The snake illustration was reprinted throughout the colonies. Dozens of newspapers from Massachusetts to South Carolina ran Franklin's sketch or some variation of it. Franklin's snake slithered its way into American culture as an early symbol of a shared national identity.
The snake symbol came in handy ten years later, when Americans were again uniting against a common enemy.
In 1765 the common enemy was the Stamp Act. The British decided that they needed more control over the colonies, and more importantly, they needed more money from the colonies. The Crown was loaded with debt from the French and Indian War.
Colonel Isaac Barre, who had fought in the French and Indian War, responded that the colonies hadn't been planted by the care of the British government, they'd been established by people fleeing it. And the British government hadn't nourished the colonies, they'd flourished despite what the British government did and didn't do.
In this speech, Barre referred to the colonists as "sons of liberty."
In the following months and years, as we know, the Sons of Liberty became increasingly resentful of English interference. And as the tides of American public opinion moved closer and closer to rebellion, Franklin's snake continued to be used as symbol of American unity, and American independence. For example, in 1774 Paul Revere added it to the masthead of The Massachusetts Spy and showed the snake fighting a British dragon.
Paul Revere's modified "Join or Die" snake from the masthead
of Thomas's Boston Journal, July 7, 1774. Newspaper Serial
and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress.
By 1775, the snake symbol wasn't just being printed in newspapers. It was appearing all over the colonies: on uniform buttons, on paper money, and of course, on banners and flags.
In the fall of 1775, the British were occupying Boston and the young Continental Army was holed up in Cambridge, woefully short on arms and ammunition. At the Battle of Bunker Hill, Washington's troops had been so low on gunpowder that they were ordered "not to fire until you see the whites of their eyes."
In October, a merchant ship called The Black Prince returned to Philadelphia from a voyage to England. On board were private letters to the Second Continental Congress that informed them that the British government was sending two ships to America loaded with arms and gunpowder for the British troops.
Congress decided that General Washington needed those arms more than the British. A plan was hatched to capture the cargo ships. They authorized the creation of a Continental Navy, starting with four ships. The frigate that carried the information from England, the Black Prince, was one of the four. It was purchased, converted to a man-of-war, and renamed the Alfred.
To accompany the Navy on their first mission, Congress also authorized the mustering of five companies of Marines. The Alfred and its sailors and marines went on to achieve some of the most notable victories of the American Revolution. But that's not the story we're interested in here.
What's particularly interesting for us is that 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."
An American Guesser
In December 1775, "An American Guesser" anonymously wrote to the Pennsylvania Journal:
"I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, 'Don't Tread On Me.' As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America."
This anonymous writer, having "nothing to do with public affairs" and "in order to divert an idle hour," speculated on why a snake might be chosen as a symbol for America.
First, it occurred to him that "the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America."
The rattlesnake also has sharp eyes, and "may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance." Furthermore,
"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."
"I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, 'till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. ...
"'Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living."
Benjamin Franklin, portrait by David Martin, 1767. White House Historical Association.
Many scholars now agree that this "American Guesser" was Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin, of course, is also known for opposing the use of an eagle -- "a bird of bad moral character" -- as a national symbol.
Although Benjamin Franklin helped create the American rattlesnake symbol, his name isn't generally attached to the rattlesnake flag. The yellow "Don't Tread On Me" standard is usually called a Gadsden flag, for Colonel Christopher Gadsden, or less commonly, a Hopkins flag, for Commodore Esek Hopkins.
These two individuals were mulling about Philadelphia at the same time, making important contributions to American history and the history of the rattlesnake flag.
Christopher Gadsden was an American patriot if ever there was one. He led Sons of Liberty in South Carolina starting in 1765, and was later made a colonel in the Continental Army. In 1775 he was in Philadelphia representing his home state in the Continental Congress. He was also one of three members of the Marine Committee who decided to outfit and man the Alfred and its sister ships.
Commodore Hopkins, portrait by C. Corbutt, 1776. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.
Gadsden and Congress chose a Rhode Island man, Esek Hopkins, as the commander-in-chief of the Navy. The flag that Hopkins used as his personal standard on the Alfred is the one we would now recognize. It's likely that John Paul Jones, as the first lieutenant on the Alfred, ran it up the gaff.
It's generally accepted that Hopkins' flag was presented to him by Christopher Gadsden, who felt it was especially important for the commodore to have a distinctive personal standard. Gadsden also presented a copy of this flag to his state legislature in Charleston. This is recorded in the South Carolina congressional journals:
"Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattle-snake in the middle, in the attitude of going to strike, and these words underneath, "Don't Tread On Me!"
The Gadsden flag and other rattlesnake flags were widely used during the American Revolution. There was no standard American flag at the time, not even Betsy Ross's stars and stripes.