The Don’t Tread On Me Flag and Phrase: History, Meaning, and Symbolism

Written by Brandi Allred
Updated: May 29, 2022
Image Credit Nickolay Belevtsov/Shutterstock.com
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You’ve probably seen the yellow ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag floating around somewhere. Popular both historically and in certain contemporary circles, the famous flag has been used by many different groups throughout its 200-plus-year lifetime. But, just where did it come from, and why does it depict a rattlesnake?

Here, we’ll take a closer look at the Gadsden flag—otherwise known as the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag. We’ll start by going over its origins, and what it meant to the people who first used it. Then, we’ll explore the meaning behind the saying, and discover why the flag’s designer chose a rattlesnake to represent the early United States.

Read on to find out just how accurate the Gadsden flag really is, and whether or not rattlesnakes really ‘never back down.’

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What Does Don’t Tread On Me Mean?

‘Don’t Tread On Me’ is an expression of freedom and liberty that first originated on the Gadsden Flag, depicting a coiled Rattlesnake getting ready to attack, and used as a cry for independence for the American Colonies when fighting the British. It became popular in the revolutionary war and has resurfaced in modern eras as an expression of liberty, individualism, and independence. The Flag first appeared on battleship in 1775. The Flag was created by Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden was a South Carolinian politician. The flag has more recently been associated with right leaning political groups and ideologues, but is itself not a modern conservative flag or design.

Just What is the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Rattlesnake?

The ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag depicts a simple enough design; a yellow background, a rattlesnake, and the key phrase. In a way, it’s one of the United States’ first memes—let’s go over the flag in detail.

First, located at the bottom center of the flag are the words ‘Don’t Tread on Me’. Above those words is a coiled rattlesnake, usually depicted on a bed of grass. The rattlesnake’s bottom coil rests on the ground, while two more coils lift it into the air, like a Slinkee. Both the rattle and typical diamond markings are clearly visible, as are the rattlesnake’s forked tongue and exposed fangs. 

It may not be an entirely accurate portrayal of a rattlesnake’s defensive coiled position, but it gets the point across: here is a rattlesnake curled up in warning, ready to strike if provoked.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
When threatened, rattlesnakes coil up in an ‘S’ position and hold their rattles high. This is the rattlesnake’s way of saying ‘I’m ready to defend myself, so don’t come any closer.’

Audrey Snider-Bell/Shutterstock.com

The Origins of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me;’ Rattlesnake

The person commonly credited with creating the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag was a man named Christopher Gadsden. Gadsden was a soldier in the revolutionary war who, possibly inspired by Benjamin Franklin’s work, designed and submitted the flag to the brand new United States government. It was widely flown in the early years of the new United States and still sees use today. 

But, wait, what was that about Benjamin Franklin and rattlesnakes? Well, the use of a snake to symbolize the American colonies actually goes back as far as 1751, when Ben Franklin drew a political cartoon depicting a snake split into 13 parts (for the 13 original colonies). Franklin’s drawing included a snake, cut into 13 pieces, each piece with the initials of one of the 13 colonies. Below the snake were the words ‘JOIN, or DIE’.

As the story goes, Benjamin Franklin drew this particular cartoon in response to Britain shipping convicts to the American colonies. Ben Franklin suggested that, in exchange for the convicts, the American colonies might ship rattlesnakes to Britain. There, the rattlesnakes could live happily in the gardens of the upper class.

Why Does The ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Flag Have A Rattlesnake?

Gadsden Flag
A Gadsden flag flying today. The flag has had enduring popularity.

Darryl Brooks/Shutterstock.com

So, why did people like Ben Franklin and Christopher Gadsden choose the rattlesnake to represent the United States, and the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ slogan?

Well, historically, rattlesnakes were seen as deadly creatures that only attacked as a means of defense. In other words, to American patriots, the rattlesnake would not attack without provocation, but, once ‘tread’ on, it had a deadly bite. In these idealized characteristics of the rattlesnake, they saw their own young country—unwilling to attack unless bothered, but, once bothered, deadly.

Additionally, American patriots sought to identify themselves with the rattlesnake’s rattle. If you don’t know much about the mechanics of a rattlesnake’s rattle, here’s a quick lesson: Rattlesnake rattles are made up of a series of loosely connected segments that, when shaken against one another, produce a rattling sound of warning. The segments only work though if they are all used together—a single rattle can do nothing on its own. 

Like the interconnected rattles of the rattlesnake’s tail, the 13 original colonies could only achieve their goal through cooperation. Alone, each rattle, and each colony, had little power. But together, they created something formidable.

Avoid Rattlesnake While on Hikes - Diamondback Rattlesnake
The ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ rattlesnake became a symbol of patriotism in the early years of the United States. The rattlesnake represented fortitude, strength, ferocity, and, above all, a willingness to defend oneself to the bitter end.

Susan M Snyder/Shutterstock.com

Why a Rattlesnake?

Out of all the creatures American colonists and revolutionaries could have chosen to represent their young nation, why choose a rattlesnake? Well, rattlesnakes represented strength, ferocity, and an unwillingness to back down. The Gadsden flag just may be one of the first ‘pro-America’ memes, depicting in the rattlesnake a new country that held the same qualities as the idealized rattlesnake.

The ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ rattlesnake depicts a rattlesnake coiled up and ready to strike. The intended message was that America, like the rattlesnake, would not back down, nor would they attack, unless their rights were infringed on. For many, the flag was meant as both a warning, and a promise. Additionally, the Gadsden flag may have symbolized the young country’s readiness to defend themselves, rather than back down.

Is it True that Rattlesnakes Never Back Down?

Now, let’s take a look at whether or not the idealized character of the rattlesnake utilized in the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag accurately represents a rattlesnake. 

The most important symbolic aspect of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ rattlesnake is its absolute unwillingness to back down. But, do rattlesnakes really never back down? The answer is, not really. 

Rattlesnakes are secretive reptiles. They would rather bask in the sun’s heat, or hunt rodents, than attack humans or defend territory. True, a rattlesnake will coil up in a ready-to-strike position and rattle its noisy tail if approached, but not always. In fact, many people walk by rattlesnakes without even realizing it. And, even if a rattlesnake does coil up, it’s highly likely to slither away at the first opportunity.

This is because rattlesnakes, though terrifying when they coil and rattle, are at heart non-aggressive. This doesn’t mean you should try to pet one. A cornered rattlesnake will absolutely act in self-defense. But, they’re not quite the never back down idealization that the Gadsden flag makes them out to be.

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