Don't Tread on Me
During a trip to Virginia in May 2023, I witnessed many Gadsden flag-themed license plates. Discussing my observation with a friend, “Blanca”—a fellow United States (U.S.) Marine, and telling her I planned on getting a tattoo of the image, she cautioned me against doing so.
Blanca explained that her perception of the flag was that it related to racism. After discussing the matter further, she stated that she didn’t know the history of the Gadsden flag or how it once served as a Marine Corps flag prior to adoption of the current symbolism used by the Corps.
Lamentably, Blanca isn’t alone regarding her misunderstanding about the flag’s history. Recently, a 12-year-old boy in Colorado is said to have displayed a Gadsden flag patch on his backpack and school administrators reportedly took issue with his free expression.
In all fairness, the charter school has purportedly since released a statement claiming:
The patch in question was part of half a dozen other patches of semi-automatic weapons. The student has removed the semi-automatic patches. As a school district, we will continue to ensure all students and employees can learn and work in a safe and nurturing environment. The student returned to class without incident after removing the patches of semi-automatic weapons from the backpack.
Still, according to one source, “The boy was barred from displaying the flag because school staff believed it to be associated with slavery and racism,” as video evidence reflects the same. One struggles to understand how those tasked with educating U.S. children don’t understand history of this country.
To accompany the Navy on their first mission, Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. Some of the Marines that enlisted that month in Philadelphia were carrying drums painted yellow, emblazoned with a fierce rattlesnake, coiled and ready to strike, with thirteen rattles, and sporting the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Noteworthy, the authentic Gadsden flag wasn’t punctuated as is customary today, so its motto was actually “DONT TREAD ON ME.” Per a separate source:
The rattlesnake was a symbol of the unity of the Thirteen Colonies at the start of the Revolutionary War, and it had a long history as a political symbol in America. Benjamin Franklin used it for his Join, or Die woodcut in 1754. [Christopher] Gadsden intended his flag as a warning to Britain not to violate the liberties of its American subjects.
When members of the Thirteen Colonies opposed British taxation and subjugation, George Washington was appointed as commander-in-chief and bloodshed ultimately led to freedom from tyrannical rule. Tax around, find out.
One source states that “it wasn’t until later in 1778 that Gadsden’s flag design received official approval as the symbol for the United States Marine Corps. Since then, variations of the Gadsden Flag have been used throughout American history as a symbol of protest against tyranny and coercion.”
An authoritative entity, such as school administration, treading on the right of a U.S. child to practice free expression is precisely the sort of tyranny and coercion the Gadsden flag addresses. The flag symbolizes resistance to oppression, not slavery or racism.
Throughout the years, as the U.S. government arguably no longer focuses its ire at legitimate terrorism abroad, there has been a sustained effort to counter supposed “domestic terrorists.” One imagines that in this regard any individual or entity that challenges oppression could thus be labeled a terrorist.
Once this sleight of hand is accomplished, tarnish the symbol of resistance to tyranny. Per one source, “Little is said, though, about the Gadsden flag’s ties to the Confederates, who embraced it in their own fight against federal authority.”
Voila! Some Confederates once flew the Gadsden flag. Therefore, others who display the symbol of liberty and freedom must also be terrorists…or…terroracists.
This sort of logical leap is nothing new. Herein, I’ll highlight a decade-worth of propaganda which demonstrates how long the defiance against a symbol of resistance to tyranny spans:
Per one 2013 source:
A “Don’t Tread on Me” flag hoisted by veterans outside a city-owned armory has been ordered down because of complaints that the defiant symbol of the American Revolution is now associated with the tea party and makes an unwelcome political statement.
One can understand how a local government may perceive a threat to its power when a symbol that stands in opposition to misuse of power challenges governmental rule. According to a 2014 source:
In early June, two rabid government haters who spent time at the ranch, Jerad and Amanda Miller, strolled into a Las Vegas pizza parlor, walked past a pair of police officers eating lunch, turned and executed the two men. Leaving a Gadsden “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, a note saying the revolution had begun and a swastika on the officers’ bodies, the couple went on to murder another man before dying in a shootout with police.
Two people commit heinous crimes when misappropriating the Gadsden flag and this is enough to cause non-critical thinkers to conclude that the flag is a symbol of hate? A 2015 source states:
In recent years, the Gadsden flag has become something of a tea party and libertarian sigil, and if you’re worried about the implication that you might seem to be endorsing an expansion of state’s rights or even secession, it might not be the right option.
Forbid that a symbol’s message which urges others not to violate one’s autonomy be perceived as being associated with a challenge to governmental tyranny! One 2016 source expresses:
The EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] found that the Gadsden flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context, and has been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern tea party movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays and by the military.
