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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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Rattlesnake Reforms

As Britain’s North American colonies became more rebellious, the rattlesnake in Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” cartoon from 1754 (discussed yesterday) took on a new meaning.

Whigs now urged the colonies to unite not on behalf of the British Empire, but against a supposedly corrupt government in London. And new rattlesnakes were born.

In 1774, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy newspaper adopted the masthead shown above, engraved by Paul Revere. Though this snake is divided in pieces from New England to Georgia, those pieces are nearly united, and the snake’s clearly ready to fight the dragon that threatens American liberties.

I never thought of rattlesnakes as a marine animal, but American naval units were among the first to adopt the rattlesnake in their insignia. Under international law, the Continental Navy needed a flag to distinguish its ships from the Royal Navy. The rattlesnake had long been a symbol of the strange powers to be found in North America. The “Gadsden flag” and “First Navy Jack” display rattlesnakes—now firmly in one piece—and the new motto “Don’t Tread on Me.”

I’m not sure whether the design for those flags that we often see reproduced today can actually be traced to 1775-76. Flag history is vexed by visual interpretations of vague verbal descriptions. But there’s definite documentary evidence of Americans adopting the rattlesnake as one of their national symbols early in the Revolutionary War.

[ADDENDUM: The rattlesnake resurfaces in 1775.]


EJWitek said...

Old Ben was always fascinated by rattlesnakes. In a satirical piece in 1751 he suggested capturing thousands of them,transporting them to and then releasing them in London as retribution for the British practice of sending convicted felons to the colonies to serve out their terms.
I'm surprised he didn't put the rattlesnake forth instead of the turkey as the national symbol since he considered the eagle a bird of "bad moral character."

Tyson said...

Excellent topic! The fascination with the rattlesnake at that point in history is quite interesting, especially when you consider the Gadsden flag, which you may still occasionally see hanging today.

The Gadsden flag, of course had a coiled rattlesnake with 13 segments on its tail, symbolizing the apparent unity and strength of the colonies during the war.

J. L. Bell said...

One of the earliest descriptions of the Gadsden flag, from a Virginia Gazette in May 1776, say the snake had “thirteen rattles, the fourteenth budding.” That might have reflected hopes that Canada would still join the united provinces, or perhaps there was some other fourteenth symbolized.

There are also mentions of snakes with thirteen coils, and snakes in thirteen pieces, and snakes wrapped around pine trees (uniting two American symbols). Yet only a few designs have come down to us.

Peter Ansoff said...

The association of rattlesnake flags with the Continental Navy is actually rather tenuous. The "First Navy Jack" was almost certainly an accidental invention by 19th century historians; I discuss that story in an article here: http://www.nava.org/documents/raven/vol11/index.php

The Gadsden Flag was used as the naval Commander-in-Chief's standard during the expedition to the Bahamas in 1776, and most of the American and British press references to it trace back to that. Gadsden himself also presented one to the South Carolina Assembly upon his return from Philadelphia. I don't know of any other references to its use during the Revolution. There are no known contemporary examples or pictures of the Gadsden flag; all modern representations are speculative.