Fittingly, the first flag profiled in this series is the Gadsden Flag, often called “the Rattlesnake Flag,” though there are several early American flags that bear the image of a rattlesnake. At the time of the American Revolution the image of a serpent prepared to strike its foe was a popular one that appeared on coins and in many publications. This golden banner is also referred to by some as “the Don’t-Tread-on-Me Flag.” It so perfectly represents my political hopes for our nation that a super-large version of it currently flaps on my flag pole. A gift of my good friends Nick and Christy (former Navy officers who served our nation with distinction), the flag measures 10 feet by 6 feet! It’s gorgeous and catches the eye when the wind is blowing.
The Gadsden Flag bears the name of Colonel (later Brigadier General) Christopher Gadsden, a member of the Continental Congress who reportedly presented the flag to Commodore Esek Hopkins, whose name is also sometimes associated with the banner. He is also remembered as having presented it to the state legislature of his native South Carolina where he served as leader for the Sons of Liberty. Because the rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread” motto were so widely used, I doubt that they originated with Gadsden. As Chris Whitten has written on his informative web page, “We don’t know for certain where, when, or by whom the familiar coiled rattlesnake was first used with the warning ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’ [but] we do know when it first entered the history books”–with that fateful exchange of a gift between Gadsden and Hopkins.
Unfortunatley, as a bold symbol for the Tea Party in the last few years the flag has developed a poor reputation. The first time I posted it on my Facebook page I was accused of all sorts of vile things, including racism and anarchy. Such false accusations demonstrate just how far we’ve diverged as a nation from the values of our Founders. Like the Tea Party itself, the flag’s negative image is quite undeserved.
Let’s take a lesson from the flag itself by noting the motto. It does not read “Leave Me Alone.” Too often that’s how it is interpreted, and indeed, some Tea Party participants often suggest that this is what it means. If our patriotic forebears had wanted to say that, however, they would have put it on the flag. “Don’t Tread on Me” is a much better motto for a people inspired by liberty because it suggests that as long as we all respect the rights of one another there will be peace and concord among us. Remember the advice of our parents on this one: they often reminded us that the best way to avoid confrontation with a serpent is to respect it. Doesn’t that sound like a great way to run a country?
Americans are sometimes referred to as “rugged individualists.” I’m not a fan of this idea because when I study our history I don’t see individualists. I see community members who were responsible and self-governing, but who also joined ranks when harvesting crops or raising the barn of a neighbor. In the wilderness, individualists died. Those who set out to go westward alone usually didn’t make it. There were all sorts of dangers to be faced. For their own safety, settlers moved not in solitary wagons, but in wagon trains. They weren’t opposed to cooperation, in fact, they assisted one another is myriad ways. At the same time they were also self-sufficient. A responsible member of the community who ran short would be assisted by others, but those who refused to prepare were a dangerous drag on the safety of all.
In our contemporary American political scene, it seems to me that we need to combine this motto (Don’t Tread on Me) with another: “Your failure to plan does not constitute an emergency for me.” Far too often, well-intentioned government officials find themselves handling matters that best belong to people themselves, and to families. Moms and Dads should be feeding and clothing their children, not government. They should be deciding what and how much their children eat, and they should be teaching them self-control and discipline. Imagine how many of our schools’ problems would be lessened considerably if children came from homes where they were well-clothed, well-fed, and where good behavior was expected to be the norm. Imagine how effective our teachers could be if it were easier to dismiss the poor educators and if the good educators didn’t have to worry about feeding hungry kids or defending themselves from personal harm. In the current political climate, too often we dole out assistance for families while expecting no accountability in return. How will such policies ever bring improvement?
In a nation where limited power is the rule (because tyranny is too easily engrained in bureaucracy), the federal government should only do what the states cannot do for themselves. The states should only do what the people cannot do for themselves. As government at all levels assumes more and more control, the rights of everyone are tread upon. Is it any wonder that the Gadsden Flag has returned as a symbol for those who are tired of the boot heel of invasive government? If such talk on my part sounds unreasonable to you, remember the comment of the President’s spokesman during the Gulf Coast oil-spill crisis two years ago when the Obama administration promised to keep “a boot on the throat” of BP. Obviously, government officials have a responsibility in times of such disaster, but in a nation that prizes freedom and lives by democratic values, no government official should ever be able to get away with such an image. Holding companies and persons accountable is one thing. Threatening images such as this, however, are a frightening reminder of how much power we have allowed the federal government to this point.
Don’t step on me, please. Respect my rights. Don’t make me pay for the irresponsibility of others who refuse to plan. Stop “spreading the wealth around” by seizing it from productive citizens. Don’t beat up big corporations by increasing their taxes because their costs will be passed down to me and will eat away at the retirement investment I’ve made in those companies. Repeal the laws that now give the United States the dubious honor of having the highest corporate taxes on the planet. Make it easier for oil and gas companies to extract the natural resources we all need in order to get to work and have our food delivered to the grocery stores. Stop allowing bureaucrats to produce thousands of regulations a year that hinder employment and business creation. Put a halt to the federal printing presses that are lowering the value of the dollar and the value of our homes every single day. Don’t put a government worker between me and my doctor or between my elderly parents and me as we discuss what’s best for them. Stop telling my insurers that they have to pay for things and offer me coverage that I neither want nor need. Stop spending my tax dollars to fight with the states who are finally standing up for themselves with regard to illegal immigration.
DON’T TREAD ON ME. A motto worth preserving? You betcha. Mr. Big Government, you’d do well to heed this warning. At some point the rattlesnake will get enough of your heavy boot and it will strike at your heal.