Some controversy has recently attached to one of our first flags. I thought I’d briefly comment on them.

The “Don’t Tread on Me” Flag — A coiled rattlesnake on a yellow background.

The rattlesnake, like the American eagle, represents something fierce and free. Benjamin Franklin used the rattlesnake to represent the British colonies, from New England at the head to South Carolina at the tail, during the French and Indian War. “Unite or Die!” was the caption. This was the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper.

When the first units of Marines were being organized for our Navy, in Philadelphia, they carried drums painted yellow, featuring a coiled rattlesnake and the motto “Don’t Tread on Me.” Their commander, Col. Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, worked the idea into a flag. The rattlesnake appears, among other places, on the seal of the Army and on the First Navy Jack.

The Pine Tree Flag — A pine tree on a white background.

The pine tree represents two of the interferences of England in the liberties of the Americans. The first was the reservation of the tallest pine trees of New England for the Royal Navy. Colonists could not cut trees without permission, not for export, nor for their own emerging industry of ship-building.

The second interference concerned money and banking. During the 17th century, the business community of Massachusetts organized a colonial mint and issued “Pine Tree” coins. They also made plans to organize a bank. But, England put a stop to this.

Manufacturing, banking, and trade were reserved for the mother country, whom we were to supply with raw materials. This policy was called “mercantilism.” When the King granted a monopoly to the British East India Tea Company, the patriots threw the tea into Boston Harbor.

The motto written on the Pine Tree flag is “An Appeal to Heaven.” This expression was taken from the Enlightenment writer John Locke. He said that humans are born with inalienable rights, the abuse of which could justify rebellion.

The Betsy Ross Flag — A circle of 13 stars on a blue canton, on a background of 13 red and white stripes.

The Betsy Ross Flag was the first flag adopted following the Declaration of Independence. Previously, the flag of the “United Colonies” included a British flag in the canton, along with the 13 stripes. Such flags have been and continue to be popular among British colonies. The replacement of the British flag in the canton by 13 stars reflects the number of colonies that declared their independence.

Except for the original and current number of states, there is no official meaning to the design of the flag. Some see in the blue, the color of the sky, freedom; in the white, the color of purity, virtue; and, in red, the color of blood, courage. But the real meaning of America is what each person makes and what we together make of it. We continue our great adventure in self-government.

Clifford F. Thies is a professor of economics and finance at Shenandoah University and a resident of Winchester. Affiliation is for identification only. Opinions expressed are his alone.

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