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In fall 1775, the United States Navy was established to intercept incoming British ships carrying war supplies to the British troops in the colonies. To aid in this, the Second Continental Congress authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines to accompany the Navy on their first mission. The first Marines that enlisted were from Philadelphia and they carried drums painted yellow, depicting a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, and the motto "Don't Tread On Me." This is the first recorded mention of the future Gadsden flag's symbolism.
At the Congress, Continental Colonel Christopher Gadsden was representing his home state of South Carolina. He was one of three members of the Marine Committee who were outfitting the first naval mission. It is unclear whether Gadsden took his inspiration from the Marines' drums, or if he inspired them himself.
Before the departure of that first mission, the newly appointed commander-in-chief of the Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, received the yellow rattlesnake flag described above from Gadsden to serve as his distinctive personal standard.
Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to his state legislature in Charleston and was recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals:
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!"
The Gadsden Flag has been used throughout modern politics as a symbol of disagreement with the current government. This flag was most notably used during the Tea Party protests of 2009.
This current use of the flag has caught the government's attention. A 2009 unclassified report distributed by the Missouri Information Analysis Center (MIAC) to Missouri law enforcement called the Gadsden Flag "the most common symbol displayed by right wing terrorist organizations." Reports from Louisiana say that a man was detained by police for driving with a "Don't Tread on Me" bumper sticker on his vehicle.
Displaying the flag on one's home, vehicle, etc. is protected under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.
As the American Revolution grew closer, the snake began to see more use as a symbol of the colonies. In 1774, Paul Revere added it to the title of his paper, The Massachusetts Spy, as a snake joined to fight a British dragon. In December 1775, Benjamin Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym American Guesser in which he suggested that 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 treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?