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, September 11, 2011

“What could have been intended by this uncommon device”

Last month I traced the evolution of Benjamin Franklin’s “Join, or Die” rattlesnake of 1754 to Paul Revere and Isaiah Thomas’s version twenty years later.

Many scholars also credit Franklin with a letter that appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal on 27 Dec 1775, signed “An American Guesser.” It records and promotes a new symbolic use of the snake:
I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, “DON’T TREAD ON ME.” As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America; and as I have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly my own, in order to divert an idle hour, I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device—
Of course, at the time Franklin had quite a lot to do with “public affairs,” being a busy member of the Continental Congress. But why let facts stand in the way of good rhetoric?

The letter went on to link several qualities of the snake with how the writer wished people to think of America:
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. . . .

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 United Provinces were at that moment defending themselves by attacking the main cities of Canada. But of course that campaign was simply to incorporate that province happily into their number.
Having pleased myself with reflections of this kind, I communicated my sentiments to a neighbour of mine, who has a surprizing readiness at guessing at every thing which relates to publick affairs, and indeed I should be jealous of his reputation, in that way, was it not that the event constantly shews that he has guessed wrong—He instantly declared it as his sentiments, that the Congress meant to allude to Lord North’s declaration in the House of Commons, that he never would relax his measures until he had brought America to his feet, and to intimate to his Lordship, that were she brought to his feet, it would be dangerous treading on her.—But, I am positive he has guessed wrong, for I am sure the Congress would not condescend, at this time of day, to take the least notice of his Lordship in that or any other way.
Having thus driven home the message for Lord North while also dismissing him, the writer signed off.


Waldo4me said...

My grandmother (b. 1885) used to tell of superstitions surrounding rattlesnakes. First, they never "died" until night. No doubt this was because the body would coil and twist for hours after the snake had been killed because of the long muscles contracting. This probably contributed to the other superstition that if you cut off the head of a rattler (our family's preferred method of execution) that you must either bury it or throw the body far from the head. The reason being that the parts would join back again as they were squirming toward each other!

I don't know if similar stories existed in Franklin's time, but they likely did. But, in any case, it's very unusual to read of someone extolling the virtues of a rattlesnake. We seldom treat them with such respect.

I enjoyed the post. Thanks for your entertaining blog.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for your comments. If the superstition about a snake’s part rejoining can be documented in the eighteenth century, it might have influenced Franklin’s first “Join, or Die” icon.

The letter writer acknowledged that in heraldry “the worthy properties of the animal, in the crest-born, shall be considered,” but that “‘the worthy properties’ of a Snake I judged would be hard to point out.”