Is the Gadsden Flag Racist?

Gadsden

This flag was designed in 1775 by Christopher Gadsden, South Carolina planter and delegate to the First and Second Continental Congress.  The rattlesnake, as best as I can tell, was used as a symbol for the British colonies as early as 1754 when Benjamin Franklin published his famous cartoon “Join or Die.”

Join or Die.php

The Gadsden flag is an iconic symbol of the American Revolution.  As a historian of 18th-century America I have had one hanging in my home office for years. (Although it is now partially covered by books and Springsteen memorabilia).

Dont Tread

A couple of additional facts about the flag are necessary.  First, Gadsden was a South Carolina slave holder.  Second, this flag has recently been used by libertarian and Tea Party groups to protest what they see as government overreach into the lives of ordinary Americans.

And now there are some claiming that because Gadsden was a slave holder the flag is racist and thus offensive.  According to this Washington Post article by Eugene Volokh, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has receive a complaint from a person who felt that “the Agency subjected him to discrimination on the basis of race (African American) and in reprisal for prior EEOC activity when, starting in the fall of 2013, a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake and the phrase ‘Don’t Tread on Me.'”

Read the entire complaint in Volokh’s piece.

I think it is time for some historical perspective here.

Enter J.L. Bell at Boston 1775.

Here is a taste of his post, “Investigating the Meaning of the Gadsden Flag“:

…some people commenting on those stories assume that a federal authority has ruled that the Gadsden Flag and associated “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan are racist because of their roots in the slave society of Revolutionary America. That shows they didn’t read the ruling or Volokh’s column.

The anonymous employee who filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission did make that claim:

Complainant stated that he found the cap to be racially offensive to African Americans because the flag was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a “slave trader & owner of slaves.”

The historic claims are correct. In 1774 more than ninety men, women, and children were enslaved on Gadsden’s two rice plantations. He paid Customs duties on the cargo of at least two slave ships, in 1755 and 1762.

Furthermore, Gadsden’s South Carolina was a society built on slavery. At the time of the Revolution, historians estimate that more than half of its human population was enslaved. Because the British military freed and evacuated so many people, that fraction went down by the 1790 census, but South Carolina still had a larger percentage of its population in bondage than any other state. By the early 1800s through the Civil War, the state’s population was once again mostly enslaved.

However, the E.E.O.C. rejected the claim that the Gadsden Flag is offensive because of its historical origin:

After a thorough review of the record, it is clear that the Gadsden Flag originated in the Revolutionary War in a non-racial context. Moreover, it is clear that the flag and its slogan have been used to express various non-racial sentiments, such as when it is used in the modern Tea Party political movement, guns rights activism, patriotic displays, and by the military.

In doing so, the E.E.O.C. also confirmed that “the modern Tea Party political movement” expresses “various non-racial sentiments” through the flag, which looks like a tacit rejection of the complaint’s suggestion that the Tea Party is an expression of “white resentment against blacks.”

The potential problem with the Gadsden flag, the E.E.O.C. ruling said, lies not in its past but in the way it’s being used today:

However, whatever the historic origins and meaning of the symbol, it also has since been sometimes interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts. For example, in June 2014, assailants with connections to white supremacist groups draped the bodies of two murdered police officers with the Gadsden flag during their Las Vegas, Nevada shooting spree.

One hopes that fans of the Gadsden Flag loudly decried how those terrorists used it.

Read the entire post here.