A 12-year-old student from Vanguard School, Jaiden Rodriguez, was initially instructed to remove a flag from his belongings that showcased a coiled rattlesnake with the caption “Don’t tread on me.” However, by Tuesday, he was permitted to display it again.
In a recent CNN interview, Colorado Governor Jared Polis (D) championed the rights of a student who faced repercussions for displaying a Gadsden flag patch on his backpack. Contrary to an administrator’s claim linking the Gadsden flag to “slavery and the slave trade,” Polis emphasized its historical ties to the American Revolution.
During the conversation with CNN’s Abby Phillip, Polis accentuated the importance of political symbols in schools, arguing they “enrich the discussion.” He pointed out that the Gadsden flag, often recognized by its “Don’t Tread On Me” slogan, is a significant American symbol. “It has graced military units, and while it has associations with the Tea Party, students should have the liberty to express their political beliefs,” Polis remarked.
In response to Phillip’s inquiry about whether the teacher might have made the slavery association due to the flag’s association with right-wing politics, Polis sidestepped the political angle. Instead, he stressed the importance of historical understanding and the principle of free speech.
Drawing on history, Polis highlighted Benjamin Franklin’s words about the rattlesnake depicted on the Gadsden flag: “They never attack first, but they never back down once they’re in a fight.” Many Americans resonate with this sentiment. He underscored the significance of preserving free speech in schools, emphasizing consistency in our values. If one advocates for celebrating Pride through rainbow flags, the same freedom should be extended to opposing views. The governor hoped this incident would spur a nationwide dialogue about truly valuing free speech, even when we might disagree with the content.
In 1775, during the throes of the American Revolution, the flag featuring a design by Christopher Gadsden—a general in the Continental Army and a congressional representative—came to the fore. Gadsden intended this flag to serve as a stern caution to Britain against infringing upon American freedoms, aiming to galvanize opposition to British oppression. Marc Leepson supports this interpretation in his book “Flag: An American Biography.”
The rattlesnake depicted on the flag wasn’t just a random choice. During the Colonial era, it emerged as a symbol of unity among the 13 colonies, primarily due to Benjamin Franklin’s influence, as highlighted by the New Yorker magazine.
The widespread recognition of the rattlesnake’s symbolism can be attributed to a sharp satirical article Franklin wrote in 1751 for the Pennsylvania Gazette. Through this piece, the Founding Fathers humorously suggested that the colonies should reciprocate by releasing rattlesnakes across England in retaliation for Britain sending convicts to America.