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This Day in History: Why were snakes used on Revolutionary War flags?

On this day in 1754, Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette publishes a political cartoon that you might recognize. It depicted a snake cut into eight sections with the words “Join, or Die” etched below the snake.

The snake imagery would come to carry great meaning during the Revolutionary War years. But do you know precisely what that snake symbolizes?

Franklin’s original cartoon, of course, was published two decades before the Revolution ever began. In 1754, Franklin wouldn’t have been concerned about British tyranny; he would have been concerned about French attempts to seize more territory during the French and Indian War.

Indeed, an article appeared next to his cartoon warning against the “present disunited State of the British Colonies.” Colonists were urged to join together to stop the French threat.

The “Join, or Die” motto was resurrected again about a decade later when the British Parliament passed the Stamp Act. By then, the motto and snake imagery were going through a subtle shift in meaning. The symbol was now more than just a call for unification. “[A]ngry colonists,” historian Daniel P. Stone observes, “started to use Franklin’s cartoon to encourage unification against Britain’s encroachments, transforming the original intention of the image by making it a call for revolutionary ideology.”

The meaning of the snake has been analyzed in various ways, but at least two ideas are worth mentioning.

First, the rattlesnake was, in many ways, a natural symbol for the colonists: It is indigenous to America. Moreover, rattlesnakes were described in literature of the period as “never Aggressors . . . for unless they are disturbed they will not bite, and when provoked, they give Warning by shaking their Rattle.”

In other words, Americans would not strike first. But they would definitely defend themselves.

Second, it’s worth noting that these years were marked by a fierce battle of words between Loyalists and Patriots: Who would control the narrative about the snake? Each side seized upon Biblical references to prove its point.

Loyalists described the snake as if it were Satan. It represented deception, trickery, and the fall of humankind. The serpent in the Garden of Eden had been treacherous. If Patriots were using a snake as their symbol, then they must be untrustworthy, too.

Patriots argued the opposite, naturally. To them, the snake represented wisdom, unity, and endurance. They cited Bible verses such as Matthew 10:16: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.”

In late 1775, Franklin himself finally jumped into the fray, authoring an article about the “Rattle-Snake as a Symbol of America.” In such situations, Franklin wrote, the “worthy properties of the animal” are to be considered. “[T]he base ones cannot have been intended.” He concluded by noting that the “antients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration.”

You won’t be surprised to hear that Patriots ultimately won this particular battle of words. The motto “Join, or Die” would be used repeatedly during those years, and the snake would emerge as a much-loved symbol of wisdom, patriotism, and endurance.

Today the imagery of a snake on a flag once again seems to hold different meanings for different people.

But then again, history does tend to repeat itself. Doesn’t it?

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