What they say when they fly the Gadsden flag

One of the scary things about America’s current political divisions is how much they resemble the buildup to the Civil War. Just consider the growing popularity of the yellow Gadsden flag, with its coiled rattlesnake and “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan.

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Lately that flag has become a favorite among anti-vaxxers. It’s been draped on Seattle patrol cars, purportedly flown from a Southwest Airlines cockpit, and featured prominently among the anti-mandate protesters who took over the Brooklyn Bridge in late October. You can even purchase a Don’t Tread on New York variation, if that appeals.
Because the flag originated during the Revolutionary War, Gadsden fans claim its message supports their fight against government overreach. What they don’t seem to realize — or don’t care to acknowledge — is that Southerners said the same thing in the 1860s, when they, too, used Gadsden’s rattler to protest federal tyranny.

Most Americans don’t know about the Confederate chapter in the Gadsden flag’s history. That’s because histories of the flag usually skip straight from colonial days to the Tea Party. These shortened timelines explain how Ben Franklin’s 1754 political cartoon — featuring a divided rattlesnake and “Join or Die” caption — inspired South Carolina’s Christopher Gadsden, who used a coiled rattler and a deadly threat to create his defiantly anti-British banner.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when conservative Republicans, hoping to link their small-government message to the American Revolution, called themselves the Tea Party and resurrected Gadsden’s flag. Since then it has appealed to Second Amendment supporters and right-wing extremists, appearing in Charlottesville in 2017 and at the storming of the U.S. Capitol.

In skipping the 19th century, these incomplete chronologies miss how the actions of today’s Gadsden-fans echo Southern secessionists. Like the Tea Partiers, the secessionists wanted to promote their cause as a second American Revolution, so they incorporated Gadsden elements into their earliest flags.