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The Battle for the Gadsden Flag

The Gadsden and American flags. (Shal Farley/Flickr)
July 25, 2023

Nearly 250 years ago as the Revolutionary War loomed, an American patriot with the Sons of Liberty, Christopher Gadsden, created the Gadsden flag. Featuring a coiled Timber rattlesnake and emblazoned with the words, “Don’t Tread On Me,” the flag was designed to be symbol of liberty, representing Americans’ God-given right to be free from tyranny.

American Military News spoke with Candace Gadsden Motta, a descendant of Christopher Gadsden, who described her ancestor as “an advocate for American rights” who suffered for the cause of liberty. 

Now, hundreds of years since it was first created, various groups seeking smaller government and lower taxes – just like Gadsden himself – have adopted the historic symbol. In response, opponents of those groups attacked the Gadsden flag, labeling it racist or extremist in an obvious effort to smear those associated with it.

The years-long fight to label the Gadsden flag racist or extremist

Widely displayed during the Revolutionary War, the Gadsden flag rose to prominence once again in 2009 with the Tea Party movement, quickly becoming the target of rival activists – and even government entities.

The most recent attempt was revealed in August 2022, when an apparently leaked internal FBI document showed that the agency listed the Gadsden flag, the American flag, the Betsy Ross flag, symbols of the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, and other imagery as symbols of “Militia Violent Extremists” or MVEs.

The purported FBI documents were published by the undercover journalism organization Project Veritas, which said it obtained the document from a whistleblower in the FBI.

The document is labeled “Unclassified/Law Enforcement Sensitive” and contains the “FBI Internal Use Only” disclaimer. The document states several symbols “are used by Anti-Government or Anti-Authority Violent Extremists, specifically Militia Violent Extremists,” including the Gadsden flag.

The FBI document notes that “the use or sharing of these symbols alone should not independently be considered evidence of MVE presence or affiliation, or serve as an indicator of illegal activity, as many individuals use these symbols for their original historic meaning or other non-violent purposes.”

In October 2020, a California Catholic high school ordered a group of conservative students to remove an image of the Gadsden flag from a promotional video, claiming the flag could be considered “racial harassment.” The school administration cited the EEOC case, noting that the case found the image could be considered racist depending on the circumstances.

One of the students involved said the crackdown on the Gadsden flag design was frustrating.

“This is just a small example of the different struggles conservative students go through while in school,” the student told the group Young America’s Foundation (YAF). “Students should have the freedom to express their beliefs and values in a school environment without having to fear the repercussion that can arise.”

Also in 2020, as the pandemic threatened Americans’ freedom, the Gadsden flag became widely associated with anti-lockdown protesters. Less than one year later, the Gadsden flag became a focal point once again after it was spotted among the demonstrators who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. 

On January 8, 2014, a black man filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that his white coworker’s baseball cap featuring the Gadsden flag “subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race.”

The complainant said the design was racially offensive because Gadsden was a “slave trader and owner of slaves.” According to the official statement, the complainant said he complained to management who directed his coworker to remove the cap, but he continued to come to work “wearing the offensive cap.”

The Gadsden flag is a “historical indicator of white resentment against blacks stemming largely from the Tea Party,” the complainant argued, noting that the Vice President of the International Association of Black Professional Firefighters deemed the Gadsden flag as equal to the Confederate Battle Flag.

Developing from the initial complaint, Shelton D. v Brennan concluded that the “Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it was clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, gun rights activism, patriotic displays and by the military.”

However, the lawsuit also found that the symbol has been used in racially-charged situations and determined that the context surrounding the symbol’s use was needed to determine if the complainant’s claims of racism were legitimate.

Still, the EEOC’s website clearly states that the case did not determine the Gadsden flag was itself racist or discriminatory and did not ban it.

Also in 2014, the mayor and city council of New Rochelle, New York said the flag was so “offensive” and steeped with “right-wing connotations” that it had to be removed from the New Rochelle Armory.

Two years earlier, the self-labeled socialist publication People’s World called the flag “offensive” and said that those who chose to “wield” the symbol “have chosen to believe and repeat racist lies.”

Amid repeated efforts to smear the Gadsden flag and those associated with it, Mark Pitcavage, Senior Research Fellow with the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, told American Military News that the ADL does not consider the Gadsden flag racist or extremist, and that the “best way to characterize the current state of the Gadsden flag is essentially that it’s been politicized.”

“The historical context for this is that for many years in the United States, both the right and the far right have often adopted or used historical patriot flags of different types to suggest that they are the ones who are actually patriotic. You can go all the way back to the 1920s and 1930s and see examples of this. The Betsy Ross flag, the U.S. flag, other historical flags – that’s been consistent decade in and decade out,” Pitcavage said. “What happened beyond that is that the Gadsden flag acquired a more distinctive link to politics or political ideology starting in 2009-2010, with the rise of the Tea Party movement, which, for all practical purposes, adopted the Gadsden flag as its unofficial symbol.”

“So, for the past twelve years, in contrast to the previous hundred, the Gadsden flag was more specifically associated with a specific political movement – the Tea Party movement – and then from that more broadly to the right in general,” he added.

Pitcavage noted that the Tea Party movement “was not an extremist movement” but that there is now a “strong political association with the Gadsden flag, associating it with the right.”

