Don’t tread on him.
The internet erupted in debate over the meaning of the Gadsden flag this week after a 12-year-old Colorado boy was reportedly kicked out of class for displaying the symbol as a patch on his backpack.
While 12-year-old Vanguard School student Jaiden Rodriguez was initially ordered to remove the flag — which features a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase “Don’t tread on me” — he was allowed to display it in school again on Tuesday.
An administrator at the Colorado Springs school had claimed the flag has ties to “racism” and “slavery and the slave trade” while Eden Rodriguez, the boy’s mom, insisted its roots can be traced back to the Revolutionary War.
“The Vanguard School recognizes the historical significance of the Gadsden flag and its place in history,” the district said in a statement. “This incident is an occasion for us to reaffirm our deep commitment to a classical education in support of these American principles.
So what does the flag actually mean? And how has its meaning evolved over the past two centuries?
What is the Gadsden flag and what are its origins?
Christopher Gadsden — a general in the Continental Army and congressional delicate — designed the flag in 1775 during the American Revolution.
The politician wanted it to serve as a symbol warning Britain not to violate Americans’ liberties that would rally support against coercion, according to Marc Leepson, the author of “Flag: An American Biography.”
Debate broke out over the meaning of the Gadsden flag after a young boy was booted from class for displaying it.AP
At the time, the image of a rattlesnake was a Colonial-era meme representing unity between the 13 colonies — thanks in part to Benjamin Franklin, according to New Yorker magazine.
The snake’s symbolism spread across the US due to a biting satirical article penned 1751 by Franklin in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In the piece, the Founding Father makes a barbed offer to repay Britain’s royal family for shipping convicts to America — by setting rattlesnakes loose around England.
What does the Gadsden flag mean? How has its meaning evolved?
In recent years, the words “Don’t tread on me” have come to represent a more general opposition to government overreach in the US.
The flag itself began to gain popularity in Libertarian circles as a symbol boosting minimal government beginning in the 1970s.
Jaiden Rodriguez was reportedly kicked out of class for having a Gadsden Flag patch on his backpack.Twitter / @cboyack
Its popularity then surged — on everything from T-shirts to bumper stickers— after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, according to the New Yorker.
The flag soon became a favorite of Tea Party enthusiasts and die-hard Second Amendment supporters — along with an all-purpose emblem of independence, liberty and defiance.
The meaning of the “Don’t tread on me” flag has evolved over centuries.The Washington Post via Getty Images
As the US became more politically polarized, some extremist groups adopted it. In 2020, members of the Proud Boys were photographed waving the flag at a heated rally in Portland, Ore.
Does the Gadsden flag actually have ties to racism?
In 2014, a US Postal Service worker in Denver filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint against a fellow staffer who wore a hat with the flag on it.
He claimed the symbol was a “historical indicator of white resentment against blacks stemming largely from the Tea Party” as President Obama, the country’s first black president, was in power.
Members of The Proud Boys adopted the symbol during a 2020 rally in Portland, Oregon. AFP via Getty Images
After an investigation, the EEOC concluded that “it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context,” according to the Washington Examiner.
The commission, however, allowed the suit to move forward because, “whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts.
Ultimately, the Postal Service dismissed the complaint.