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The Snake in the Flag

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The Gadsden Flag – perhaps the most-famous of America’s pre-Independence banners (a revised, striped version of which presently flies on all U.S. Navy warships) – may soon be branded a symbol of “extremism.” In fact, based on a May 7 report in World Net Daily and elsewhere, the branding already may have begun.

According to the report: “A Louisiana driver was stopped and detained for having a ‘Don't Tread on Me’ [Gadsden Flag] bumper sticker on his vehicle and warned by a police officer about the ‘subversive’ message it sent, according to the driver's relative.”

The report added “a man identifying himself as a police officer” from the department that allegedly stopped the driver, said records did not substantiate the incident. But, “he suggested it might have involved one of several other agencies that work in the area.”

True or not (and I sincerely hope it’s not), the story is now making the rounds, and it understandably concerns those Americans like myself who are proud of this nation’s rich heritage, noble founders, and standards and colors that have come to symbolize our independence and exceptionalism. We don’t want those colors sullied by rumors and misrepresentations of fact. Nor do we want them hijacked and rebranded as extremist symbols by those who would deny the greatness of our founding fathers and our nation’s remarkable beginnings.

I learned of this Gadsden Flag story on May 9, coincidentally 255 years to the day after the Pennsylvania Gazette published in 1754 what is widely held to be the first American political cartoon: a picture of a snake cut into eight pieces, each piece representing a colony (New England representing one piece of the snake) and the words "JOIN or DIE," which eventually changed to “UNITE or DIE.”

Apparently, Benjamin Franklin – the Gazette's publisher and the cartoonist who drew the snake – was urging the colonies to unite against the French and Indians.

Then in late 1775 – several months after the first shots were fired in the American Revolution – the newly formed Continental Marines (Yes, the predecessors of our future U.S. Marines) adopted the rattlesnake as a symbol and the motto, "DON'T TREAD ON ME." A snake and the motto were painted on the Marines' drums years before the Marine Corps adopted its present motto, Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful).

Soon thereafter, South Carolina Militia Col. (future brigadier general) Christopher Gadsden – a member of the Continental Congress and of the Marine Committee – had the rattlesnake and motto incorporated into a flag which he presented to the Navy, the Marines, as well as to the S.C. Provincial Congress, which recorded in its minutes:

"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 rattlesnake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, 'Don't Tread on Me!'"

A company of militiamen from Culpepper County, Virginia also carried a "DON'T TREAD ON ME" flag, but on a white field, and with the added words, “LIBERTY OR DEATH.”

It was during this same period that Commodore Esek Hopkins directed his ships to fly a “striped jack” with – as some historians suggest – an uncoiled snake and the motto, "DON'T TREAD ON ME."

This flag became known as the first American “Navy Jack.” And on May 31, 2002, the old “Navy Jack” was ordered by the Secretary of the Navy to be flown aboard “all U.S. Navy ships during the Global War on Terrorism.”

Today the old rattlesnake “Navy Jack” flies from my front porch.

Subversive? Hardly.

An unapologetic expression of pride in – and love for – American independence and the kind of defiant, can-do-despite-the-odds courage exhibited throughout history in places with names like Lexington, Yorktown, Fredericksburg, Bastogne, Hue, and Fallujah?

You bet.

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