When people think of the United States, they typically think of the American Bald Eagle but the Bald Eagle wasn’t adopted as the official emblem of the United States until 1782 so what came before it?
Oddly enough the colonist looked to the Timber Rattlesnake as a clear representation of the colonies. Snakes became a prominent figure in the colonies after Benjamin Franklin published a satirical article condemning Great Britain for sending condemned convicts to the American colonies. Franklin suggested the colonists should send a bunch of rattlesnakes back to England as thanks in 1751.
Franklin continued this theme by publishing the first political cartoon in America in 1754 which featured a snake cut up into 8 pieces, each piece representing the different colonies. The cartoon played on a common superstition that said a snake cut up in pieces would come back to life if the pieces were put back together before sunset. Beneath the snake were the words "Join or Die." The cartoon appeared along with Franklin's editorial about the "disunited state" of the colonies and helped make his point about the importance of colonial unity. The meaning of the cartoon was that the colonists would be successful if they worked together during the French and Indian War.
The timber rattlesnake wasn’t forgotten, and it rose again as a symbol of unity during the 1765 Stamp Crisis. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, the rattlesnake made its way onto flags, money, and other items accompanied by the words “Don’t Tread on Me.” This is actually where we got the Gadsden Flag. Christopher Gadsden as a member of the Congress of South Carolina promoted the flag. This is what was reported…
"Col. Gadsden presented to the Congress an elegant standard, such as is to be used by the commander in chief of the American Navy; being a yellow field, with a lively representation of a rattlesnake in the middle in the attitude of going to strike and these words underneath, "Don't tread on me."
It became a battle flag in the American Revolution along with the First Navy Jack Flag and the Culpeper flag.
The rattlesnake symbol was first officially adopted by the Continental Congress in 1778 when it approved the design for the official Seal of the War Office. At the top of the Seal is a rattlesnake holding a banner which says: "This We'll Defend"
Now is the rattlesnake an accurate representation of the colonies? Well Benjamin Franklin thought so. He stated…
“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 poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies. This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence. I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, 'till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers. Perhaps it might be only fancy, but, I conceited the painter had shown a half formed additional rattle, which, I suppose, may have been intended to represent the province of Canada.”
The Rattlesnake represented many things. The rattlesnake isn’t that aggressive unless it feels threatened and it will warn other creatures with its rattle if the other creature begins to infringe on its territory or in our case, its rights. This is what gives the rattlesnake respect in a sense. This is how the colonists responded to tyranny.
The term “Don’t Tread on Me” represents the principle of individual liberty. People want to be left alone like the rattlesnake. People want the freedom to live their own lives without external or government interference. The timber rattlesnake truly was the symbol of America at this time.