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These courageous Declaration of Independence signers were not wild-eyed, rabble-rousing ruffians. They were soft-spoken men of means and education. They had security, but they valued liberty more. Standing tall, straight, and unwavering, they pledged: "For the support of this declaration, with firm reliance on the protection of the divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor." They gave us a free and independent America. And they paid a price that should be remembered, and honored.
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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.
John Marshall, the fourth Chief Justice of the United States, was a member of the original Culpeper Minutemen.