The Gadsden flag, with its famous depiction of a defensive timber rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t tread on me,” has commonly been associated with the liberty movement, the values of individual freedom, and opposition to coercion.
However, much confusion has emerged surrounding the Gadsden flag’s meaning and significance, particularly in recent years. Over time, a variety of groups have attempted to appropriate the symbol as a representation of their cause, even if this cause is completely contrary to the ideas and values the Gadsden flag has been traditionally understood to represent.
The origins of the Gadsden flag are rooted in classical liberalism
The Gadsden flag has a long history, dating back to the American Revolution. It takes its name from Christopher Gadsden, a brigadier general in the Continental Army, who presented the flag to the South Carolina Provincial Congress in February 1776. A version of it was subsequently used by the Continental Marines.
Its message, encapsulated in the words “Don’t tread on me,” is a warning of vigilance against prospective oppressors. The rattlesnake’s position symbolizes a readiness for self-defense against any aggression. Indeed, before it was eventually supplanted by the eagle, the rattlesnake was often considered the symbol of America during the Revolutionary War, popularized by figures such as Benjamin Franklin. The Gadsden flag gained a strong association with the concept of inalienable individual rights as well as classical liberalism more broadly. For most of the flag’s history, it has been an important American folk symbol, evoking skepticism of authority and the Enlightenment ideas that underpinned the American Revolution.
Illiberal populists are co-opting a symbol of liberty
In recent years, the meaning associated with the Gadsden flag has shifted, becoming more complex. Around the late 2000s, the Gadsden flag began to take on a new political significance with the rise of the Tea Party, a hard-line Republican anti-tax movement whose adherents advocated greater personal economic freedom but lacked unity on a consistent defense of liberty in other matters.
More recently, however, particularly since the populist surge in the mid-2010s, the Gadsden flag has been increasingly co-opted by factions on the populist right — and even the far-right — who hold very different values to what the flag has historically represented.
This misappropriation by populists and nationalists has led to the Gadsden flag becoming increasingly controversial, often even being mislabeled as a symbol of the far-right. The controversy around the Gadsden flag peaked in the aftermath of its prominent display by rioters at the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Indeed, among those unfamiliar with the flag’s history, it has sadly gained notoriety in some circles where it is primarily associated with xenophobia, racism, and conspiracy theories.
Those who care about the ideas of liberty represented by the Gadsden flag must resist its co-option by forces that are completely at odds with what it stands for. The truth about its classical liberal origins must prevail. The Gadsden flag does not represent populism, xenophobia, or the far-right, but instead individual liberty and freedom from oppression.
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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.