Don’t Tread On Me – The Gadsden Flag

Don’t Tread on Me Flag – Origins and Significance

Gadsden Flag, 1775

(From Charleston Museum) So-called for its designer, Charleston’s own Christopher Gadsden (1724-1805), presented this pattern in 1775 first to Commodore Esek Hopkins, commander of the brand new United States Navy established by General George Washington. Later, Gadsden presented a second flag of the same design to South Carolina’s state Congress upon their February 1776 convening in Charleston.

Although there is debate as to whether the depicted rattlesnake is that of an Eastern Diamondback or Canebrake, the image was first used satirically by Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s, but over the next several decades, came into its own as an American icon similar to the Bald Eagle. Like the burgeoning nation itself, Franklin wrote, the rattler “never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore and emblem of magnanimity and true courage.”

As for the underlying slogan, “Don’t Tread On Me,” this passage utilized by Gadsden reflects the rattlesnake’s general demeanor: a fairly docile animal until threatened or provoked, a behavior that easily mimics those of liberty-minded Americans of the day. As the rattler on Gadsden’s flag appears bearing fangs, coiled, and ready to strike, for an enemy to disrespect these obvious warnings and subsequently step (or “tread”) upon it would be a dangerous decision, to say the least.

From John Jay to Alexander McDougall, 23 March 1776

To Alexander McDougall

Philadelphia March 23, 1776

Dear Colonel

When the Clerk of the Congress gave me the printed Papers which I enclosed you, he told me they contained the Navy Establishment. Whatever Deficiencies there may be in them as to that Matter will I hope be supplied by the Extract now enclosed.

As to continental Colors, the Congress have made no order as yet respecting them, and I believe the Captains of their armed Vessels have in that particular been directed by their own Fancies and Inclinations. I remember to have seen a Flag designed for one of them on which was extremely well painted a Rattle Snake rearing his Crest and shaking his Rattles, with this Motto “Dont tread on me” But whether this Device was generally adopted by the Fleet, I am not able to say—I rather think it was not.1

The Inlet you allude to certainly deserves Attention, and the Hints you gave me respecting it have not been forgotten—Something of that Kind is now under Consideration. A Distinction however will always be made between continental & provincial objects, and how far this may affect that Matter is ^as yet^ uncertain2

I am by no means without my Apprehensions of Danger from that Licentiousness which in your Situation is not uncommon Nothing will contribute more to its Suppression than a vigourous Exertion of the Powers vested in your Convention & Committee of Safety, at least till more regular Forms can be introduced. The Tenderness shewn to some wild People on Account of their supposed Attachment to the Cause has been of Disservice. Their eccentric Behaviour has by passing unreproved gained Countenance, , Start deletion, and, End, lessened your Authority and diminished that Dignity so essential to give weight and Respect your ordinances—Some of your own People are daily (if not employed) yet, instigated to calumniate and abuse the whole Province and misrepresent all their actions and Intentions. One, in particular, has had the Impudence to intimate to certain Persons that your Regiment’s last Campaign were not half full and that Van Schaacks Regmt.4 had more officers than Privates—others insinuate5 that you have all along supplied the Men of War with whatever they pleased to have, and thro’ them, our Enemies at Boston. By Tales like these they pay their Court to People who have more ostensible Consequence than real Honesty, and more Cunning than Wisdom.

I am happy to find that our intermeddling in the Affair of the Test is agreeable to You—For God’s Sake resist all such attempts for the future—

Your own Discernment has pointed out to you the Principle of Ld. Sterlings Advancement—Had the Age of a Collls. Commission been , Start deletion,the, End, a proper Rule, it would have determined in Favor of some Coll. at Cambridge, many of whose commissions were prior , Start deletion,to, End, in Date to any in New York—The Spirit you betray on this occasion becomes a Soldier

The inclosed Copy of a Resolve of Congress will I hope settle all Doubts relative to Rank, which may arise from your new Commission. The Consequence you drew from that Circumstance was more ingenious than solid, for I can assure you that the Congress were not disposed to do any thing wrong or uncivil—And I can also add that your not having joined your Regimt. last Summer has been explained to their Satisfaction as far as I am able to judge. With Respect to this however as well as some other Matters I shall defer particulars till we meet. In a Word with some Men in these as in other Times, a man must either be their Tool and be despised, or act a firm disinterested Part and be abused—The latter has in one or two matters been your Fate as well as that of many other good Men—The Attack was insidious not open or effectual—6 
Adieu. I am dear Sir,
your Friend

John Jay

Coll. McDougall

Colonel-Christopher-Gadsden. Print, Library of Congress

Christopher Gadsden

Castillo de San Marcos National MonumentFort Sumter and Fort Moultrie National Historical Park

