The simple yellow flag, a coiled rattlesnake, and those four famous words have been emblazoned on everything from license plates to soccer jerseys, a Metallica song to a U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Badge, waved by classic Libertarians, Tea Party Republicans, and everyone in between.
For many, the Gadsden flag embodies the spirit of America and our willingness to fight for what we believe in.
Now, looking at the flag as a meme requires a strict interpretation of the first definition and a loose one for the second. Merriam-Webster describes it as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Everything about the flag screams Americana. Its rebellious spirit has been carried with it since its inception and has many variations holding onto that spirit.
As for the definition of “an amusing or interesting item (such as a captioned picture or video) or genre of items that is spread widely online especially through social media.” That came after the internet became a thing.
Benjamin Franklin is often cited as starting the joke in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751. At the time, the Brits didn’t have Australia as a colony, so they sent their convicts to America. Franklin suggested that Americans repay the UK by sending them rattlesnakes.
He found the snake fitting. Unlike the current idiom of “snakes in the grass,” in pre-revolution America being called that was an honor — a symbol for the underdog. Something that, if stepped on, would strike back hard.
Fun fact: Franklin supported the symbol of the rattlesnake and never mentioned turkeys on the Great Seal until much later.
The rattlesnake stuck with Franklin and the Gazette years later when he created the “Join, or Die.” cartoon. It showed the rattlesnake cut into eight parts for the eight regions of the colonies. Bear in mind, New England is one segment, Delaware is considered part of Pennsylvania, and well, sorry Georgia. Historians think it’s because they were just frontier land and didn’t count back then.
The Boston Gazette printer, Samuel Kneeland, recreated it with the phrase “Unite and Conquer” coming from the snake’s mouth. In 1774, Paul Revere modified it into the masthead of Thomas’ Boston Journal. Already we’re seeing adaptations on what Richard Dawkins describes as memetics, or the cultural evolution that determines cultural relevance and success.
The cartoon would appear all across the colonies. Uniforms, newspapers, and Georgia put the whole “not being mentioned on the most iconic revolutionary era cartoon” aside and put it on their $20 bill.
For the traditional Gadsden flag that we all know of today, an anonymous writer to the Pennsylvania Journal by the name of “An American Guesser” penned the need for the flag.
“I observed on one of the drums belonging to the Marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America.”
The anonymous writer, who many historians believe was still Franklin, continues, “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.”
Colonel Christopher Gadsden designed the flag and hoisted it as the personal symbol for his Marines and his flagship. Since then, the flag has been hoisted by Marines, American revolutionaries, and patriots across the nation.