Symbols are very important to Americans. Every state has its own nick name, animal, flower, dinosaur, and especially its own flag.
Before America had the Stars and Stripes, patriots used a succession of other symbolic banners. The principal historic flags were the “Unite Or Die” flag, the “Don’t Tread On Me” flag, and the “First Navy Jack” flag. Each had several variations but all three displayed a single strong symbol of colonial American union and defiance - the SNAKE.
America’s first political cartoon
The first recorded use of snakes as symbols of the American colonies’ discontent was in Benjamin Franklin’s satirical commentaries published in 1751. He suggested that a fair exchange, for all the criminals banished from England and sent to America, would be a shipment of rattlesnakes which could be let loose in London.
Three years later, Franklin created the first American political cartoon in the
Pennsylvania Gazette. It was a woodcut showing a twisting snake that was cut into eight sections. Each section was labeled to represent a British American colony. The four New England colonies were represented by a single head section (combining Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Hampshire), and for some reason both Delaware and Georgia were excluded.
The cartoon titled “JOIN or DIE” was used to illustrate the accompanying Franklin editorial about the lethargic attitude of the colonies. At this time, it had nothing to do with liberation from Britain. Franklin was warning Americans about the mounting tensions between France and Britain on North American soil.
“JOIN or DIE” becomes a rallying cry against the French
Franklin set down his fears in writing, “The confidence of the French in this undertaking seems well grounded on the present disunited state of the British Colonies, and the extreme difficulty of bringing so many different governments and assemblies to agree in any speedy and effectual measures for our common defense and security; while our enemies have the very great advantage of being under one direction, with one Council, and one purse.”
But for the next dozen years, things were not going well in the colonies. As the colonies began to move further away from England politically, the snake became a more prominent symbol. In 1774, Paul Revere added a snake to the title of his newspaper (The Massachusetts Spy) showing it in a fight with a British dragon.
Americans patriots identified with the snake as a symbol of vigilance. British loyalists interpreted its use differently. They saw it as a biblical reference representing deceit and treachery.
Snakes as symbols
In late 1775, Franklin stoked the fires of rebellion by publishing an article in the Pennsylvania Journal in which he suggested that the rattlesnake might be a fitting symbol for American spirit. It reads in part:
“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness. 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 stepping on her.”
Probably the most famous historic banner was the Gadsden Flag, more widely known as the “DON’T TREAD ON ME” flag. This dramatic flag depicts a rattlesnake in a coiled position ready to strike, placed on a bright yellow background. Below the snake is the warning “Don’t Tread On Me.”
Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina representative to the Continental Congress and a military officer, was assigned to the Marine Committee which was responsible for outfitting naval forces. The first marine companies were organized in Philadelphia in 1775. They carried drums painted yellow, displaying a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, and bearing the motto “Don’t Tread On Me.”
Before the first naval mission of the Revolutionary War was launched, Gadsden presented the Navy’s Commander with a flag patterned after those marine drums. It was immediately hung on the mainmast of the flag ship. The flag was also the first flag ever carried into battle by the Marine Corps, during the Revolutionary War.
The Gadsden flag becomes the “First Navy Jack”
It was called the First Navy Jack. This version of the Gadsden flag was the fore runner of the current American flag, “Old Glory,” which continued the use of red and white horizontal stripes.
Several versions of the Gadsden flag were used during the Revolutionary War including one by the South Carolina Minutemen and one by the Culpeper Minutemen (Virginia militia).
Snake flags todayOver the next 200 years, the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag (the Gadsden flag) has been brought out repeatedly as a symbol of patriotism, support for civil liberties, and as a protest against the federal government. It has been used as the symbol of the “Tea Party” since 2009.
The original “First Navy Jack” has been flown on all U.S. Navy ships since the World Trade Center disaster on 911.HBO’s excellent historical series “John Adams” prominently features, in its opening, the “Join or Die” and “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, along with the “Appeal to Heaven” flag (symbolized by a tree, rather than a snake).
Are snakes still used on American flags?Eighteen U.S. States (36%) have animals on their flags. The eagle appears on the flags of Illinois, Iowa, Utah, and North Dakota. The bear on the flags of California and Missouri (which has two). The buffalo on the Wyoming flag. Farm animals (cows and horses) on the flags of Delaware, Kansas, Minnesota, and New Jersey. A moose on Maine’s flag, a deer on Idaho’s flag, and a pelican on Louisiana’s flag.
Four states have multiple animals on their flags. They are Michigan (eagle, deer, and moose), Pennsylvania (eagle and two horses), Vermont (deer and cow), and finally our friends in Oregon, who march to their own drum, an eagle on the front and a beaver on the back.
But amazingly, NONE have used the snake on their flags.
Why doesn’t anyone salute the animal that was so symbolic and so admired by our forefathers during the Revolutionary War? It’s a national shame.