There are two popular flags that harken back to the second half of 18th-century America; the ‘Join or Die’ flag and the Gadsden flag. Both are tied together symbolically, but each has been appropriated by different ideological groups over the years.
The ‘Join, or Die’ flag shows a timber rattlesnake, chopped into eight pieces, each piece signifying one of the existing colonies. The snake is dead, and the image implies that the Thirteen Colonies, too, would die if they didn’t unite to face the French and Indian War.
Created by Benjamin Franklin, the powerful political cartoon-turned-flag serves as a meaningful and influential image to this day. Franklin’s ‘Join, or Die’ image currently stands in opposition to the Gadsden flag, which reads ‘Don’t Tread On Me.’ We’ll unpack the connection between these two further on in the article.
For now, let’s look deeper and get a full understanding of Benjamin Franklin’s infamous political cartoon.
The Colonies’ First Political Cartoon
Not only is this image thought to be the first political cartoon used in the Thirteen Colonies, but it’s also one of the first, if not the first image depicting the colonies as a unified group.
At that time, the colonies weren’t evenly distributed into thirteen neat parts. Pennsylvania encompassed Delaware, and New England was sort of the umbrella over four lesser-known colonies called Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth, Connecticut, and New Haven.
Further, Georgia wasn’t included in the list. This could’ve been for the sake of utilizing space in the image because Georgia was the last of the colonies to form, or simply because Georiga was the southernmost colony and would’ve had the least contact with the French and Indian War.
These are the reasons that the ‘Join, or Die’ flag only contains eight sections instead of thirteen. The sections of the snake are labeled with their respective colonies, moving in order from south to north as they’re listed from tail to head. These include South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and New England.
The Political Climate in 1754
In May of 1754, statesmen like Benjamin Franklin would have been deliberating a great deal, deciding what the colonies should do, if anything, concerning the presence of the French to the west.
At that time, English colonies were limited to, well, the colonies. All of the land to the immediate west was occupied by French colonists, even though those territories held far fewer citizens than English territories. To the south and southeast, Spanish colonists occupied Florida and the regions of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexico.
The French had considerable forces, though, because they had strong allies in numerous Native American factions that would fight by their side. The English, too, had Native American allies, but roughly 2 million English colonists wouldn’t need as much help when fighting their western neighbors who numbered around 60,000.
French and British colonies were constantly brushing elbows, putting each other into conflict. Further, their respective governments back in Europe were in conflict as well. The colonies, however, weren’t unified in their thinking about the issue.
The Albany Congress & Franklin’s Article
The colonies had recently lost some territory to French forces, so Franklin published an article citing reports from George Washington and his perspective of French aggression. The two men argued that the French would continue to attack and steal from the colonies with impunity if nothing were to change.
Atop this article was the woodcut image that would come to be known as the “Join, or Die” cartoon. The use of a political cartoon alongside a compelling article was unprecedented in the colonies, although it was commonplace in Europe.
The article and cartoon were published in anticipation of delibrations about what the colonies would do to address the French issue. Franklin had a central role in something known as “the Albany Congress.” This was a group of delegates brought together in Albany, New York to discuss defenses against the French and Native American forces.
When the Albany Congress finally met, Franklin proposed a plan to extend government oversight by placing a central leader to guide a group of delegates who would govern the colonies. The result of this unification would be that the organized government could form a defensive military.
The Congress accepted this plan and put it forward to the British parliament.
There were respective governments in the colonies, although each of them stood alone. All colonial governments were subjected to the rule of England, but there wasn’t a unified “colonial government” making decisions.
The group’s proposal was denied by English rule. It provided too clear of a path for the colonies to govern themselves and slip away from any oversight. The idea was opposed by colonists partial to English rule as well.
Colonies With Conflicting Ideas
Franklin’s cartoon suggested the death of the colonies if a unified opinion wasn’t upheld.
