how he would live his life.

In this way, “Don’t tread on me” is the perfect message of individual authority. It is the one message that all survivalists need to take to heart. “Don’t tread on me” has stood the test of time, and its message still rings loudly today: “Respect my individual rights or suffer the consequences.”
Don’t Tread on Me and the Spirit of War

This leads us to the second meaning of “Don’t tread on me.”

During the period leading up to the American Revolution, relations between the colonies and the British homeland had grown increasingly tense. Laws such as the Quartering Act and the Stamp Act passed by the British monarchy were largely unpopular in the colonies, not only because of the economic burden they imposed on the colonies but also because they were deemed “unfair” by major colonial politicians and thinkers. The sense of “individualism” developed in the colonies had taken hold and swept from North to South.

One of the chief colonial complaints was the lack of accurate representation for the colonies in the British Parliament. Colonial thinkers protested the idea that the colonists could be subject to rules and legislation when they did not have the proper defence available to them in the Parliament. In this sense, passing “unfair” laws without colonial consent was considered “treading” on the colonies.

With this context, we begin to see another meaning to the phrase “Don’t tread on me.” In addition to signifying individual spirit, it also suggests a willingness to fight if attacked. At its core, the phrase shows the colonists’ determination to protect what they believed was right, even at the expense of war.

This type of mindset quickly began to dominate colonial thought, with the phrase “Don’t tread on me” becoming a popular slogan of pro-American sentiment during the war. Reproductions of the phrase were common during this era, printed on flags, in newspapers, and reiterated by major thinkers and politicians.

In this sense, you can see the way in which the dual meanings of the “Don’t tread on me” slogan are related and represent the heart of the survivalist. Without respect for individual authority that developed during the Enlightenment period in the American colonies, it would be impossible for the message of war to emerge. In essence, the “If you punch, I’ll fight back” meaning of the flag is a direct result of the individual’s willingness to respect himself and recognize his own authority in leading his life.

This key message is essential for any survivalist who wishes to successfully navigate the world. The phrase that caused a small, upstart nation to take on the world’s largest empire—and win—should also be the phrase that grounds you in your individual and pioneer spirit.

After all, if it can change the world, it can certainly change your life.

Don’t Tread on Me in Today’s Contex

Unsurprisingly, this amazing slogan of the American Revolution still plays a large role in American culture today. All across the country (and the world even), you can find “Don’t tread on me” banners, flags, clothing, and memorabilia. This serves as a testament to the enduring quality of the slogan’s message.

It’s worth noting, however, that the phrase has been used in various ways since the American Revolution, some even sparking controversy. While there is no doubt that the original meaning of the phrase was one of pro-individual and pro-American sovereignty, the phrase—and particularly the Gadsden flag it decorates—have been appropriated by different groups to mean different thing since the time of the Revolution.

The first widespread adoption of the phrase in modern times came after the 2001 September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center. At the time, the phrase served as a symbol of national unity, hearkening back to the unified spirit of the colonies during the American Revolution. True to the spirit of the phrase, the United States would eventually launch the War on Terror.

Not all modern uses of the phrase have been so unifying, however. In recent times, the phrase has also gotten embroiled in controversy—often with quite insidious undertones.

Notably, the phrase became popular with Libertarians during the 1970s, as they believed it to contain anti-government sentiment. While the phrase and the Gadsden flag do align themselves with this stance in their original sense, their later connection to the Tea Party—a right-wing group that many on the Left deem as “radical”—stirred controversy. Many believed the Tea Party’s rise to be in part to anti-African-American sentiment in regard to Barack Obama’s victory to become the forty-fourth president of the United States. Because of this, the phrase and the flag became associated with racial controversy.

In 2014, this racial controversy came to a head when a United States Postal Worker filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a co-worker who repeatedly wore a hat with the Gadsden flag emblazed on it. Though the Postal Service initially dismissed the complaint, the decision was reversed in 2016 by the E.E.O.C., which ordered the USPS to investigate the issue.

