Don’t Tread On Me is a phrase that appeared on several flags used in the early United States, including the First Navy Jack, the Flag of the Culpeper Minutemen, and the Gadsden flag (pictured).
The Gadsden flag was designed by Colonel Christopher Gadsden and presented to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. From 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 rattlesnake symbolism on the flag was most likely invented by Benjamin Franklin, who was using it as early as 1751 and published a famous woodcut featuring it in 1754. The rattlesnake is the perfect embodiment of the early American view of independence from government.
Franklin wrote this passage concerning the rattlesnake as a symbol for Americans in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1775:
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.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
The Gadsden Flag expresses almost perfectly my feelings towards the United States government. I just want to be left alone — and yet they continue to pass thousands of pages of laws and tens of thousands of pages of “regulations” with which I must comply or face the force of their wrath. The U.S. Congress passes laws that few or none of their members have taken the time to read, and yet I am expected to know and follow these laws.
When the Supreme Court finally, after decades, declares some of the laws they have passed to be unconstitutional, they do nothing but pass new laws with the same intent — totalitarian dictatorship.
Enough! I am done with them. I will do as I see fit. I will follow my conscience. They can sit in Washington and pass all the laws they want, but they would be best advised not to try to enforce them upon me.