Although often referred to as the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, the correct name is the Gadsden flag, named after its designer, Christopher Gadsden, an American Revolution-era politician.
The Gadsden flag’s history begins in 1775, when Christopher Gadsden, a Continental Colonel from South Carolina, designed the flag and presented it to the Colonial Marines, the American Colonies’ amphibious infantry force.
The Colonial Marines adopted Gadsden’s flag alongside another design (the Moultrie Flag, a blue flag with a white crescent overlaid with the word “LIBERTY”). Both flags served as symbols of the Continental Marines until 1798, at which point the unit transitioned into the modern-day United States Marine Corps.
After the Revolutionary War ended and the United States declared independence, the Gadsden flag fell into disuse, only occasionally flown in Charleston, South Carolina, as a historical symbol, until the flag’s modern resurgence in the 1970s.
The first modern use of the Gadsden flag dates back to the early 1970s when the rising American libertarian movement began using it as a symbol of individual rights, personal freedoms, and limited government.
In 2009, the Gadsden flag experienced its second resurgence when the Tea Party movement and its supporters used it as a government protest symbol. It was later associated with the Tea Party’s other positions and grievances like reducing taxes, government spending, and the national debt.
In the gun rights community, the Gadsden flag’s meaning is understood to be synonymous with independence, freedom, personal defense, and the willingness to fight for one’s own rights and liberty. In that sense, the flag, the snake, and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” have meanings similar to other pro-gun rights or pro-self-defense symbols with historical significance, such as “Molon Labe,” “Come and Take It,” or “Liberty or Death.”