Ben Franklin on the Rattlesnake and the origins of the slogan “Don’t Tread On Me”

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“I observed on one of the drums belonging to the Marines being raised that there was painted a rattlesnake, with this modest motto under it, “Don’t tread on me.” It occurred to me that the rattlesnake, being found in no other quarter of the world besides America, might therefore be chose to represent her. Having frequently seen the rattlesnake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished.

I recollect 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, not, 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 their defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds hover 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 treading on her.

I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles until I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the snake that increased in numbers; perhaps it might be only fancy, but, I conceited the painter had shown a half formed additional rattle, which, I suppose, might have been intended to represent the province of Canada.

‘Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces. One of those rattles singly is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living.

The rattlesnake is solitary and associated with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation. In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, while singly they would probably perish.

The power of fascination attributed to her, by a generous construction, may be understood to mean that those who consider the liberty and blessing which America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave her, but spend their lives with her. She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in youth and her beauty increases with age, “her tongue also is blue and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks.”

I communicated my sentiments to a neighbor of mine, who had a surprising readiness at guessing everything which related to public affairs. He instantly declared it as his sentiments that the Congress meant to allude to Lord North’s declaration in the House of Commons that he never would relax his measure until he had brought America to his feet, and to intimate to his Lordship that were she brought to his feet, it would be dangerous treading on her.” — The Completed Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, compiled and edited by Mark Skousen, Ph.D. Pages 112-114.

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