The Shifting Symbolism of the Gadsden Flag (2024)

How do we decide what the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, or indeed any symbol, really means?Photograph by Drew Angerer / The New York Times / Redux

In January of 2014, an African-American maintenance mechanic for the United States Postal Service in Denver filed a complaint charging that he had been subjected to racial discrimination. Specifically, as a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filing on the matter put it, one of the man’s co-workers “repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag.” The cap design in question involves a coiled rattlesnake over the phrase “DON’T TREAD ON ME,” against a yellow background. You’ve seen it.

The Postal Service dismissed the complaint. But, this summer, that decision was reversed by the E.E.O.C., which, after some procedural back-and-forth, ordered the agency to investigate the matter. Eugene Volokh, a professor at the U.C.L.A. School of Law, brought this to the public’s attention through the Volokh Conspiracy, his legal-affairs blog on the Washington Posts Web site. Observers of a particular ideological bent reacted with alarm or outrage: “Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?,” “Government Ruling: Wearing ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ Gadsden Flag Can Be Racist & ‘Racial Harassment,’ ” “Obama Administration: ‘Don't Tread on Me’ Clothes Are Racist,” and so on.

There was no such definitive “ruling,” from the Obama Administration or anyone else. The E.E.O.C. (which whipped up a dedicated page to correct misreporting around “the Gadsden Flag case”) had merely told the Postal Service, in long-winded legal terms, to look into the complaint. But however cooked up the notion that there was some kind of federal crackdown on the design, the controversy does point to something real. In recent years, the Gadsden flag has become a favorite among Tea Party enthusiasts, Second Amendment zealots—really anyone who gets riled up by the idea of government overreach. It’s also been appropriated to promote U.S. Soccer and streetwear brands. And this reflects a deeper question, one that’s actually pretty compelling: How do we decide what the Gadsden flag, or indeed any symbol, really means?

One answer involves history. The Gadsden flag is one of at least three kinds of flags created by independence-minded colonists in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, according to the writer and historian Marc Leepson, the author of “Flag: An American Biography.” Liberty flags featured that word on a variety of backdrops; the Pine Tree flag floated the slogan “An Appeal To Heaven” over a depiction of a pine tree. Neither endured like the design of Christopher Gadsden, a Charleston-born brigadier general in the Continental Army. His was by far the coolest, with its menacing rattler and provocative slogan.

The snake, it turns out, was something of a Colonial-era meme, evidently originated by Benjamin Franklin. In 1751, Franklin made the satirical suggestion that the colonies might repay the Crown for shipping convicts to America by distributing rattlesnakes around England, “particularly in the Gardens of the Prime Ministers, the Lords of Trade and Members of Parliament; for to them we are most particularly obliged.” Later, in what may be America’s first-ever political cartoon, Franklin published the famous “Join or Die” image, which depicts the American colonies as segments of a snake. Among other borrowers, Paul Revere put the snake in a seventeen-seventies newspaper nameplate. Gadsden’s venomous remix, for a flag used by Continental sailors, depicted the reassembled rattler as a righteous threat to trampling imperialism. “The origins of ‘Don’t Tread On Me,’ ” Leepson summarizes, “were completely, one hundred percent anti-British, and pro-revolution.” Indeed, that E.E.O.C. directive agrees, “It is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context.”

And yet, no symbolic meaning is locked in time. At the risk of proving Godwin’s law (which holds that all online debates work their way to some invocation of Nazis), consider the swastika. A symbol of well-being associated with Buddhists for thousands of years, it was used by commercial brands and even occasionally adorned U.S. and British military aircraft before the Second World War. But the Nazi regime’s black, white, and red treatment, and its association with anti-Semitism, violence, aggression, hatred, and death, obliterated the design’s earlier meaning in the West and beyond.

The shift in the swastika’s meaning is, in some ways, an outlier: there’s no disputing its ugly symbolism today. (It would likely not be difficult for, say, a Jewish worker to convince the E.E.O.C. that a colleague’s insistence on wearing a swastika cap was evidence of harassment.) Other symbols suggest the fluidity and ambiguity of meaning—and the underground, almost in-group messaging symbols can send. In the early nineteen-nineties, the Los Angeles Raiders logo (now the Oakland Raiders), which involves an eye-patched football player and crossed swords, had supposedly been so widely adopted by “street gangs” that many schools in the Western U.S. banned it because of “the connection between Raiders gear and gang activity,” according to a Times article from that era. More recently, a cartoon character called Pepe the Frog, invented by the artist Matt Furie as a kind of slacker humanoid amphibian back in 2005, has been repurposed in shadowy corners of the Internet—maybe ironically, maybe not—as a winky symbol of white nationalism. “Pepe can be used by the alt-right to slyly say ‘I’m one of you,’ ” Motherboard explained after Donald Trump, Jr., shared a Pepe meme on Instagram earlier this month, and a surprising number of reports, as well as the Hillary Clinton campaign, agreed.

Certainly! The article delves into the nuanced interpretation of symbols like the "Don't Tread on Me" flag and explores the evolution of their meanings. To break it down:

  1. Gadsden Flag Origin & History: The Gadsden flag, with its coiled rattlesnake and the slogan "DON'T TREAD ON ME," has historical roots dating back to the Revolutionary War. It was an anti-British symbol, symbolizing resistance to imperialism, originated by Christopher Gadsden, a Continental Army brigadier general. The flag itself emerged among several flags of the independence-minded colonists during that era, standing out due to its provocative design.

  2. Colonial-Era Symbolism: Benjamin Franklin was instrumental in popularizing the snake imagery as a political symbol, notably with the "Join or Die" image depicting American colonies as segments of a snake. The rattlesnake became a significant symbol of resistance, and Gadsden's flag further emphasized this sentiment against British rule.

  3. Symbolic Evolution: Despite its original context, the article emphasizes that symbolic meanings are not fixed. It draws a comparison with the swastika, a symbol with ancient positive connotations in Eastern cultures, but whose association with Nazism drastically altered its meaning in Western societies. Similarly, symbols like the Gadsden flag can evolve and be appropriated in different contexts, sometimes carrying contrasting or unexpected interpretations.

  4. Fluidity of Symbolism: The piece highlights the fluid and ambiguous nature of symbols. It references instances like the Los Angeles Raiders logo, initially embraced but later associated with gang activity, leading to bans in some schools. Additionally, it touches on the transformation of Pepe the Frog, initially a harmless cartoon character, into an icon appropriated by certain groups, like the alt-right, for messaging purposes.

The article raises thought-provoking questions about how symbols acquire meaning, evolve, and get interpreted in different contexts, emphasizing their subjective and changing nature despite their historical origins.

The Shifting Symbolism of the Gadsden Flag (2024)
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