Last weekend, as the House prepared to vote on the health care overhaul legislation, a group of Republican lawmakers unfurled a large "Don't Tread on Me" flag from a balcony of the Capitol building, rallying their supporters below. The flag has become a staple at Tea Party rallies. Melissa Block speaks to Joseph Ellis, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College, about the history of the "Don't Tread on Me" flag and its use by the Tea Party movement.
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MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Dont tread on me, those words and the image of a coiled rattlesnake are making a comeback on posters, T-shirts and most prominently on bright yellow flags, as Tea Party protesters have made it their emblem. This weekend, some Republican members of Congress joined in, waving the flag and hanging it off the Capitol balcony above the cheering crowd.
We wanted to learn more about the origins of the flag and the meaning behind it. And for that, we're joined by Professor Joseph Ellis, who teaches American history at Mount Holyoke College. Welcome to the program.
Professor JOSEPH ELLIS (History, Mount Holyoke College): Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And Professor Ellis, how far back can we trace the don't tread on me flag?
Prof. ELLIS: We can trace it back to 1775. When the Continental Congress was commissioning some privateers with Marines stationed on the ships and the South Carolina delegate to the Congress names Christopher Gadsden designed and proposed this flag, a yellow flag with the rattlesnake and the words don't tread on me beneath is as the flag for the flagship, which I think was called the Alfred. And so it's gone on to become the seal of the Marine Corps, too, but it has its origins right at roughly the same time as the Tea Party. The rattlesnake...
BLOCK: You're talking about Boston Tea Party, the original Tea Party?
Prof. ELLIS: The Boston Tea Party, and the one that is the inspiration for the Tea Party movement, or at least a reference point, that the rattlesnake -Gadsden probably got from Benjamin Franklin, who in the 1750s designed a print that had to do with the Albany Congress and the colonies attempting to unite. The print said join or die, and it appeared in the Pennsylvania papers and then the "Poor Richard's Almanack," and became somewhat famous.
BLOCK: So that iconography of the snake just seems to be popping up again and again in revolutionary war history.
Prof. ELLIS: It does. It's one of the original or indigenous American animals that Franklin thought was worthy of notice. He liked the turkey, too. He thought the turkey should be the national bird instead of the eagle. And Franklin was very popular. What he wrote had, you know, great currency throughout the colonies. And so he, more than anybody else, established the rattlesnake as an early American symbol.
BLOCK: You know, I've been looking at another image of the first Navy Jack, which also says don't tread on me, but it has 13 red and white stripes and a rattlesnake that is sort of stretched out across the stripes, it's not coiled.
Prof. ELLIS: Well, they, you know, had to make it a little different so they don't pretend to be the Marine Corps. But I think that it's an expression of defiance which at that moment in American history was perfectly appropriate. What's a little different about then and now - there's many different things, but that the colonists at the time, in '75, were protesting the fact that parliament was legislating and taxing them without their consent. They had no representatives in parliament.
Obviously, contemporary Tea Party advocates have elected representatives. They just don't agree with what they're doing, by and large. In some sense if they wanted to find a revolutionary era reference group that was more historically correct, they should probably pick someone like Daniel Shays who led an insurrection in Western Massachusetts in 1786 against the Massachusetts government which was elected.
BLOCK: You're talking about Shays' Rebellion, right?
Prof. ELLIS: Shay's Rebellion, that's right. And when Timothy McVeigh blew up the building in Oklahoma City, he was wearing a shirt, on the back of it the phrase from Jefferson referring to Daniel Shays' insurrection, saying that the Tree of Liberty must periodically be watered - he actually said manured - with the blood of tyrants. So that there's this tradition you can plug into which is an anti-government ethos and which sees government as a hostile alien force, as them rather than as us. That was, indeed, part of the early American experience.
BLOCK: Well, Joseph Ellis, good to talk to you. Thanks very much.
Prof. ELLIS: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: Joseph Ellis is history professor at Mount Holyoke College. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.