Don’t Tread on My Don’t-Tread-on-Me Flag

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List: Inside the Tea Party Win McNamee / Getty Images

My favorite flag as a boy growing up in Appalachia in the 1970s wasn’t the Confederate flag, or even the state flag of my beloved Commonwealth of Virginia with the half-naked Amazonian Virtus stomping on the vanquished guy’s chest. I liked that 1776 “Sic Semper Tyrannis” (“Thus Always to Tyrants”) one so much that I took it off to college with me for all four and a half years of undergrad. But it wasn’t my favorite. That honor went to the yellow flag with the coiled rattlesnake and “Dont Tread on Me” written across the bottom. Yes, the angry rattler always won out whenever I sat around in the woods back home as a lad thinking about my personal flag rankings.

So now that it’s become the de facto banner of the Tea Party movement, I have mixed feelings. Maybe it’s because I used to look at the rattlesnake flag and think about the American Revolution and kicking some Redcoat butt, and now I look at it and think about crazy Glenn Beck on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and homemade protest signs that say Obama is a “Muslin.” Regardless of whether we think Obama is a type of fabric, perhaps the flag’s appropriation by the Tea Partiers shouldn’t be all that surprising. After all, the original didn’t have an apostrophe in the word “Don’t.”

My aunts, Mary and Margaret, are going to kill me for that joke. Because not only am I the only NEWSWEEK writer who had a pet bear as a child, I’m fairly certain that I’m the only NEWSWEEK writer who has more than one close relative active in the Tea Party. And you can damn well bet Mary and Margaret have rally signs that are grammatically sound and spelled correctly. Speaking of misspelled Tea Party signs, I have a pet theory that a lot of the dumbest ones are actually planted by clever liberals who then photograph them and post those pictures on Facebook and Twitter to start those mean memes that make the good Tea Party folks look bad. I’m serious. And if the lefties who are running around panicking about this movement haven’t been doing that, they ought to be. It’s really a good idea. (You’re welcome.)

Come to think of it, my relatives down south aren’t really big fans of NEWSWEEK, either. My aunt Mary posted on my Facebook page recently: “You are the best no matter who you write for.” How can you blame them? Practically the only week we didn’t put Obama on the cover during the presidential-campaign year was the week we featured Michelle Obama instead.

Anyway, back to my fixation on the rattlesnake flag, which most likely dates from 1775 and, as any legitimate vexillologist can tell you, is called the Gadsden flag because of Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolina patriot. He was a colonel in the Continental Army and presented the flag to the commander in chief of the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, for use as his personal standard.

The origin of the flag’s snake-equals-country status probably goes all the way back to at least Benjamin Franklin, who wrote in 1751 in the Pennsylvania Gazette that rattlesnakes should be sent to England and released in the gardens of the nobility and gentry, where they would be the “most suitable returns for the human serpents sent us by our mother country.” Well played, Ben Franklin. Well played, indeed.

Then in 1754 he published a now infamous editorial cartoon depicting a serpent that had been sliced and diced, with each piece representing one of the colonies or a region of the country and the slogan “Join, or Die.” The snake as a symbol of the colonies knocked around for years after that, and was found on currency and modified and reprinted by such luminaries as Paul Revere, among many others.

Since the days of the American Revolution, the flag has been tied to all manner of movements and causes: from the Navy to the Marines; from Ron Paul to Pat Buchanan; from Nike to the Boy Scouts of America. Some recent Twitter tweeters whined that the Tea Party affiliation had overshadowed the flag’s association with American soccer, which I didn’t even know about because who can stay awake long enough watching soccer to know what flags they fly.

Rightly or wrongly, the Gadsden flag has also been associated with biker gangs and loners and survivalists, and one even flew outside Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Michael Fortier’s ramshackle trailer in Kingman, Ariz. And in a recent politics-makes-strange-bedfellows case, none other than the ACLU defended Arizona resident Andy McDonel when he was told by his homeowners’ association that he should “remove debris”—meaning the Gadsden flag—from his Phoenix-area house and that he would be fined if he continued to fly it in the neighborhood. He is fighting the ruling, according to his blog.

So this Tea Party flirtation isn’t the old girl’s first rodeo. But that’s sort of the point. If the current Tea Party capturing of the Gadsden flag teaches us anything, it’s that symbols tend to be fluid things in American society. It’s easy to sit back now and assume that every Gadsden-flag flier in your neighborhood is a Tea Party radical, just as it’s easy to point at misspelled signs and say those people are a few Crayolas shy of a 64-pack. But I know better.

So if you’re down on the National Mall at the next Tea Party rally, amble up and say hello to my aunts Mary and Margaret. If you’re nice, maybe Margaret will give you some of her ridiculously delicious deviled eggs or macaroni salad, or you can try Aunt Mary’s potato salad. It’s my grandmother Tuttle’s recipe. Really, there’s no reason to be afraid of the Tea Party folks. They won’t bite. Unless you’re an out-of-touch politician who treads on them, that is. Or you’re allergic to mayonnaise.

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