Don’t Tread on America

Almost two years after 9/11, it’s become commonplace to see American flags flying. You can see them in front of houses, on overpasses, in cars and soaring over office buildings.

For the most part, they are the good old Stars and Stripes, with 13 stripes and 50 stars representing our United States as it is now. But there are a few exceptions, and on my work today I saw one of them: the Gadsden Flag from colonial times. Those not familiar with the name would still recognize it – it’s a yellow flag featuring a coiled rattlesnake with the words “Don’t Tread on Me” written beneath it.

It was one of the many flags used to rally sentiment in pre-revolutionary America (during the French and Indian Wars) and later in the days leading up to the Revolutionary War when patriots needed a symbol to unite people against the reviled British Stamp Tax (and various other governmental infractions).

In 1775, the anonymous “An American Guesser” (Benjamin Franklin?) wrote this of the uniquely North American rattlesnake and its use as a symbol:

“She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. … she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.”

It seems particularly appropriate in these days with showdowns with Iraq, Iran, and the rest of their freedom-hating kin, and I couldn’t help but smile when I saw this flag flying on an overpass on I-78 in New Jersey. I don’t know what it means to the person who posted it there, but I know what it means to me. It’s a sign of what was once great about this nation and what may once again be great in the future: an unwavering dedication to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

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