Christopher Gadsden’s face and name may not be immortalized on any bill or coin, but this firebrand designed a symbol which, even through the swirling mists of time, is a reminder of the birth of the nation and the spirit that carried it to freedom.
June 14 is Flag Day. On that day, of course, we remember the Stars and Stripes and the men who fought under that banner for freedom. Gadsden gave us another great flag, one that flew prominently during the American Revolution, under which many men fought and died. Gadsden’s was the blazing yellow banner that sports the ominous coiled snake and revolutionary warning, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Today we don’t take the time as we once did to remember those iron men who fought the Revolution. And, worse, we seem to have forgotten the principles, energy, and sacrifice they poured into defending freedom and the rule of law.
South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsden is as much a symbol of the spirit of the American Revolution as his flag. When Parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, Gadsden helped rally opposition to that oppressive law. He argued that taxation without representation in Parliament violated the most basic laws of the English constitution and the natural rights of citizens.
The Stamp Act, like many of the attempts to control the colonies, would set an unlawful precedent. The taxes on tea, trade and even paper were modest. The real problem, the revolutionaries understood, is that the Stamp Act laid the groundwork for the unlimited and unrepresentative expansion of government. It was the thin edge of the wedge.
As John Dickinson wrote,
If Parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose other dutiesâ€¦ and thus Parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to take without any other limitation than their pleasure.
Gadsden was a man of principle who understood that government, unless held in check, grows slowly and inexorably. And a government that has no limits, no constitutionally drawn boundaries, soon becomes the master and the citizens become heavily-taxed workers little more than slaves. Without representation — the ability to fight for their interests — the colonies would be subject to the whim and will of politicians ever in search of more revenue and swag to grant the “court locusts” who buzz around institutions of power expecting a handout.
When the Stamp Act was passed the British envoy who was set to enforce the new law tried to land in Charleston. But Gadsden led the Sons of Liberty against the tax-collecting functionary. The patriots would not let his ship anchor to enforce the illegal act.
Then, the captain of the British ship turned back through the mouth of the Charleston harbor to anchor at Fort Johnson.
The Sons of Liberty, no doubt alcohol-fueled and intoxicated with raucous songs of their victory, heard of this and decided to show Parliament just how much they hated oppressive taxes. They traveled to the fort, took it over, and aimed the British guns at the Stamp Act collector’s ship.
Outmatched and obviously outgunned, the captain set to sea never to return. Gadsden and his men then went home. Through legal channels, the patriots continued their resistance to the Stamp Act and eventually had it overturned.
Eight years later, America was in full rebellion against British rule, which had become more capricious and still threatened unjust and burdensome taxation. It was then that Gadsden became a colonel in the Revolutionary Army and presented his unique ensign as the flag of the Cause.
The coiled snake might seem a strange symbol today. But it was and is effective. No American who ever sees it forgets — and that’s just the kind of message the revolutionaries wanted to send.
For those early Americans, the rattlesnake had special significance. Like liberty, the rattler was found only in America. But that wasn’t all. That wily serpent was usually just a harmless, humble creature. But aroused, angered, and prodded, first it warned with violent rattle then it struck with a deadly bite. Gadsden emphasized this by printing the legend “Don’t Tread On Me” on his flag.
The words swept the nation. It became the banner of minutemen militias. The Culpeper Minutemen chose the coiled snake ready to strike and the words from Gadsden’s flag, but then raised another defiant fist at England by adding the words: “Liberty or Death.”
At sea, the first flag of the Continental Navy carried Gadsden’s warning, this time with a sea snake slithering across the 13 red-and-white stripes.
Early Americans saw the tremendous opportunities of a land born of liberty where men were free to innovate, invent and explore. They could reap the rewards of freedom without government meddling and were safe because they answered to God, family and their local communities.
Most of all, those early Americans understood that liberty is fragile. To give any distant body of elites the power to tax and spend to stay in power promises corruption and a Leviathan government more interested in concentrating power for itself than in protecting the rights of its citizens.
Flag Day may be about the Stars and Stripes, a banner that symbolizes freedom and justice to Americans and the world. But Gadsden and his flag are a still a symbol that liberty needs friends who can fight for the rule of law and principle for the good of the generations to come.