Where does don’t tread on me come from?
Don’t tread on me began on the so-called Gadsden flag, which features a rattlesnake coiled above the expression on a yellow background. The flag was first flown on a warship in 1775 as a battle cry for American independence from British rule. The snake was an established symbol for America at the time, even Benjamin Franklin used it, saying the rattlesnake never backed down when provoked, which captured “the temper and conduct of America.”
The tread in Gadsden’s defiant phrase, don’t tread on me, means “to step, walk, or trample so as to press, crush, or injure something.” And so, with its tongue flicked, fangs out, and body coiled in defense, the rattlesnake (and motto) warns: “If you dare put your foot down on me, I will strike.”
But in 2000–10s, the expression became politicized and racialized. In 2009, the Tea Party seized on the original rebellious spirit of the Gadsden flag in their platform for smaller government and lower taxes. As the Tea Party movement gained traction, the more radical members voiced (loudly) their racist sentiments … and soon the party wasn’t just about low taxes anymore but also about keeping people of color out (and not treating or speaking to them very nicely 😔). And so, even though the Gadsden flag was not originally a racist symbol, it started to take on some racial tones once it began to be used in politics.
In 2014, a black US federal employee felt harassed by a coworker who wore a hat with the Gadsden imagery. The employee protested that Charles Gadsden was a “slave trader & owner of slaves,” and that his flag had become a “historical indicator of white resentment against blacks stemming largely from the Tea Party.” Yes, Gadsden was a slaver owner, but the Tea Party’s politics that involve racist actions, especially against former President Barack Obama, made the federal employee feel harassed by the Gadsden Flag and don’t tread on me.
Oh yea, and then there was also a 2014 incident when some white supremacists draped the Gadsen flag over the bodies of two murdered police officers ….
Who uses don’t tread on me?
Some military personnel display don’t tread on me insignia on everything from tattoos to bumper stickers as a way to express national pride.
Libertarians, Tea Party members, gun-rights activists, conservatives, and, since the 2016 US presidential election, Trump supporters, also use don’t tread on me to champion their politics, including the hashtag “#donttreadonme” on social media. While not necessarily offensive, don’t tread on me can have racial overtones due to its political associations.
Don’t tread on me has a lighter side, too. In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, Bart writes don’t tread on me on his butt, which he flashes at angry Australians after he escapes punishment from their government. In the 2010s, the Gadsden flag inspired a ton of parody memes. One substituted a red Lego for the snake. Another, depicting a giant foot stepping on the rattlesnake, riffed on the motto: “I specifically requested the opposite of this.” A more meta version featured a rattlesnake with the head of Pepe the Frog: “Don’t step on memes.”
“This is the busiest I've ever seen a gun show in my entire life. #guns #ammo #secondamendment #2a #redwhiteandpew #pewpew #donttreadonme”
American Patriot @Light2ifBySea Twitter (March 26, 2017)
“They were anti-regulation, pro small business, pro Second Amendment, suspicious of people on welfare, sensitive (in a ‘Don’t tread on me’ way) about any infringement whatsoever on their freedom.”
George Saunders, “Who Are All These Trump Supporters?” The New Yorker (July 11, 2016)
“Liberty or death, what we so proudly hail / Once you provoke her, rattling of her tail / Never begins it, never, but once engaged… / Never surrenders, showing the fangs of rage / Don't tread on me”
James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, “Don’t Tread on Me,” Metallica (1991)