Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Don't Tread On Me!

By Mark W. Danielson

In a previous blog, I featured Benjamin Franklin’s segmented rattlesnake from his famous Join, or Die political cartoon. Franklin’s snake was most likely the basis behind the coiled rattlesnake on Colonel Christopher Gadsden’s yellow Don’t Tread On Me flag (pictured), which he presented to the Second Continental Congress in 1775. Gadsden intended this flag to be used by the Commander in Chief of the American Navy to represent its readiness to strike at any time. Gadsden’s Don’t Tread on Me phrase became so popular that it also appeared on the First Navy Jack and the Flag of the Culpeper Minutemen. Believing the rattlesnake is the perfect embodiment of the early American view of independence, Franklin wrote this passage in the Pennsylvania Journal in 1775:

“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids. 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, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; 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?”

The rattlesnake, specifically the Timber Rattlesnake, is particularly symbolic to the American Revolution because its rattle contains thirteen layers, coincident to America’s original Thirteen Colonies. Credit is given to Commodore Hopkins in 1775 for adding an uncoiled rattlesnake and Don’t Tread on Me phrase to the thirteen-striped red and white “jack” that was commonly used on early American merchant ships to create the First Navy Jack (pictured). Clearly, Commodore Hopkins borrowed elements from Benjamin Franklin and Colonel Gadsden to create this Jack. Debate remains over whether Commodore Hopkins flew the First Navy Jack or the plain striped jack on the Alfred, flagship of the Continental Fleet in January 1776. However, historians do agree the rattlesnake-clad First Navy Jack was flown as the Navy Ensign during the Revolutionary War. Coiled or uncoiled, the rattlesnake is intended as a warning that America will strike whenever provoked.

Soon after the adoption of the June 14, 1777, First Stars and Stripes Law, the U.S. Navy replaced the First Navy Jack with the Union Jack. (The Stars and Stripes Union Jack, also known as the Jack of the United States, should not be confused with Britain’s Union Jack, which bears its country’s colors.) The First Stars and Stripes Law stated that this flag be 13 alternating red and white stripes and that its union be 13 white stars in a blue field representing a new constellation. Although the date of introduction of the Union Jack is not precisely known, a 1785 engraving of the frigate USS Philadelphia clearly depicts the Union Jack flying from her jackstaff—the vertical spar (pole) in the bow of a ship, on which a “jack” is flown.

To this day, flags remain a distinct form of communication between ships, thus seafarers must know the difference between a jack and an ensign. Jacks are additional national flags flown by warships at the head of the ship when the ship is not under way, and when dressed for special occasions. Ensigns are flown at the ship’s stern or island when entering or leaving a harbor, when sailing through foreign waters, and whenever the ship is signaled to do so by a warship. Warships usually fly their ensigns between the morning colors ceremony and sunset when moored or at anchor, and at all times when underway or engaged in battle. Because tradition dictates that if a ship lowers its ensign it is deemed to have surrendered, second and subsequent ensigns may be flown from different locations to ensure the opponent understands the battle will continue.

In some instances, the traditional First Navy Jack has been used in lieu of the Stars and Stripes Union Jack. In other words, the Jack becomes the Ensign. In 1975, the Secretary of the Navy directed that the First Navy Jack be flown in 1975 and 1976 during the United States Bicentennial Year as a colorful and historic reminder of the nation's and the Navy's origin. In August 1977, the Secretary of the Navy then specified that the ship with the longest total period of active service display the First Navy Jack until decommissioned or transferred to inactive service, at which time the flag shall be passed to the next ship in line with appropriate honors. Most recently, on May 22, 2002, the U.S. Navy ordered that all ships display the First Navy Jack during its War on Terrorism as a temporary substitution for the fifty-star Jack of the United States. Most vessels made the switch on September 11, 2002, the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

Whether you agree or disagree with our current foreign policies, it is noteworthy to realize that the Don’t Tread on Me flags pre-date our existence as a nation, and that the United States still stands ready to strike against those who dare tread on us.


Jean Henry Mead said...

Fascinating history, Mark, and a keeper. Thank you!

Mark W. Danielson said...

Who would have thought the timber rattlesnake would have so much historical significance? Certainly not the snake . . .