The Rattlesnake: America’s First National Symbol

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1280px-Benjamin_Franklin_-_Join_or_Die

Few species embody the American Spirit quite as well as the Bald Eagle.

Over the past two centuries, this majestic bird’s likeness has stormed the beaches of Normandy, seen combat against Barbary pirates and even landed on the moon.

With its magnificent image gracing everything from our currency to the rug in the Oval Office, it’s hard to imagine any other animal serving as the symbol of our Grand Republic – but as hard as it may be to imagine, when it comes to national symbols, the Bald Eagle showed up to the party a little late.

Long before the soaring eagle was stamped onto the side of fighter jets refueling over Afghanistan, the eastern diamondback and timber rattlesnakes were enjoying their time in the sun, personifying what it meant to be American.

When the early colonists arrived in the New World, one of the first creatures to greet them was the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. Coming from a land where the only poisonous snake was the extremely passive Adder, the British settlers were terrified by the rattlesnake, whose bites often equated to certain death among 17th century colonists.

Evidence of the incredible fear early English settlers felt toward the native snakes can be spotted in the dozens of newspapers articles from the period which offer almost laughable instructions on how to survive a bite from the ferocious rattlesnake.

By the mid-1700s, however, Americans had come to realize that the continent had been inhabited by these poisonous serpents long before they had arrived and accepted their presence as a mere fact of life in the New World. Around this same time, the nation began experiencing a rise in tensions with the Motherland.

In 1750, the Crown began sending convicted criminals to live in America, an act that outraged colonists who had no desire to live alongside thieves and revilers.

The following year, a satirical commentary published in his Pennsylvania Gazette, by legendary writer Ben Franklin suggested that in response, colonists begin sending rattlesnakes to England.

Franklin’s popular article made him famous and gave the American colonists a newfound pride in the crawling reptile that had for so long haunted their dreams.

A handful of years later, Franklin again published a cartoon featuring the rattlesnake, this time under the banner, “Join or Die.”   His famous woodcut presented a snake cut into eight sections. It represented the colonies, with New England joined together as the head and South Carolina as the tail, following their order along the coast. This was the first political cartoon published in an American newspaper.

In the days ahead, the American colonies came to identify more with their own communities and the concept of liberty, rather than as subjects of an international British Empire.

As a result, the people of the soon-to-be independent nation began to actively seek out icons that were unique to the Americas. The rattlesnake, like the bald eagle and American Indian, came to symbolize American ideas and society.

As the American Revolution picked up steam, the snake began to see more use as a beloved symbol of the colonies. In 1774, Paul Revere added Franklin’s iconic cartoon to the nameplate of his paper, the Massachusetts Spy.  Atop the header of Revere’s paper, the rattlesnake was fighting a British dragon.

In December 1775, Benjamin Franklin published an essay in the Pennsylvania Journal under the pseudonym American Guesser in which he suggested that the rattlesnake was a good symbol for the American spirit:

“I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?”

That same year, the rattlesnake found its way onto one of the first American flags, the bright yellow Gadsen Flag, over the words, “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Roughly a year and a half later, the rattlesnake was officially adopted by the Continental Congress to serve as the nation’s first symbol, approving the design for the official Seal of the War Office. Today, the rattlesnake is still included in the design of the Department tge Army’s official seal – having served continuously for over 236 years.

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