Flags of Our Freedom: These Are America’s History
'More than ever, we need to preserve the unique rituals that bind us culturally as a nation and strengthen us as a people'
During this holiday season, we should remind ourselves of the importance of our American traditions. More than ever, we need the unique rituals that bind us culturally as a nation and strengthen us as a people. There are those who seek to divide Americans in an effort to achieve their political goals. These goals include destroying (or altering) sacred American traditions and national symbols.
During this era of a national political divide that some call a “civil cold war,” we must rise to combat the Left’s effort to attribute evil to what is essentially good. As Rush Limbaugh said on the radio, “They’re [the Left’s] playing for keeps.”
Included among these threatened symbols are now America’s historical flags. Flags are potent representations of their countries, for good and bad. As a cop, when I’d work the riot lines for the seemingly weekly leftist demonstrations held in Seattle, I’d see protesters displaying many flags, including American flags flown upside down to signal their mock distress. But at least they were American flags. Quite often, I also saw the infamous blood-red hammer and sickle of Soviet flags waving above these crowds. Talk about distress. Now other American flags are under assault.
While still on the job as a police officer but off-duty as a civilian, I attended a rare right-leaning political demonstration. The event occurred in downtown Seattle as a part of the birth of the national Tea Party movement. During this inspiring (though awkward and oxymoronic) right-wing demonstration, my wife and I chose to articulate our support for limited government and individual liberty by displaying the First Navy Jack (flag).
The First Navy Jack, used by the Navy from 1775 to 1777, is one of the two most famous flags that linked the rattlesnake image with the “Don’t Tread on Me” motto. The Navy’s version consists of an uncoiled rattlesnake displayed above the motto on a field of 13 alternating, horizontal red and white stripes. The other is the Gadsden flag, which uses a coiled rattlesnake and the motto, but on a field of yellow.
The Left’s assault on American history, culture, education, law and civility grows daily. This includes staining, figuratively and literally, our historical and patriotic icons. Democrats attacked one of these symbols, the Gadsden flag, during the gubernatorial campaign in the commonwealth of Virginia.
I was stunned (and even more stunned when I realized I can still be stunned by politics) when opponents of Republican candidate Ed Gillespie ran a now-infamous and truly despicable campaign ad. If you haven’t seen it, the Democrat-sponsored commercial featured an obviously racist white man driving a pick-up truck, sporting an Ed Gillespie bumper sticker, through residential neighborhoods. Flying from the back of the truck was a Confederate battle flag (Stars & Bars) and in the front license plate holder was a yellow Gadsden flag.
The man is driving his truck menacingly through residential neighborhoods, apparently looking for children to run down, as Hispanic and Muslim kids flee for their lives. At the end, the narrator comments, “Is this what Donald Trump and Ed Gillespie mean by the American dream?”
I wonder how the Latino Victory Fund folks, who sponsored that ad, felt a day later when a terrorist driving a rental truck actually did mow down people on a New York City bike path, killing eight and injuring 11. The evil ISIS acolyte reportedly shouted, “Allahu Akbar!” while attempting to escape the scene. Maybe the ad’s sponsors didn’t feel so clever after viewing this carnage. Then again, anyone who would air an ad like that probably wouldn’t have qualms about such a horrific coincidence.
The misapplication of the Gadsden flag extolls to the heavens an extraordinary ignorance of or antipathy toward America’s patriotic symbols. This flag has a proud history and served to inspire patriots to a willingness to dedicate their lives to throwing off the shackles of government tyranny. That flag serves the same purpose today.
The Gadsden and First Navy Jack flags are based on the “snake symbol,” originally created by Ben Franklin in 1751. It evolved out of Franklin’s suggestion we send rattlesnakes to the king in exchange for the convicts he was sending to the colonies. This motif comprises the famous political cartoon image of a multi-sectioned rattlesnake, representing the thirteen original colonies, and emblazoned below it the caption “JOIN or DIE.” The Emmy Award-winning miniseries John Adams used this image in its opening credits.
Equally ignorant of history as the complainants, five out of seven members of the city council voted (surrendered to political correctness) to have the flag removed.
By 1775, the snake symbol had become ubiquitous in colonial America from New England to Georgia. By then, the segmented reptile had joined into a whole snake. Historians don’t know when the motto “Don’t Tread on Me” combined with the rattlesnake image first appeared in public, but historians are aware of when a description of the combination first appeared in print.
Writing about his observations of Continental Marines marching in Boston, an anonymous author, known as “An American Guesser,” wrote in the Pennsylvania Journal his musings upon seeing this symbol/motto combination on a Marine’s drum.