  • Quick Facts
  • Patriot, politician, and soldier
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • February 16, 1724
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • August 28, 1805
  • Charleston, South Carolina
  • St. Philip’s Churchyard
Gadsden Flag, Charleston Museum

(From National Park Service) Christopher Gadsden was born in Charleston on February 16, 1724, the son of Elizabeth and Thomas Gadsden, a customs collector. Gadsden received a classical education in England before completing a four-year apprenticeship in Philadelphia. Between 1745 and 1747, he served as purser aboard the British man-of-war Aldborough. With money from his time at sea and a large inheritance from his parents, who had both died by 1741, Gadsden started one of the most profitable mercantile careers in the Carolinas. By 1774, he owned four stores, several merchant vessels, two rice plantations, a residential district in Charleston called Gadsdenboro, and a large wharf on the Cooper River. A portion of Gadsden’s Wharf is now the site of the Liberty Square Visitor Education Center, a ferry departure location for Fort Sumter.

Possessing financial independence and a desire to serve, Gadsden pursued public office. In 1757 he began his nearly three decades of service in the Commons House of Assembly. He first revealed himself as a vocal defender of American rights during the Cherokee War by attacking British colonel James Grant for taking command of local troops above provincial colonel Thomas Middleton. 

Gadsden continued to champion American home rule and to oppose Parliamentary supremacy at the Stamp Act Congress in New York in 1765. During the next decade, Gadsden joined with Charleston mechanics (Sons of Liberty) to lead the local Patriots against every perceived threat to American rights. Gadsden’s influence and dedication earned him election to the First Continental Congress, where his extremism manifested itself in proposals to reject all Parliamentary legislation since 1763, to attack the Royal Navy in American waters, and to instruct each colony to prepare for war.

Gadsden returned to South Carolina in February 1776 to serve as colonel of the First Regiment and as a member of the Provincial Congress, during which time he coauthored the South Carolina Constitution of 1776. In the summer of 1776, Gadsden commanded Fort Johnson during the British attack on Sullivan’s Island. He offered congratulations to Col. William Moultrie after the decisive victory over the Royal Navy.

In 1778, Gadsden helped secure the disestablishment of the Anglican Church and popular election of senators in the new state constitution. Gadsden served as vice president later as lieutenant governor once South Carolina joined the other colonies under the Articles of Confederation. Like the Patriot firebrand of Massachusetts, Samuel Adams, Gadsden’s role diminished following the Declaration of Independence. Gadsden’s zealous personality also proved counterproductive in working relationships with other officers and politicians. In 1777, Gadsden resigned his commission as brigadier general after conflict with General Robert Howe.

During the siege of Charleston in 1780, Gadsden insisted the Continental Army remain in Charleston, contributing to the largest surrender in American military history until the Civil War. Maj. Gen. Benjamin Lincoln allowed the attendance of the Privy Council in his councils of war. Historians agree that Lincoln should not have allowed Gadsden to dominate the military conferences. Gadsden, representing South Carolina after the departure of Governor Rutledge, declared that “the Militia were willing to Live upon Rice alone rather than give up the Town upon any Terms.”After the surrender of Charleston, Gadsden was paroled to his home. 

British General Earl Cornwallis, fearing the influence leading Patriots had over the populace, arrested about twenty paroled civil officers. 

“His Lordship in order to secure the quiet of the province, finds himself under the necessity to direct the Commandant to order several Persons to change their Place of Residence on Parole from Charles Town to St. Augustine; His Lordship has further directed that a proper Vessell be provided to carry their Baggage with them.”

When they arrived, Governor Tonyn of British East Florida offered them freedom of the town if they would give their parole. Gadsden was the only one to refuse, even with the threat of a dungeon, stating “Prepare it then. I will give no parole, so help me God!” Gadsden suffered during his time as a prisoner in the dungeon of Castillo de San Marcos. He endured 42 weeks of confinement in the dungeon, suffering from a poor diet and psychological warfare as the British lied to him about the progress of the war and then threatened him with hanging should the Patriots hang Major John Andre for his role in Arnold’s treason. Fortunately for the South Carolinians, they were included in a general exchange of prisoners and arrived in Philadelphia in July 1781. 

Gadsden returned to public service, joining the state’s House of Representatives in Jacksonboro. At this session, Governor Rutledge surrendered his office. Gadsden was elected as governor but declined citing his poor health. He returned to public service briefly in 1788 to vote for ratification of the US Constitution and again in 1790 to serve in the state’s constitutional convention. Gadsden died on August 28, 1805, from head injuries suffered in a fall near his home. 

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