If they were separated, they would certainly die. If they were unified, they would have a good chance of succeeding. Their 2 million citizens would almost definitely outpower the measly number of French colonists. On the other hand, severed colonies would wither and die in the face of massive French territory and the help of Native American tribes who lived there.
So, Franklin’s flag was a call to action. He was illustrating the effect that dissent from the larger group would have. The image implies that the colonies were essentially one unified being, and just like a snake, they could not survive without all pieces attached.
The cartoon would have circulated in newspapers around the colonies. Anyone who lived near a town or was part of discussions concerning the colonies’ actions would have seen the image.
Did It Work?
In short, no.
Not for a couple of decades, anyway.
The people might have rallied behind the idea of a unified government, but the rustling of young American patriots wasn’t loud enough to drive any significant change yet. Further, Franklin unwisely sent the cartoon and article to be published around England.
The idea that the colonies could unify was more than enough reason for England to send its own troops to the colonies to fight the war with the French. England and France had been warring in different ways for decades.
The French and Indian War, in particular, was ultimately the result of failed attempts to do trade and respect treaties dealing with crucial waterways and lucrative trapping areas. Both France and England wanted to establish dominance over the Ohio River Valley, which begins in Pittsburg and works its way eastward, eventually reaching what is called “The Forks.”
This was a confluence of rivers and an area of strategic advantage to any military that held a fort there. George Washington said the land in the fork had “the absolute command of both rivers.” (6)
Troops from Virginia built a fort there, but it was quickly taken by French Canadian soldiers. Only a few weeks later, George Washington led British and Native American troops into The Forks. He failed, and England sent troops to retaliate roughly a year later (that’s how long it took to get all those men across the ocean!).
That was the start of the French and Indian War, which the English would eventually win, although it would serve as the spark for the larger Seven Years War between France and England in Europe.
Use Before and After The American Revolution
The real value of the ‘Join, or Die’ cartoon comes after the French and Indian War.
The image served as a powerful symbol when the time came for colonists to unite against English rule. In the same way that the colonies needed to unite to defend themselves against French forces, they would have to come together to oppose the English.
In particular, the image resurged in the wake of the Stamp Act. This Act famously taxed many areas of colonial life and was the final straw for colonists under English rule. After that, the tide turned and citizens used the ‘Join, or Die’ image as another symbol of resistance.
Paul Revere appropriated the image to be featured on each issue of the Massachusetts Spy in the years before the revolutionary war. It was around this time that the image of the snake was reappropriated in another way, used in the Gadsden flag.
The Gadsden flag is named after the man who created it and was used in the months preceding the American Revolutionary War. It reads ‘DON’T TREAD ON ME,” and displays a timber rattlesnake just like the ‘Join, or Die’ flag.
This snake, on the other hand, was completely attached in every area. It symbolized the unification of the colonies and their ability to strike if provoked.
Today, the Gadsden flag is used in a similar, yet very distinct fashion. It’s a symbol used in libertarian, anti-establishment, and far-right groups. In almost all cases, it references a disdain for government involvement in the lives of citizens.
The phrase ‘Join, or Die’ isn’t used as much in the modern era, although New Hampshire’s state motto is “Live Free or Die,” and this is thought to be a direct evolution of Franklin’s motto.
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- Colonial Governments of The Original 13 Colonies, Available here: https://www.thoughtco.com/colonial-governments-of-the-thirteen-colonies-104595
- The Story Behind The Join or Die Snake Cartoon, Available here: https://constitutioncenter.org/blog/the-story-behind-the-join-or-die-snake-cartoon
- The Albany Congress, 1754, Available here: https://www.aoc.gov/explore-capitol-campus/art/albany-congress-1754
- How Ben Franklin's Viral Political Cartoon United the 13 Colonies, Available here: https://www.history.com/news/ben-franklin-join-or-die-cartoon-french-indian-war
- The French and Indian War (1754-1763): Causes and Outbreak, Available here: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/french-and-indian-war-1754-1763-causes-and-outbreak
- Forks of The Ohio, Available here: https://braddockroadpa.org/history/story/forks-ohio/