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The True History of the Gadsden Flag

By Jack Parkos | United States

You’ve probably been to or have seen protests in your life. Many people have signs and flags to spread their message. One common occurrence at protests (typically protests held by libertarians or conservatives), is a yellow flag featuring a rattlesnake and the phrase “DON’T TREAD ON ME”. Many people have seen this flag but little know about it’s history and importance. This is the Gadsden Flag.

As stated above, the flag features a timber rattlesnake, the symbolism for using a snake being one of Ben Franklin’s many ingenious decisions.  Ben Franklin was known for his humorous satire. The British had been sending convicted criminals to the Americas. So in 1751, Ben Franklin suggested that, in return for this act, the colonists send rattlesnakes to Britain. The rattlesnake went on to feature in Franklin’s “Join or Die” cartoon. However, the design of the flag was not made by Franklin.

The name “Gadsden” comes from its designer, General Christopher Gadsden, general for the American Colonies as well as a delegate in the Continental Congress. This flag was later given to Eskes Hopkins, newly named Commander and Chief of the Continental Navy. Hopkins flew this flag on his first mission. Many Marines also used bright yellow drums, portraying the rattlesnake ready to strike, with the motto “DON’T TREAD ON ME”

Many other flags have been inspired from the Gadsden Flag. Several flags with similar meaning and history also feature a rattlesnake. The “Navy Jack” features a snake as well as the phrase “DON’T TREAD ON ME”. The snake, however, is not curled up and the background has the red and white stripes of the American flag. 

The deeper meaning of the rattlesnake is a symbol of early America. This is best explained by Ben Franklin.

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; and as I have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly my own, in order to divert an idle hour, I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device – I took care, however, to consult on this occasion a person who is acquainted with heraldry, from whom I learned, that it is a rule among the learned of that science “That the worthy properties of the animal, in the crest-born, shall be considered,” and, “That the base ones cannot have been intended;” he likewise informed me that the ancients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration – both which circumstances I suppose may have been had in view. Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them, it occurred to me that the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her.

But then “the worldly properties” of a Snake I judged would be hard to point out. This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the Rattle-Snake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished, not only from other animals, but from those of the same genus or class of animals, endeavoring to fix some meaning to each, not wholly inconsistent with common sense.

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that 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: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal. Conscious of this, she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.

Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America? The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies. This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence. 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 the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. Perhaps it might be only fancy, but, I conceited the painter had shown a half formed additional rattle, which, I suppose, may have been intended to represent the province of Canada.

‘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 sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.

The Rattle-Snake is solitary, and associates with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation. In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, while singly, they would probably perish. 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. She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with her age, “her tongue also is blue and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks.”

This is flag has a deep meaning to early America. The phrase “Don’t tread on me” represents the rattle of a snake. When a snake rattles it serves as a warning to you to back off. Of course, the snake only engages when it feels threatened. This is the spirit of America. The warning to tyrants, not to tread on the people. What happens when you step on a snake? It will bite – quickly, with deadly force.

But the Gadsden flag still lives on. In modern-day, many libertarians have some form of this symbol. Many conservatives appreciate this flag, too. The flag also was the symbol of the “Tea Party Movement”.’ The flag also was presented in celebration after the death of Osama Bin Laden. Metallica even had a song “Don’t Tread on Me” to honor the flag. Some people consider this flag as important if not more important than the Star spangled Banner.

Yet sadly, in spite of this being a symbol of early America, the tyrants and progressives both want to destroy this flag. Do you own a flag? That may put you on a FBI watch list for being a suspected terrorist. The Gadsden Flag of early America – now considered a threat? But that’s not all – progressives want it banned for “hate speech”. Christopher Gadsden owned slaves. So, some assume that the flag must be associated with slavery. Ironically, it would be a great flag to protest slavery. Ultimately, it’s about American pride and standing up for liberty.

In conclusion, many may try to tread on the Gadsden flag, giving it false history and meaning. True patriots however, will fly this flag with pride. I personally display this symbol in many ways, and encourage you to do the same.


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“A Voice of Reason and Patience” – Bill Kelsey for Congress

By John Keller | United States

Bill Kelsey is a graduate of the US Naval Academy, class of 1973, and spent his career as a pilot. He has flown in Africa, spent time in the Middle East, and currently lives in Texas. When not flying Bill reads the histories of the countries in which he works and studies their languages. He is fluent in Arabic, Chinese, and Spanish, and can survive in French, Portuguese, and Swahili, and is working hard on Farsi, Luganda, and Tigrinia. He is hoping to bring his passion for flying and history to the 10th Texas Congressional District to help America soar higher than ever before.

Keller: What motivated you to seek office as a congressman?

