Consisting of a gray, coiled rattlesnake on a bright yellow background, with the words “don’t tread on me” inscribed beneath, the Gadsden flag became a popular symbol of the American Revolution. Dating back to the origins of the French and Indian War, the indigenous rattlesnake had been an important political symbol in the American colonies. In protest to British colonial policy, Benjamin Franklin designed a disconnected serpent with the ominous warning, “Join or Die,” as a symbol of unity. Growing in popularity, the rattlesnake later appeared in newspapers and on colonial currency.
Inferential evidence and the weight of tradition attribute the creation of this particular flag to Christopher Gadsden, a delegate from South Carolina to the Continental Congress. Returning to Charleston from Congress, Gadsden presented “an elegant standard” to the South Carolina Provincial Congress on February 9, 1776. This flag was that day ordered preserved in the hall of the South Carolina Provincial Congress. As a member of the Naval Committee of the Continental Congress, Gadsden had also presented the flag to Esek Hopkins, commander-in-chief of the Continental
Navy, who used a version of the Gadsden flag as the first navy jack. The rattlesnake and motto were later incorporated into a flag used by the naval forces of South Carolina as fitting symbols of the defensive posture of the disgruntled colonists by 1776.
Godbold, E. Stanley, Jr., and Robert H. Woody. Christopher Gadsden and the American Revolution. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1982. Rankin, Hugh F. “The Naval Flag of the American Revolution.” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 11 (July 1954): 339–53. Richardson, Edward W. Standards and Colors of the American Revolution. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1982.