Of Rattlesnakes and Unity

I had originally intended this post to be a continuation of “To Impeach or Not to Impeach”. But, unfortunately, I did not get as much done on it this week as I had hoped. (I blame Facebook.) As I worked on Part 2 — which may expand into a Part 3 — tonight, I realized that I was not going to make my normally scheduled publication time. So, thinking fast, I came up with a bit of historical American trivia to share with you.

"Join, or Die" woodcutHave you ever wondered about the origins of the (in)famous Gadsden flag, with its image of a coiled rattlesnake and “Dont Tread On Me” warning? It was designed by and named for Gen. Christopher Gadsden (1724–1805) during the American Revolution. But, Gadsden was inspired by Benjamin Franklin. Ever since Franklin referred to the rattlesnake in a satirical 1751 commentary published in his Pennsylvania Gazette, the rattlesnake had been showing up in colonial symbolism. In 1754, Franklin published his famous “Join, or Die” woodcut cartoon, with a chopped up rattlesnake representing the colonies.

But, why the rattlesnake? What was Franklin’s fascination with the reptile? It becomes clearer in an essay Franklin wrote in the final days of 1775 in the Pennsylvania Journal. Under the pseudonym “An American Guesser”, Franklin used an allegory about the rattlesnake to encourage the colonies regarding the necessity of coming together in common purpose against a grave external threat (i.e., tyranny by the British).

“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 stepping on her. Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?

‘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.

Gadsden flagThe 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.”

What is the Gadsden flag’s significance today? It has become a symbol for the Libertarian party and is more generally used by the American Tea Party movement. Variations of it and other rattlesnake flags have been used by militia groups, anarcho-capitalists, and by the U.S. Navy. It has also been used — sometimes seriously and sometimes humorously — in everything from clothing lines to animated TV series to heavy metal and country music. Freedom. Strength in community. Vigilance. Ready to strike in defense. Clearly, the symbolism sounds a chord within many Americans. And, now, you know why.


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