On Thursday, December 16, 1773, the evening before the tea was due to be landed, on a signal given by Samuel Adams, the Sons of Liberty thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, left the massive protest meeting and headed toward Griffin's Wharf, where lay HMS Dartmouth and her newly arrived, tea bearing, sister ships HMS Beaver and HMS Eleanour. Swiftly and efficiently casks of tea were brought up from the hold to the deck, reasonable proof that some of the "Indians" were, in fact, longshoremen. The cask were opened and the tea dumped overboard; the work, lasting well into the night, was quick, thorough, and efficient. By dawn 90,000 lbs (45 tons) of tea worth an estimated £10,000 had been consigned to waters of Boston harbor.
Tea washed up on the shores around Boston for weeks.
The Gadsden Flag is an instant reminder of the American Colonial period. Since colonial days, the rattlesnake has been used to portray the spirit of Americans. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin published a political essay describing the 13 American colonies as a snake divided reminding us of the danger of disunity.
In 1774, Colonel Gadsden of the Revolutionary Army emphasized this by printing the legend "DONT TREAD ON ME" on his flag.
The birth of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps
By 1775, the snake symbol wasn't just being printed in newspapers. It was appearing all over the colonies ... on uniform buttons ... on paper money ... and of course, on banners and flags.
The snake symbol morphed quite a bit during its rapid, widespread adoption. It wasn't cut up into pieces anymore. And it was usually shown as an American timber rattlesnake, not a generic serpent.
We don't know for certain where, when, or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning "Don't Tread on Me."
We do know when it first entered the history books.
In the fall of 1775, the British were occupying Boston and the young Continental Army was holed up in Cambridge, woefully short on arms and ammunition. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington's troops had been so low on gunpowder that they were ordered "not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes."
In October, a merchant ship called The Black Prince returned to Philadelphia from a voyage to England. On board were private letters to the Second Continental Congress that informed them that the British government was sending two ships to America loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops.
Congress decided that General Washington needed those arms more than General Howe. A plan was hatched to capture the British cargo ships. They authorized the creation of a Continental Navy, starting with four ships. The frigate that carried the information from England, the Black Prince, was one of the four. It was purchased, converted to a man-of-war, and renamed the Alfred.
To accompany the Navy on their first mission, Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. The Alfred and its sailors and marines went on to achieve some of the most notable victories of the American Revolution. But that's not the story we're interested in here.
What's particularly interesting for us is that some of the Marines that enlisted that month in Philadelphia were carrying drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and sporting the motto "Don't Tread on Me."
Benjamin Franklin diverts an idle hour
In December 1775, "An American Guesser" anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal:
"I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, 'Don't tread on me.' As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America."
This anonymous writer, having "nothing to do with public affairs" and "in order to divert an idle hour," speculated on why a snake might be chosen as a symbol for America.
First, it occurred to him that "the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America."
The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes, and "may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance." Furthermore,
"She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. ... she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her."
"I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, 'till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. ...
"'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."
Many scholars now agree that this "American Guesser" was Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin, of course, is also known for opposing the use of an eagle -- "a bird of bad moral character" -- as a national symbol.
"An American Testament
Those who give up essential
liberty, to preserve a little
temporary safety, deserve
neither liberty nor safety."
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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.