The Meaning of the Rattlesnake (1775)

TEA Party Don't Tread On Me

~ by James Still ~

The rattlesnake was a significant symbol used throughout the American Revolution. The Dept of War, established in 1789, included a rattlesnake in its seal in recognition of the rattlesnake’s importance. The Dept of the Army (1947), successor of the Dept of War, continued the tradition and included a rattlesnake in its seal. The Gadsden Flag, “to be used by… the American Navy” beginning in 1776, and the First Navy Jack, which is currently flown by the U.S. Navy, both contain a rattlesnake and the motto “DONT TREAD ON ME”. The following article, written by Benjamin Franklin one month after the formation of the [U.S.] Continental Marines, was his explanation of the rattlesnake.

“I observe on one of the drums belonging to the marines… there was painted a rattlesnake, with this motto under it, ‘Don’t tread on me.’ … I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device. I took care, however, to consult, on this occasion, a person who is acquainted with heraldry [military artwork]… This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the rattlesnake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished…

I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness that of any other animal, and that she has no eyelids. 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… 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?” Benjamin Franklin, The Meaning of the Rattlesnake, December 27, 1775

James Still (June 2017),

“I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, till I went back [to the drum] and counted them; and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the colonies united in America…” Benjamin Franklin, The Meaning of the Rattlesnake, December 27, 1775

“One of these rattles singly is incapable of producing sound; but the ringing of thirteen together is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.” Benjamin Franklin, The Meaning of the Rattlesnake, December 27, 1775

“… should we wander from [the Founding Principles]… let us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone leads to peace, liberty, and safety.” Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801