J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, July 11, 2021

The Political Significance of Snakes

Last week the Age of Revolutions blog shared my new article “Join, or Die: Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?”

Prompted by a question from editor Bryan A. Banks of Columbus State University, for this essay I delved into how and why Americans adopted snakes as symbols of their resistance when most of the time they didn’t like snakes. At all.

And by “snakes” I mean multiple species. The fractured snake that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper in 1754 and then resurfaced during the Stamp Act debate is sometimes called a rattlesnake, but it didn’t have a rattle. It was a different species, called a glass snake (or joint snake, or brimstone snake).

The rattlesnake slid onto the scene in late 1775 as the American colonies were at war and needed a more forceful, dangerous viper to make their point. In both cases, I argue, traits that natural histories had ascribed to these New World species fit well into the political narrative that American colonists wanted to promulgate at that time.

Researching this essay made me look anew at a couple of pictures that Paul Revere created for Isaiah Thomas’s Royal American Magazine in March and April 1774. They’re both visible on this webpage from the American Antiquarian Society, and I’ve coped a relevant detail above.

The pictures are portraits of John Hancock and Samuel Adams in elaborate frames surrounded by symbolic figures. At the right stands an allegorical woman—Liberty and Britannia, respectively. The woman (and, in Liberty’s case, a lion) is stomping on a grenadier from the 29th Regiment, the unit involved in the Boston Massacre.

That grenadier in turn is grasping a snake. When I first saw these pictures, I thought the grenadier might have been trying to introduce the snake into American society and gotten caught. Now I wonder if Revere meant that snake was American society, and the grenadier was trying to squash it, only to be squashed by higher forces.

And what about Revere’s engraving of a “Hooded Serpent” or cobra in the June 1774 issue of the Royal American Magazine? Thomas copied the text of that from a 1771 British magazine and had Revere duplicate the engraving. It doesn’t seem like it would have any allegorical significance for the American colonies. But now that I’ve explored political snake symbolism, I wonder.

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