“Don’t Tread On Me”
The French and Indian War was the first major civil conflict in America. Taking place prior to the Revolution, this was the event that first triggered most of the disunity among the Colonies and those who inhabited them. To address this problem, Benjamin Franklin offered a straightforward solution, “Join, or Die.” This slogan was the title for the first American political cartoon, of which he was the artist (See Image 1). A rattlesnake cut up into ten pieces is illustrated in this cartoon: the six New England colonies being represented by its head and the other seven seen through the rest of the body. This piece of propaganda was intended to bring awareness to the people of the potential consequences they would suffer if they failed to unite during a time of domestic hostility. In the way that people are still forced to side with political obligations, the rattlesnake that Franklin created to unite certain factions of the people is still seen in modern-day movements that urge for unity in both political and social realms. Though its symbolism has been used in different eras, this timeless icon of unity has ridden on the back of internal tensions that are heightened in relation to a call for change. Such a notion of uniting Americans into a politically-motivated category which uses the symbol of Ben Franklin’s rattlesnake as the rallying point for the defiant group’s cause is something that has been evident throughout our nation’s history since the French and Indian War and even still today through its effective use in the Tea Party Movement.
When Franklin created the illustration, the words “join or die” sent a forceful, commanding ultimatum that stated that if the people do not come together for this cause of independence, the idea of unity that was building in the Colonies for years would self-destruct. The icon evolved gradually into the Gadsden Flag, the most commonly seen form of Franklin’s snake today with the words, “Don’t Tread on Me” placed below it. In this furthering of Franklin’s message that was now used as a battle flag in the fight for independence, the snake’s red eyes correlate to the aggressive pioneering attitude of the early settlers while the thirteen rings on its rattle come to symbolize the colonies. Their making up one rattle, the snake’s tool to warn off an attack, they are now united as one due to their willingness to strike against the unfair treatment they were receiving from their King in Britain.
The Tea Party is an emerging political group calling Americans to action against “Big Government” that has adopted the Gadsden flag and other forms of the “Don’t Tread on Me” text as their identity. Their use of the rattlesnake is seen as a way to incite the rebellious and passionate characteristics of the 18th century patriots into 21st century conservative voters. Unlike the way that that the Gadsden flag was created as a sign of pride for the whole of a nation against their enemy, the Tea Party has adopted it into one that unites only a certain category of Americans who are using it as a symbol of rebellion against their own people. The intended meaning of the flag has been altered from its original context under the Tea Party Movement, and thus, has taken a more controversial role in society than it did in the Revolutionary era.
Because of this, people are most likely mystified when they view the image of the flag, using their previous experiences and current beliefs to develop a meaning of the image that applies in any way that they want it to. The revolutionary colonists used the flag as a mystical tool that urged of need for unity against their British oppressors. Using the inspiring metaphorical values that the colonists found in the rattlesnake during their fight for a political voice, the Tea Party Movement has taken the identity of the flag as a way to spur a sense of patriotism in the people who they seek to captivate with their message. Taking advantage of the mystical ties that the Gadsden flag has embedded in our history, the Tea Party has also managed to do so by altering the face of party lines in Washington, D.C.—most recently in the fall November elections of this year as the Tea Party influenced candidates which overtook 60 seats in the House.
Similar to the Tea Party’s urging for a greater awareness among voters about the current happenings in Washington, D.C. and statehouses nationwide, Benjamin Franklin’s appeal to the American people was to come together and fight for a common cause. Just as in any group, success correlates directly to strength and unity, key elements that Franklin saw as necessary in the fight for independence. As the colonists who held true to these strong ideals had a passion for their country and were not receptive to any form of oppression that they felt from the British, the Tea Party has taken an identical approach to creating a fury of followers in the wake of a 2010 election that saw the rise of their candidates coming out of a belief in the potential impact their movement could make in Washington. Franklin’s cartoon was a great step to encourage people to unite, ultimately resulting in the birth of a new country. This historical significance has become a rallying point that the Tea Party uses to corral people in the same way, except this time with the motive of finding the birth of a new political identity for the nation.
I believe the Gadsden flag is a tremendous representation of what it takes to be an American, as we are a country founded by a group of patriots who wanted the freedom to make their own choices. I credit the Tea Party with holding a firm grasp to these principles as the basis for inciting a similar movement in the modern world. Fighting for small government and other strong stances absolutely justifies their use of the Gadsden flag, due to the typically oppressed conditions these ideas have been approached by from our current government. I can relate to Tea Party supporters in the sense that we share similar political stances and possess like characteristics when it comes to being outspoken and passionate when the time calls to stand up for our beliefs.
The political division of American people today is similar to the dissent that the Founding Fathers saw amongst their people, but in that sense it is what makes our country politically diverse. An abundance of Americans share the characteristics of the rattlesnake on the Gadsden Flag, which means there is no solution to agree on every issue. Each person wants to live their life created by their own rules, which makes division therefore inevitable. What can be agreed on, though, is that we as Americans contain a blazing passion inside of us that seeks to rally behind a cause that has these interests we associate with at the fore of their mission.
The Tea Party has managed to do so in using the Gadsden flag as the face of their fight. Unlike when it was initially used as a defiant symbol against a government halfway across the world during the American Revolution, the party instead uses it as a way to send a similarly defiant message to their own government. Disagreeing with the decisions made by a predominantly liberal government, they use the flag to represent their conservative thought, using the “Don’t Tread on Me” text as a fitting motto for their fight against excess government control. The content of its words sends a message to Washington, D.C. that the hard-working people of our nation want the government to be in their hands. In doing so they’ve seemingly sent a warning to the legislators that if the government continues to make decisions without cross-party consultancy, the fabric that stitches the House and Senate’s majority voice will change, just as it did last month when Tea Party backed Republicans gained nine more seats in the Senate. The most significant impact the Tea Party made on the elections is the 700 state seats overtaken by Republican candidates. The Gadsden flag was used to rally behind a common ideal that the earliest Americans saw to be reflective of the message our founding fathers laid forth. In doing so, the Gadsden flag was successful in uniting the separate factions of citizens who came to create our nation; a role it’s once again experiencing as the symbol of the 21st century Tea Party movement.