“Don’t Tread on Me.” A two-and-a-half century old battle cry that at once captures the fierce patriotism and principled ideals of the American Revolution. In the late days of 1775, American Marines emblazoned these four words on their drums below a coiled rattlesnake with thirteen threatening rattles. Colonel Christopher Gadsden then fixed this symbol of independence and liberty to a flag, and the phrase was immortalized.
“Don’t Tread on Me” reflected the colonies’ deep dislike and distrust of British rule and interference in colonial business, especially without an American voice in Parliament. It served as a warning to the British that early Americans had no qualms about defending their territory, both physical and political. The “Me” was at once America, an individual state, and an individual citizen. No government, foreign nor domestic, would be allowed to trample its citizens’ rights according to many patriots’ ideals. Patriots would be willing to fight for their rights if the British dared to provoke them.
The choice of a rattlesnake was no mere coincidence. The rattlesnake was as fitting a metaphor for a young America as the bald eagle. In the words of Benjamin Franklin:
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage…Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
Of course Franklin himself had used the metaphor in his “Join or Die” political cartoon and other political commentaries. To him and other patriots, the rattlesnake’s ability to defend oneself when provoked and courageous vigilance reflected Americans’ fierce pride in their individual freedoms and desire for self-government. The “Don’t Tread on Me” rally cry was a perfect summation of early Americans’ fight for independence from an overwhelming, unrepresentative central government.
But is “Don’t Tread on Me” still relevant today?
Unequivocally, yes. Enemies of our liberty might not be as obvious as a fully-armed Redcoat, but they are no less real. From the conventional armies of the Axis Powers to the menace of Al-Qaeda, foreign powers have continued to threaten our borders and citizens. Countless Americans have lost their lives in defense of the homeland. Foreign enemies will continue to pose a threat as long as the Stars and Stripes fly.
Our own government is often an enemy of liberty, whether by design or abuse of power. For centuries, many levels of government denied basic human and political rights to minorities and women, especially African-Americans. This is the most damaging and obvious violation of individual liberty, but today, government has continued to violate our cherished rights.
Government has sought to restrict political speech through radio censorship, campaign finance law, and other measures. It has abused the eminent domain process under the guise of “economic development” and “environmental protection,” seizing property it has no right to take. Government has sought to force us to buy health insurance and take away our economic choice. Government has actively sought to undermine Second Amendment.
An expansive federal government has forgotten the Ninth Amendment’s reminder: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” It forgets the Tenth Amendment’s explicit restriction of power: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
These injustices – and countless others – should prompt us to tell government, “Don’t Tread on Me.” Fortunately, our fight today is largely bloodless, a fight waged in the courts, legislatures, and in the court of public opinion. It is our duty to remind elected leaders and fellow citizens that the protection of individual liberty is a national priority. We must defend our rights and liberties at each battle, before the war becomes “un-winnable.”
We may have replaced the Gadsden Flag with the Stars and Stripes, and the coiled rattlesnake with the majestic bald eagle, but we should never replace the spirit of “Don’t Tread on Me” or the constant vigilance of the rattlesnake. We owe it to all those Americans who fight or have fought to preserve liberty and remove injustice in our own country and around the world. We owe it to ourselves to continue our own way of life, to preserve the individual freedoms so cherished and desired by people around the world.
We must remind governments, “Don’t Tread on Me,” to ensure that individuals can be guaranteed their inherent rights and freedoms. Never forget that people give their governments power from their own inherent rights.