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Gadsden flag

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Gadsden flag
Gadsden flag.svg
UseBanner Small vexillological symbol or pictogram in black and white showing the different uses of the flag
ProportionVaries, generally 2:3
DesignA yellow banner charged with a yellow coiled timber rattlesnake facing toward the hoist sitting upon a patch of green grass, with thirteen rattles for the thirteen colonies, the words "DONT TREAD ON ME" positioned below the snake in black.
Designed byChristopher Gadsden

The Gadsden flag is a historical American flag with a yellow field depicting a timber rattlesnake[1][2] coiled and ready to strike. Beneath the rattlesnake are the words: "DONT TREAD ON ME".[note 1] Some modern versions of the flag include an apostrophe.

The flag is named after politician Christopher Gadsden (1724–1805), who designed it in 1775 during the American Revolution. It was used by the Continental Marines as an early motto flag, along with the Moultrie flag. Its design proclaims an assertive warning of vigilance and willingness to act in defense against coercion.[4] This has led it to be associated with the ideas of individualism and liberty.[5][6][7][8][9][10] It is often used in the United States as a symbol for right-libertarianism, classical liberalism, and small government; for distrust or defiance against authorities and government; and occasionally co-opted for right-wing populism or far-right ideology.[11][12][13]

Appearance and symbolism[edit]

Variations in appearance[edit]

Many variations of the Gadsden flag exist. The motto sometimes includes an apostrophe in the word "Don't" and sometimes not;[14]: 339  the typeface used for the motto is sometimes a serif typeface and other times sans-serif. The rattlesnake sometimes is shown as resting on a green ground; representations dating from 1885 and 1917 do not display anything below the rattlesnake. The rattlesnake usually faces to the left, and the early representations mentioned above face left. However, some versions of the flag show the snake facing to the right.

History of rattlesnake symbol in America[edit]

The timber rattlesnake can be found in the area of the original Thirteen Colonies. Like the bald eagle, part of its significance is that it was unique to the Americas, serving as a means of showing a separate identity from the Old World. Its use as a symbol of the American colonies can be traced back to the publications of Benjamin Franklin. In 1751, he made the first reference to the rattlesnake in a satirical commentary published in his Pennsylvania Gazette. It had been the policy of Parliament to send convicted criminals to the Americas (primarily the Province of Georgia), so Franklin suggested that they thank them by sending rattlesnakes to Britain.[15]

In 1754, during the French and Indian War, Franklin published Join, or Die, a woodcut of a snake cut into eight sections. It represented the colonies, with New England joined as the head and South Carolina as the tail, following their order along the coast. This was the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper.[citation needed]

In 1774, Paul Revere added Franklin's iconic cartoon to the nameplate of Isaiah Thomas's paper, the Massachusetts Spy, depicted there as fighting a British griffin.[16]

In December 1775, Benjamin Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym "American Guesser" in which he suggested that the rattlesnake was a good symbol for the American spirit and its valuation for vigilance, assertiveness, individualism, unity, and liberty:[17]

[...] there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, "Don't tread on me." [...] she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders [...] The Rattle-Snake is solitary, and associates with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation [...] '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. [...] The power of fascination attributed to her, by a generous construction, may be understood to mean, that those who consider the liberty and blessings which America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave her, but spend their lives with her.

Flag of the Culpeper Minutemen

The rattlesnake symbol was first officially adopted by the Continental Congress in 1778 when it approved the design for the seal of the War Office.[citation needed] At the top center of the seal is a rattlesnake holding a banner that says, "This we'll defend". This design of the War Office seal was carried forward—with some minor modifications—into the subsequent designs as well as the Department of the Army's seal, emblem and flag.[citation needed] As such, some variation of a rattlesnake symbol has been in continuous official use by the US Army for over 243 years.

Other American flags that use a rattlesnake motif include The United Companies of the Train of Artillery of the Town of Providence, the First Navy Jack, and the Culpeper Minutemen flag, among others.

In the 21st century, the Gadsden Flag has been used by the Tea Party movement and has been sometimes been associated with the Patriot movement.

Colour Scheme[edit]

Gadsden flag.svg
Colors scheme
Yellow Black Lighter Green Darker Green
CMYK 0-10-100-4 0-0-0-100 74-0-74-73 14-0-100-86
HEX #f5dd00 #000000 #124412 #1e2300
RGB 245-221-0 0-0-0 18-68-18 30-35-0


Gadsden's flag in an 1885 schoolbook

In the fall of 1775, the Continental Navy was established by General George Washington in his role as Commander in Chief of all Continental Forces, before Esek Hopkins was named Commodore of the Navy. Those first ships were used to intercept incoming transport ships carrying war supplies to the British in the colonies in order to supply the Continental Army, which was desperately undersupplied in the opening years of the American Revolutionary War. The Second Continental Congress authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on their first mission.

Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden represented his home state of South Carolina and was one of seven members of the Marine Committee outfitting the first naval mission.[14]: 289  The first Marines enlisted in the city of Philadelphia and carried drums painted yellow and depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles along with the motto "Don't Tread on Me." This is the first recorded mention of the future Gadsden flag's symbolism.[citation needed]

Before the departure of that first mission in December 1775, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, received a yellow rattlesnake flag from Gadsden to serve as the distinctive personal standard of his flagship.[14]: 289  Hopkins had previously led The United Companies of the Train of Artillery of the Town of Providence, which had a similar flag, before being appointed to lead the Navy.[18] The flag was a warning to Great Britain not to trample the liberties of its subjects.[19] By late 1775 though, especially after the Prohibitory Act, many American colonists did not see themselves as subjects to The Crown but instead as independent individuals possessing the rights of liberty and revolution. These rapidly growing convictions helped fuel the flag's adoption.[20]

Flag of the Providence United Train of Artillery

Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to the Congress of South Carolina in Charleston, South Carolina. This was recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals on February 9, 1776:

Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress 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 rattlesnake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, "Don't tread on me."[21]

Modern use[edit]

Map of states (colored yellow) that offer Gadsden flag specialty license plates.

For historical reasons, the Gadsden flag is still popularly flown in Charleston, South Carolina, the city where Christopher Gadsden first presented the flag and where it was commonly used during the revolution, along with the blue and white crescent flag of pre-Civil War South Carolina.

The Gadsden flag has become a popular specialty license plate in several states. As of 2022, the following states offer the option of obtaining a Gadsden flag specialty license plate: Alabama, Arizona,[22] Florida,[23][24] Kansas,[25] Maryland,[26] Missouri, Montana,[27] Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee,[28] Texas, and Virginia.[29][30]

Use as a libertarian symbol[edit]

In the 1970s the Gadsden flag started being used by libertarians, using it as a symbol representing individual rights and limited government.[31] The flag's prominent yellow color is also strongly associated with libertarianism.[32] The libertarian Free State Project uses a modified version of the flag with the snake replaced with a porcupine, a symbol of the movement.[33][unreliable source?]

Use as an anti-establishment symbol[edit]

In 2014, the flag was used by Jerad and Amanda Miller, the perpetrators of the 2014 Las Vegas shootings who killed two police officers and a civilian.[34] The Millers reportedly placed the Gadsden Flag on the corpse of one of the officers they killed.[35]

Gadsden Flag flown in the area of demonstration during the January 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol

The Gadsden flag was featured prominently in a report related to the January 6, 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. Thirty-four-year-old Rosanne Boyland carried one when she collapsed from an amphetamine overdose and died in the Capitol.[36][37]

Use by the left[edit]

In the mid-1970s, the new left People's Bicentennial Commission used the Gadsden Flag symbolism on buttons and literature.[38][39]

Use by the far-right[edit]

The Gadsden flag has also been used by far-right groups and individuals.[40]

Use as a Tea Party symbol[edit]

Beginning in 2009, the Gadsden flag became widely used as a protest symbol by American Tea Party movement protesters.[41][42][43] It was also displayed by members of Congress at Tea Party rallies.[44] In some cases, the flag was ruled to be a political, rather than a historic or military, symbol due to the strong Tea Party connection.[45]

Legal cases involving the Gadsden flag[edit]

In March 2013, the Gadsden flag was raised at a vacant armory building in New Rochelle, New York without permission from city officials. The city ordered its removal[46] and the United Veterans Memorial & Patriotic Association, which had maintained the U.S. flag at the armory, filed suit against the city. A federal judge dismissed the case, rejecting the United Veterans' First Amendment argument and ruling that the flagpole in question was city property and thus did not represent private speech.[47]

In 2014, a US Postal Service employee filed a complaint about a coworker repeatedly wearing a hat with a Gadsden Flag motif at work. Postal service administration dismissed the complaint, but the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reversed the decision and called for a careful investigation. The EEOC issued a statement clarifying that it did not make any decision that the Gadsden flag was a "racist symbol," or that wearing a depiction of it constituted racial discrimination.[48]

Rainbow version[edit]

Rainbow Gadsden flag

Street Patrol, a 1990s queer self defense group affiliated with Queer Nation/San Francisco, used as its logo a coiled snake over a triangle holding a ribbon with the motto "Don't Tread on Me".[49][50] Some libertarian circles use a version of the flag with the snake and motto placed over a rainbow flag.[51] Following the 2016 Orlando nightclub shooting, posters containing a rainbow Gadsden flag inscribed with "#ShootBack" were placed around West Hollywood.[52]


"No Step on Snek" parody flag

Parodies of the Gadsden flag exist; one common design replaces the "Don't tread on me" motto with "No Step on Snek", sometimes paired with a crudely drawn snake.[53]

Appearances in popular culture[edit]

The Gadsden flag has made numerous appearances in popular culture, particularly in post-apocalyptic stories.

In film and television[edit]

In music[edit]


  1. ^ During the 18th century, when contractions were coming into widespread use, they were often written without an apostrophe. The standard-form for the contraction of "do not" later came to include the apostrophe.[3]


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External links[edit]

Media related to Gadsden flag at Wikimedia Commons