The writer speculated on the suitability of the rattlesnake as a symbol under which the American (Continental) military would fight the British Crown. In essence, he listed the qualities America shared with this enigmatic serpent:
- only found in America;
- superb eyesight, representing vigilance;
- neither initiates an attack nor surrenders once in battle;
- gives ample warning not to tread on it before it attacks;
- has 13 rattles on its tail, one for each of the united colonies in 1775.
He also noted that each rattle was remarkably distinct though tightly bound to one another. He wrote that a single rattle makes no sound, but nothing would cause alarm to even “the boldest man living” like all 13 rattles sounding in union.
Many historians believe “An American Guesser” was Benjamin Franklin. This makes sense to me, as the clever nom de plume and musings seem consistent with Franklin’s unpretentious brilliance. It would also be apt that the man who designed the original segmented snake emblem would define the symbol’s evolution as the American colonies united in revolution against King George III.
In 1777, the US Navy replaced the “rattlesnake” jack with the Union Jack (13 white stars on a blue field, with more stars added as states joined the union). With one exception, for America’s bicentennial in 1976 when U.S. naval vessels flew the First Navy Jack in celebration, the Navy has employed the Union Jack. However, on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Sept. 11, 2002, the Navy re-adopted the First Navy Jack, which continues to adorn Navy ships today.
Now, while I disagree with removing most American historical symbols, images, and statues from public display, I do believe symbols can sometimes take on new meanings, either positive or negative. For example, the “hooked cross” symbol known as a Context is important. If a swastika is displayed on a neo-Nazi meeting hall, it is offensive. If it’s on a Hindu temple, not so much.
Still, it would seem that certain icons, like the Gadsden flag, would be safe from the Left’s Orwellian, politically correct assault on traditional America. After all, as mentioned above, one version of the “rattlesnake” or “Don’t Tread on Me” flag currently flies on our nation’s warships. But that won’t stop those ignorant of history, or who wish to erase it, from attempting to distort the meaning and history of this flag or any American symbol for political exploitation.
For instance, in 2013, some people in New Rochelle, New York, complained about a veteran’s group flying a Gadsden flag outside a military armory. The malcontents contended that, as a symbol often displayed by members of Tea Party groups, the flag amounted to pushing “a political agenda.” Equally ignorant of history as the complainants, five out of seven members of the city council voted (surrendered to political correctness) to have the flag removed.
Another flag, mentioned above, has also suffered the wrath of leftist historical heretics, but that one may have less of a defense against detractors than the Gadsden flag does. But the South’s most widely known flag is still worth inclusion in the discussion. This flag is now generally known as the Confederate Battle Flag (a blue and white St. Andrew’s cross, with thirteen inset white stars, on a field of red). It was one flag used by the Confederate States of America (CSA) military and naval forces. As I understand it, officially, this ensign was adopted in 1863 as the Confederate Navy Jack.
I believe history teaches that the primary drive of the principal Southern secessionists, which led to the Civil War, was to preserve slavery, which was an important component of the Southern economy. However, it would be ridiculous to believe every individual, or even most soldiers, fighting for the South held this goal as their personal, primary motivation. And despite my having grown up a Northerner (being from Massachusetts, I resist calling myself a Yankee), I don’t have a visceral hostility to the CSA’s Stars & Bars.
In fact, I understand how some decent folks saw and have come to see the flag as a symbol of states’ rights, independence, a resistance to federal tyranny, or simply their Southern heritage. I wonder, though, can those who fought for the South, no matter the reason, be absolved of their part in a violent effort that included preserving the enslaving of black Americans? I suppose it’s a matter of perspective and conscience and is a discussion for another day.
So leftists may have an argument against the Stars & Bars. Even some on the right oppose this CSA military flag. But the same cannot be said of Democrats abusing the Gadsden flag, a powerful symbol employed during the American Revolution. The people making that campaign ad consciously decided to misuse this traditional, patriotic flag as a vehicle for fostering racial fear.
Converting this inspirational banner, which represents our common heritage, into a symbol of hate is a gross affront to those American patriots who fought and died under that flag. In fact, I’ll bet none of those involved with the Democrat-supported Ralph Northam race-baiting campaign ad have the least inkling of the history of the Gadsden flag. They only know their political opponents tend to admire and display it, so it must represent hate, right?
Knowing the flag’s true history — and current use — how dare anyone attempt to turn the rattlesnake/Don’t Tread on Me flags, these symbols of American liberty, into representations of intolerance? While the people who sponsored the ad may be far Left, it doesn’t seem Virginia’s new governor is a radical leftist. I wish he would have condemned the commercial. But such is the state of leftist politics — the party above all else.
Let’s work to teach our American history and preserve our heritage, warts and all, so that we can continue, not to achieve some leftist notion of a perfect utopia, but to create the American idea of a more perfect union.
Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor and retired Seattle police officer. He has served as a field training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and as a precinct mountain bike coordinator. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. This OpsLens piece is used by permission.