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don’t tread on me

What does don’t tread on me mean?

Originating as a motto on an iconic Revolutionary War flag, don’t tread on me is a historic expression of American patriotism and freedom. In the 20th century, several libertarian and conservative groups appropriated the phrase to assert political—and to some, racist—ideologies.

image of don’t tread on me

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’s namesake is Christopher Gadsden, a brigadier general from South Carolina during the American Revolution. He introduced the design in 1775, when the flag was first flown on a warship as a battle cry for American independence from British rule.

By the time Gadsden unfurled his banner, the rattlesnake was already an established political symbol in colonial America. For instance, Benjamin Franklin, in what many consider to be the first political cartoon in the United States, called for unity in 1754 by representing the colonies as segments of a snake, along with the caption “Join, or Die.” Franklin later explained that the rattlesnake—never backing down when provoked— 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 bared, and body coiled in defense, the rattlesnake and motto warn foes: “If you dare put your foot down on me, I will strike.”

Since the American Revolution, don’t tread on me has endured as an emblem of American patriotism and freedom, especially rallied around after the September 11 attacks. But in 2000–10s, the expression became politicized and, to some extent, racialized. In 2009, the Tea Party seized on the original rebellious spirit of the Gadsden flag in their cry for smaller government and lower taxes. Come 2014, a black US federal employee felt harassed by a coworker who wore a hat brandishing the Gadsden imagery. The employee charged 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.”

Calling for further investigation, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) observed that the Gadsen flag, while originating without racial overtones, “has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.” They cited a 2014 incident when some white supremacists draped the Gadsen flag over the bodies of two murdered police officers. As of 2017, the EEOC had not made any official decision on the racism of the symbol.

A few things to note…

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 employ don’t tread on me to champion their political ideologies, including in the form of 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 buttocks, which he flashes at angry Australians after he escapes punishment from their government. In the 2010s, the Gadsden flag inspired countless parody memes around the internet. One humorous variant 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 yet more meta iteration featured a rattlesnake with the head of Pepe the Frog: “Don’t step on memes.”

For example…

“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)

“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)

“This is the busiest I've ever seen a gun show in my entire life. 😳 - flushed face emoji #guns #ammo #secondamendment #2a #redwhiteandpew #pewpew #donttreadonme”

American Patriot @Light2ifBySea Twitter (March 26, 2017)

This is not a formal definition of don’t tread on me like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of don’t tread on me that will help you expand your word mastery.