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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Monday, January 02, 2023

“America’s typ’d by a SNAKE”

Last week the Age of Revolutions website shared its lists of the most-read postings of 2022 and the earlier postings that people had most revisited. On the second list is my 2021 article “Join, or Die: Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?”

G. Patrick O’Brien of the University of Tampa chimed in on Twitter:
We read @Boston1775’s “Join, or Die: Why Did It Have to Be Snakes?” this semester, and students loved how creative it was. One student is even researching the reappropriating of the snake by modern, far-right groups. A great piece to teach students about thinking broadly!
That’s very gratifying, of course.

I expanded on one footnote in that article back here. Here’s more material about Revolutionary snake symbolism that I didn’t have space to include beyond a brief mention.

As the North American colonists’ confrontation with the Crown government heated up in 1774, some Whig newspaper printers adopted new mastheads incorporating snakes as symbols of the resistance.

James Rivington, a decidedly not-Whig printer, put these lines into his New-York Gazetteer on 25 August:
For the New-York Gazetteer.
On the Snake, depicted at the Head of some American News Papers.

YE Sons of Sedition, how comes it to pass,
That America’s typ’d by a SNAKE — in the grass?
Don’t you think ’tis a scandalous, saucy reflection,
That merits the soundest, severest Correction,
NEW-ENGLAND’s the Head too; — NEW ENGLAND’s abused;
For the Head of the Serpent we know should be Bruised.
This verse pointed out the great paradox in the American Whigs’ adoption of snakes as symbols: For centuries, western culture had treated snakes as Very Bad Things. The lines brought up both Biblical and classical precedents:
  • According to the King James Version of Genesis 3:15, God told the snake, “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.”
  • In his third Eclogue, Virgil wrote, “latet anguis in herba,” meaning, “a snake lurks in the grass.”
With such powerful authorities warning against snakes, why should people admire them now?

Margaret Draper and John Howe’s Boston News-Letter reprinted that item from New York on September 8. A week later, Isaiah Thomas’s Massachusetts Spy (which had a new masthead with a massive venomous snake on it, as shown above) responded in kind:
On reading the piece, (inserted in Draper’s last paper) relative to the Snake at the head of some of the American Papers.

YE traitors! the Snake ye with wonder behold,
Is not the deceiver so famous of old;
Nor is it the Snake in the grass that ye view,
Which would be a striking resemblance of you,
Who aiming your stings at your own country’s heel,
Its Weight and resentment to crush you — should feel.
There we see the devastating, impossible-to-refute argument of ‘I know you are, but what am I?’

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