Adopted by the Tea Party as the symbol of their movement, the Gadsden Flag goes back to the very beginnings of the Republic. Benjamin Franklin was indirectly responsible for the flag. In his Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754 he published a cartoon of the 13 colonies as a rattle snake and how desperately unity between the colonies was needed.
In December 1775 he wrote an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal which set forth why the rattlesnake was a good symbol for the American spirit:
“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 shewn 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?”
The Marines, newly created by the Continental Congress, painted their drums yellow with a rattlesnake with thirteen rattles and the motto “Don’t tread on me.” Colonel Christopher Gadsden, delegate from South Carolina, designed the Gadsden Flag and presented it to Commodore Esek Hopkins in December 1775 to be displayed from the mainmast of his flagship. He presented another copy of his flag to the legislature of South Carolina:
“Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, “Don’t Tread on Me!”
Gadsden and his flag had a similar spirit. At one point during the War he was captured by the British. Being offered his release if he would swear not to fight against Great Britain, he refused and spent the next 42 weeks in solitary confinement.
Throughout American history the flag has remained in use, many Americans seeing it as a powerful symbol of the American desire for freedom and independence.