Kelsey: I have a strong desire to represent the libertarian message coherently.  Running for office gives an opportunity to do so.  In this case, I chose to run for Federal office because I have deep lifetime experiences in war and semi-war zones abroad.  As for running specifically against Michael McCaul, the idea occurred to me in 2011.  I was on a contract as a pilot flying around South Sudan in a situation which took me out into the bush and put me in contact with many people.  Upon discovering that my Congressman was Chairman of the Subcommittee on South Sudan I wrote him a courtesy letter offering to stay in touch and keep him directly informed and help with any fact checking he might need.  (I also have a background in African studies and languages).  I received a generic email thanking me for my interest and so on, with no indication that he had received or understood the substance of my letter.  Other communications to him on matters of policy have received similar generic responses. Realizing that he was impervious to communication from constituents, I made my choice.

Keller: You are running as a Libertarian. What makes a Libertarian different from a Republican and a Democrat?

Kelsey: The Republican and Democratic parties are both complicit in the wars and interventions abroad. As an individual and as a Libertarian I will be speaking out and working against this unfortunate phenomenon at every opportunity.  In general, both parties support programs which cost taxpayer dollars. Libertarians will work to cut back programs which cost taxpayer dollars, preferring to rely on the market and voluntary action in society.  The politicians of both parties boast of the Federal – that is taxpayer – dollars they bring to their constituents.  The Libertarian will make no effort to bring taxpayer money back to the constituents, preferring not to collect the taxes from them in the first place.

Keller: Your primary opponent, Michael McCaul, is an incumbent Republican who has held his seat since 2005. Why is now the time for a Libertarian to represent Texas, and America, in Congress?

Kelsey: It has always been time for a Libertarian in Congress, though now, with both older parties in great disarray, we hope to be a breath of fresh air. Libertarians have never been dominant in American culture and politics, even during the Revolution.  But we have always had libertarian lights shining in the darkness.  Three and a half centuries ago a libertarian foremother, Mary Dyer, was hung in Boston for her views.  A century and a half ago libertarian forefathers Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison engaged in debates which still inform internal party arguments today.  We have a rich tradition in history.

Keller: If elected to office, what are the three most important policies you want to see changed or put into effect?

Kelsey: (1) I would work to completely change the relationship of the United States with the rest of the world.  That means welcoming free trade of goods and ideas and travel.  It also means withdrawing from all wars, known and unknown, declared and undeclared, many of which are taking place in countries most Americans have not heard of.  I will work to end all subsidies to foreign governments, withdraw from all foreign military alliances, withdraw all US forces from abroad and close all US bases from abroad.  I will oppose any government efforts to either support or overthrow any foreign governments. There should be no exceptions for any special allies or unique relationships. 

(2) A society under stress tends to blame resident foreigners for its problems.  Along with the libertarian movement I intend to show leadership on this matter and encourage Americans to rise above negative attitudes to new arrivals.  We must recognize that immigrants bring talent and energy to our country.  Our attitude towards immigrants must be one of tolerance, compassion, and gratitude for what they bring.  A first step will be to simplify the process for legal immigration and get rid of the bureaucratic maze which they face now.  All immigrants should be self-supporting or under the financial sponsorship of private citizens or organizations.  To the extent there is fear of immigrants “going on welfare” the quarrel is with the welfare system and not the immigrants.  As for so-called “illegal aliens” I harbor no indignation about the commission of victimless crimes.  Many immigrants are “illegal” by virtue of obscure bureaucratic technicalities.  Others are here as refugees from deadly situations and could not afford the time or expense of the legal process.  We must put simple procedures in place to formalize the status of undocumented residents and allow them to participate fully in our economy and our legal system.

(3) The income tax system is a degrading insult to every American.  My goal as a libertarian will be its abolition.  The first steps towards that end will include a radical simplification of the paperwork and filing process.  At the same time, taxation of income should be eliminated for the lower one third income bracket of the population, along with any requirement to file.  Such an income tax system as might remain during a transition period must not be used to manipulate behavior through “tax incentives.” We must also ban the use of the system to punish or reward citizens for their personal beliefs or political activities.  Most importantly, during the transition to eventual abolition, no citizen should be compelled to contribute to any government program which is in violation of the citizen’s conscience.

Keller: Gun control has become a major issue given the recent events in Florida. Where do you stand on this policy issue?

Kelsey: As one who has worked in war zones abroad as a pilot with humanitarian organizations, I have seen the horror and devastation caused by organized mass slaughter.  I am conscious of the United States government as a merchant of death. I will not collude with the greatest producer and exporter of advanced weaponry and munitions abroad in any efforts to confiscate weapons from peaceful citizens.

Keller: For the past 158 years the two parties have run the White House and Congress. What will a Libertarian member of Congress offer in such a polarized political scene?

Kelsey: I would do my best to be a voice of reason and patience, a light in a dark place, a blade of grass emerging from the concrete.

Keller: Do you have any final remarks for the readers and the people of Texas?

Kelsey: Waste your votes on the declining old parties no longer.  Reject the logic of choosing the perceived lesser of two evils. Choose life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Vote for Libertarian candidates.

I would like to thank Bill Kelsey for his time. Be sure to visit his website and follow him on Facebook to stay up to date and informed on his campaign!