But the EEOC also noted that the flag has been sometimes interpreted to convey racially tinged messages in some contexts, such as in June 2014, when assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas shootout.
The EEOC—a government organization—opined that the Gadsden flag could on occasion, maybe, sorta, kinda be interpreted to convey “racially tinged messages” by evoking the memory of two criminals who misappropriated the flag, so the symbol therefore represents villainy? Per one 2017 source:
The company’s [Arkansas Infidel Knives] Facebook page includes quotes like, “If you’re not carrying a knife, you may as well be wearing a skirt” and a comment section that references the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and displays the Gadsden flag, a symbol originally of U.S. freedom and independence which has since been appropriated by the Tea Party and far-right groups, with the words “Don’t Fuck With Me” in the place of “Don’t Tread on Me.”
Appropriation of the Gadsden flag by sociopolitical groups, misappropriation of the symbol by a relatively low number of criminals, and the flag is forevermore rebranded as a racist symbol? According to one 2018 source:
And consider that the chief symbol of the Tea Party, the Gadsden flag, has been historically connected with white supremacy. It still is today. How can one not come away with this conclusion when looking at political protests where the Confederate, Nazi, and Gadsden flags are flown simultaneously?
Consider the chief beverage of Adolf Hitler—water—and how U.S. politicians also consume the substance which has historically been connected to white supremacy. How can one not come away thinking that water-drinkers are racist? This incredulous misuse of logic is transparent. Per one 2019 source:
The Gadsden flag has also been used by some white supremacists in recent years – most notably in 2014 when the bodies of 2 dead police officers were draped with the Gadsden flag that also bore swastikas. It's also been seen in the same company as confederate and Nazi flags.
There’s a pattern forming—when discussing historically racist symbolism, evoke the memory of two criminals who misappropriated the Gadsden flag, and uninformed members of the public can connect the dots of racism on their own. One 2020 source states:
Any knowledge of American history and identity can tell you it was not formed under principles of racial equity. But as previously mentioned, the historical origins of an object does not necessarily define its present connotations. As a New Yorker article points out, the Gadsden flag wasn’t the first symbol to be misappropriated and used for racist, bigoted means — the swastika was as well.
Using this logic, any perceivable symbol (e.g., crucifix) could be misappropriated by a group and subsequently denounced according to the modified meaning. Is this deconstruction, reconstruction game worth playing? Per one 2021 source:
The meaning of the Gadsden flag, designed by Christopher Gadsden in 1775, has seen a shift over the years. Once understood to represent limited government, it has been used as a rallying symbol for the right-wing Tea Party movement; by white supremacist groups; and most recently, by individuals who participated in the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Disdain for the Tea Party movement and animosity towards those who protest the government does not a terrorist make. According to a 2022 source:
Be warned if you fly the Gadsden, Betsy Ross, Liberty Tree or certain other flags. Maybe you have one in your shop or garage or you might have a Punisher Skull decal on your truck. You could possibly have a Spartan helmet on one of your T-shirts, perhaps a tattoo? These and other symbols are potential signs of domestic terrorism, according to a leaked internal FBI document.
One imagines King George III also considered members of the Thirteen Colonies to be something akin to terrorists for opposing his tyrannical rule. The Gadsden flag—no matter how others have attempted to redefine it over the years—doesn’t represent terroracism.
In my professional practice of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I assess irrational beliefs and illogical assertions with which people disturb themselves. Often, these mental narratives take the form of should, must, or ought-type demands placed on ourselves, others, and the world.
When a 12-year-old boy was recently chastised by the governing class of people tasked with educating children, all because of his freedom of expression through use of the Gadsden flag, the perceived message was that he shouldn’t display an alleged racist symbol.
Paradoxically, “Don’t tread on me” may be interpreted as “You should leave me alone.” In this case, whose should statement supersedes the other?
Is there a presumed right for school administration to infringe upon the First Amendment rights of a U.S. citizen? Or, does a U.S. citizen maintain constitutionally-protected free speech and expression within a public charter school that receives government funding?
Even if one were to treat as credible the false claim of the Gadsden flag representing racism, racist rhetoric is protected speech within the U.S. Therefore, it is irrational to should all over an individual whose main premise is that he shouldn’t be should upon.
While not everyone will agree with this conclusion, I’m grateful for people like Blanca who are willing to change their minds when new evidence is considered. Whether or not oppressive government agencies will behave similar in this regard is another matter altogether.
Dear reader, what do you think about the Gadsden flag, attempts by some to reduce its symbolism to racially terroristic interpretation, and freedom of expression rights? Do you disturb yourself with unhelpful “should” statements regarding any of these issues? If so, I may be able to help you from treading on yourself.
If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life—helping you to sharpen your critical thinking skills, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.
As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.
At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!
Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW
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