History and Symbolism of the Original Gadsden Flag

Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden Flag is an important symbol of freedom, liberty, and justice in modern history. It represents the defense of civil liberties, individualism, and standing up for what is right. The Gadsden Flag has its origins in the American Revolutionary War. It was originally created by Christopher Gadsden for Esek Hopkins. Gadsden was a South Carolina Congressman and who served in the Continental Army. Hopkins was the first Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy and flew the famous flag aboard the USS Alfred. As such, the Gadsden Flag has also historically been referred to as the Hopkins Flag. However, in modern times, the namesake of the flag is more commonly attributed to its creator, Christopher Gadsden.

The iconic imagery of the Gadsden Flag traces back to Benjamin Franklin’s writings in the Pennsylvania Journal. In 1775, Franklin described the rattlesnake as symbolic of the original Thirteen Colonies and their will to defend themselves from invasion by the British Empire. The flag embodied their desire to be left alone and live in peace, as well as their unwillingness to be the aggressors in the conflict and strike out on British soil. Benjamin Franklin’s writing inspired the Continental Congress to adopt an image of a rattlesnake on the Seal of the War Office. Originally, the phrase accompanying the snake was, “This We’ll Defend,” as it appeared on the official seal.

Seal of the War Office
The original Seal of the War Office with the iconic rattlesnake

The rattlesnake was used extensively in newspapers, pamphlets, and uniforms throughout the Continental Army and Navy during the American Revolution. Some of the earliest uses of the words “Don’t Tread on Me” alongside the imagery of the rattlesnake include the U.S. Navy flag called the “1st Continental Navy Jack.” The symbolism of the Gadsden Flag was also used by the United States Marine Corps during that same time period. The Marines reportedly had drums painted yellow and featuring a rattlesnake with the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” The people of the original Thirteen Colonies rallied around the symbolism of the rattlesnake and how it warned approaching threats of the intent to defend itself and avert conflict, without being outright averse to conflict altogether.

First Navy Jack
The “1st Continental Navy Jack” or “First Navy Jack”

Before the final version of the iconic Gadsden Flag came into existence that we all know and love, there was the Culpeper Flag. This was an earlier version of the flag used by the Culpeper Minutemen. They were part of the First Virginia Regiment under the command and Patrick Henry. The Culpeper Flag sported their name as well as the words “Liberty or Death” – part of Patrick Henry’s famous quote, “give me liberty or give me death” – in addition to “Don’t Tread on Me” and the rattlesnake. Christopher Gadsden reportedly made the iconic flag for Esek Hopkins distinct from the flag he made for Patrick Henry and the Culpeper Minutemen as he felt it necessary for Hopkins to have his own unique flag flying aboard the USS Alfred.

The Culpeper Flag
The “Culpeper Flag” of the Culpeper Minutemen

Today, the Gadsden Flag that originally flew aboard the USS Alfred has become a symbol freedom, liberty, and individualism. It means a great many things to a great many people. To me, it is a symbol of hope and bravery. It symbolizes the courage it takes to stand up for what is right against those who would do wrong. It symbolizes the freedom and liberty, yes. However, to me, it also represents the personal conviction necessary to stand in defense of those things. Freedom is easy to lose and hard to gain back. It must be defended by all of us, and to do so takes the courage and bravery to stand up without fear against those who threaten to take freedom and liberty away. To me, the Gadsden Flag represents the strength to stand against authoritarianism in all its forms.

What does the Gadsden Flag mean to you? Do you own a Gadsden Flag? What do you think about the history of this inspiring symbol? Please share your thoughts on this important piece of history.

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All posts by The Pen and Sword are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Published by Louis

I am a freelance writer and English tutor from the United States.

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