This led to fear that the government was cracking down on free speech, ironically against a phrase and symbol that once symbolized the individual American’s sovereignty in the face of tyrannical government. This tension between the left and the right over the phrase and Gadsden flag has come to dominate perceptions of the slogan and symbol in recent years.

Despite this, the phrase is still widely-used by survivalist types to represent their sovereignty. Though the phrase and symbol have been twisted by individual groups since the time of the Revolution, there is no doubt that their original meaning has stood the test of time—and not just in the United States.

Today, the phrase “don’t tread on me” is used around the world to symbolize individual autonomy in the face of tyranny. Like the bald eagle and the Stars and Stripes, the phrase “don’t tread on me” is a powerful American symbol that is recognized worldwide as a marker of freedom.

Don’t Tread on Me and You

While the historical meaning of “don’t tread on me” is clear, it’s up to you to decide what the phrase means to you today. Whatever the case, it can be said that “don’t tread on me” is the perfect message for anyone looking to show their individual authority or defensive spirit.

Why a Snake?

Though snakes have been traditionally shunned in Judea-Christian culture—even today—the image of the Gadsden Flag has stood the test of time in American political and popular culture.

The bright yellow flag depicts a coiled rattlesnake with the warning “DON’T TREAD ON ME” written beneath it.

In a culture that even today holds true to traditional beliefs about the evil nature of snakes, how did the image of a rattlesnake become one of the most enduring symbols of American individuality and patriotism?
The answer predates the formation of the flag itself.

Long before the first noted appearance of what today is known as the Gadsden Flag, the image of the rattlesnake had become a popular symbol of American individuality—and of rebellion.

The reason for this comes from the symbolic weight of the rattlesnake in colonial America.

Leading thinkers and newspapers of the day favored the image of the rattlesnake because the serpent was found only on the American continent and because it’s distinctive thirteen rattlers—analogous to the thirteen colonies of the time.

And, like the rattlesnake, the colonies did not plan to strike without being provoked first.

Interestingly, early iterations of the rattlesnake image found in print media of the time included pictures of other types of serpents. It was only after the symbolism of the rattlesnake became known that it was specifically chosen as a symbol of the American Colonies. 

The image of the rattlesnake endured throughout the American Revolution, in large part because of the work of leading thinkers of the time. This work would lay the groundwork for the adoption of the rattlesnake as an American national symbol, leading to the creation of several buttons, flags, and images that tied the rattlesnake to nationalistic endeavors for American independence. Notably, the Gadsden Flag came out of this work, as well as the original War Office Seal—this seal, now the seal for the Department of the Army’s Sea, Emblem and Flag, has carried the image of a rattlesnake continuously for over 236 years.

Support for the rattlesnake as a national image can be found in a 1775 edition of The Pennsylvania Journal. While written anonymously under the pseudonym The American Guesser, most historians agree the case made for the rattlesnake came from none other than Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, a renowned American revolutionary thinker, is also commonly known for his objection to having an eagle be the symbol of the United States of America.

In the piece, Franklin championed the rattlesnake symbol, stating:

“I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ‘till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers …

“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 sounds, but the ringing of thirteen together is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.”

The Pennsylvania Journal
The Pennsylvania Journal

Benjamin Franklin and the Gadsden Flag

Franklin had used the serpent image as a representation of the thirteen colonies since as early as 1751. The owner of The Pennsylvania Gazette, Franklin’s first use of the symbol came in 1751 as a way to protest the British practice of sending convicts to the colonies. Franklin opposed the practice and suggested that colonists should return the favor by sneaking snakes back into their cargo ships.

In 1754, Franklin brought back the image in which delegates from seven of the thirteen colonies came to discuss securing treaties with opposing Indian nations as well as a war between Great Britain and France.

Franklin, however, saw it as an opportunity to unite the colonies under a single banner. The Albany Congress served as the first intercolonial meeting for the then thirteen British colonies, and Franklin had hoped they could come together.