“The basic answer to the nature of the Gadsden flag today, leaving aside its traditional use as a patriotic historical flag – which can also still be found – has been as a politicized flag associated broadly with the right or right-wing causes,” he said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean extremist and it certainly doesn’t necessarily mean racist or white supremacist. But it has, unfortunately, been largely politicized.”

The Gadsden Flag in Culture

Despite ideological attacks targeting the Gadsden flag, the historical symbol remains popular in American culture. A number of states – including Tennessee, Montana and Florida – offer license plates featuring the Gadsden flag. 

The Gadsden flag has also appeared in famous movies and songs, including “The Patriot” starring actor and director Mel Gibson and Metallica’s song entitled, “Don’t Tread On Me.” 

In 2019, Hollywood superstar Chris Pratt came under fire for wearing a shirt featuring a version the Gadsden flag. 

The Gadsden flag appears in “Rocky IV” on the back of the character Paulie’s jacket.

The flag is also featured on numerous products, as well, including mugs, baseball caps, coasters, holsters, phone cases and more. 

Seattle police patrol cars with Gadsden flags draped from their windows appeared in photos on social media in October 2021, just hours before the vaccine mandate for Washington State went into effect.

The History of the Gadsden Flag

As one of the founders and leaders of the Sons of Liberty, Christopher Gadsden designed the Gadsden flag in 1775. The flag features the words “Don’t Tread On Me” and a coiled Timber rattlesnake with thirteen rattles, representing the Thirteen Original Colonies of the United States.

Gadsden, like other patriots at the time, recognized the similarities between Americans and rattlesnakes: when left alone, they are usually fairly relaxed and reserved, but when poked and bothered, rattlesnakes lets out a warning rattle before striking their enemy with a deadly bite.

To Gadsden, “Don’t Tread On Me” was the American patriot’s warning rattle.

“My dad, Robert Godin Gadsden III, took us to St. Augustine to the Castillo de San Marcos. At the fort, there’s a dungeon, like a jail house, and Christopher Gadsden’s name is on that door down there because he was in prison there for 42 weeks,” Motta told American Military News.

Motta said the British offered Gadsden freedom, but only if he swore allegiance to King George III – but he refused.  

“He suffered standing up for American rights, but it made America a better place,” Motta said. “I’m very proud of my heritage. I love America and he was a part of it. I have some of my rights and my American dream because of him and the other people that he worked with. He knew what it was like to be under British rule. He wanted to be free.” 

Motta said she rejects attempts to label her family’s flag racist or extreme. She also acknowledged that Christopher Gadsden designed the flag during a time when slavery was common, but noted that the flag itself had nothing to do with slavery.

“I have very left-leaning friends. I don’t have an issue with politics, but other people do. If I mention that I’m proud of my heritage, and the Gadsden flag is part of my family, they look at me like I’m insane. They’re like ‘How can you even say that? Your family owned slaves. It’s a racist thing.’ They try to put words and stories behind it,” Motta said.

“I’ve tried to explain this to some of my friends who are very much on the left, but they don’t listen. They just stop me and say, ‘No, you don’t know what you’re talking about. This is because of the insurrection of January 6. Your flag was up there. It means violence. It means terrorism. These people are political terrorists. They want to hurt people.’ They’re trying to portray the American flag like that, too. And Betsy Ross, her flag. The Gadsden flag is thrown out there, too.”

“If [activists] want to publicly voice this as a hate symbol or terrorist thing, they need to look back in history to find out what the Gadsden flag means. It was to unify the colonies [and] to make America what we have, or had, today. It’s a flag of unity for all Americans. For all of us,” Motta added. 

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command website, one of the earliest mentions of the Gadsden flag was in the journal of the South Carolina Provincial Congress on Feb. 9, 1776. 

“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 journal entry stated. 

A U.S. Navy spokesperson confirmed to American Military News that the Gadsden flag was also the personal standard of Commodore Esek Hopkins, the first and only commander in chief of the Continental Navy fleet, who adopted the flag in 1776. 

The spokesperson added that the Navy “cannot confirm whether the Gadsden flag was ever authorized for use aboard any Navy vessel at any point” in U.S. Navy history; however, the service has used a similar flag, the First Navy Jack, which is a flag with 13 horizontal red and white stripes and a rattlesnake, as well as the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me.”

While the historical meaning of the Gadsden flag is clear, Motta said she still struggles against modern attempts to smear her family’s legacy, adding that the FBI’s recent attacks on the Gadsden flag are “scary” and part of an overall attempt to take “our patriotism away.”

“The government, especially the FBI, identifying these things that are our core American symbols, that they’re saying it’s bad – I mean, what’s the next step? They’re just tearing down America from the inside. All the things that we have. That American pride. They’re tearing it all down. They’re taking our patriotism away,” Motta said. “Our belief in our country, our love for our country. It’s like when you’re in a football stadium or a baseball stadium and they start singing the National Anthem, I’m almost in tears because of the way I feel about my country. I don’t think anyone really even cares anymore. It’s scary.”

Nearly 250 years after her ancestor fought for America’s independence from the tyranny of King George III, Motta urged Americans to reject divisive politics and “get our country back.”

“I feel like we’re heading toward that kind of civil war-type era again. Not that we’re going to be at war, but like there’s an internal war going on,” Motta said. “We need to get our country back and let the Gadsden flag fly with the American flag.”