Benjamin Franklin
Benjamin Franklin

It was a wish that wouldn’t be despite his creation of a disassembled serpent image for a 1754 edition of The Pennsylvania Gazette. Captioned under the image were the words “join or die,” a stark warning urging members of all thirteen colonies to attend the meeting. The image gained ground in colonial America with several other newspapers of the time adopting the image.

Twenty years later as tensions between colonists and British soldiers began to brew and come to a head, Franklin had once again united the serpent as a symbol of American individualism and rebellion against the British government. The image came printed with a new motto this time—but it still hadn’t taken on the classic “Don’t Tread on Me” phrase that we have come to associate within modern popular culture today. That class pairing—as well as its adoption on a bright yellow background—would come later and lead to the birth of the Gadsden Flag.

Without the work of Benjamin Franklin, who used his powerful influence to popularize the image of a rattlesnake in colonial America, the groundwork for the use of the serpent’s image wouldn’t have been lain—and the endearing image of the Gadsden Flag as we know it today would likely never have come about.

How exactly, then, did the familiar “Don’t Tread on Me” motto become paired with the rattlesnake to produce on the of the most iconic flags in American history?

George Washington, Christopher Gadsden, and the Adoption of a New Flag
During one of the Continental Army’s toughest times during the war, George Washington, Commander in Chief of all Continental Army forces, famously remarked that ammo was so low that soldiers were not to shoot until they could “see the whites” of their enemies’ eyes.

The dire situation led to the creation of the first American naval fleet and the birth of the American Navy. The ships, which were designed to intercept cargo ships from the British and steal ammo and supplies, set sail for the first time in 1775. Called the “Washington Cruisers,” the Navy began with just seven ships.

The Second Continental Congress, held in the spring of 1775, authorized the formation of a Marine Corps to accompany the Navy on its inaugural mission.

It was at this Congress that Christopher Gadsden presented the first iteration of the flag that would eventually be named in his honor.

Gadsden had previously seen the flag in his home of South Carolina and had made a copy that would later be approved by his colony’s provincial government in 1776. The flag was described in South Carolina Congressional journals at the time as “to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattlesnake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, “Don’t tread on me.”

The purpose of bringing it to the Second Continental Congress, however, was much different, as he hoped it could outfit the new American Navy fleet.

Commodore Esek Hopkins, who was appointed the commander-in-chief of the newly-formed American Navy, took the suggestion of Gadsden to outfit the Washington Cruisers and flew the flag from the mainmast of the fleet’s flagship ship.

Esek Hopkins
Esek Hopkins

Eventually, several of the vessels would bear the image of the Gadsden flag—from flags to images adorning containers of ammo and other cargo. Under the command of Commodore Hopkins, the fleet enjoyed a successful first run and managed to secure much-needed ammo and supplies from captured British war vessels.

The use of the flag on the ships has important historical and symbolic weight. The British Navy was, at the time, the most feared and advanced in the world, and the colonies confronted them with just seven of their own ships.

The brazen show of American individualism and radical independent spirit embody the Gadsden flag’s “Don’t Tread on Me” message.

The Gadsden Flag in American Popular Culture

The Gadsden Flag has remained an endearing symbol of the American national spirit for nearly 240 years. Though the United States is no longer seeking independence from other nations, citizens across the country have found resonance with the flag’s spirit of American individualism and the underlying message of limited government control.

In today’s technological era, concerns of government overreach and voyeurism have become an issue for patriots around the country. The use of drones, Internet tracking, and phone tapping have all bred anti-government suspicion. In this way, the flag has shown its true power as an American symbol by representing the ideals of the founders—even in regard to the American government.

Today, Gadsden Flag merchandise is widespread. Clothing, banners, and accessories with the flag’s design are sold across the country—and across the world. The Gadsden Flag today ranks among America’s most enduring symbols—right up there with the bald eagle and the Stars and Stripes.

Truly, it has stood the test of time.

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