Trampling on a Symbol of Liberty

Trampling on a Symbol of Liberty

by James Bovard

Last August, 12-year-old Jaiden Rodriguez was kicked out of a public-school classroom in Colorado Springs after school officials decreed that the Gadsden flag patch on his backpack was “disruptive to the classroom environment.” Those Colorado officials didn’t know the meaning of “disruptive.”

Thanks to savvy, thoughtful retorts by Jaiden’s mother in a video showdown at the school, the incident spurred a fierce backlash around America. Less than a week later, the school district raised the white flag on its assault on the Gadsden flag.

The flag’s real history

That flag, with its yellow background and coiled rattlesnake, helped rally Americans to vanquish the British Army and Navy almost 250 years ago. As the Encyclopedia Brittanica noted, “The rattlesnake symbol originated in the 1754 political cartoon “Join, or Die” published in Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette. The cartoon, which depicted the colonies divided as segments of a cut-up snake, exhorted the colonists to unite in the face of the French and Indian War (1754–63). The symbol was later used to represent unity during the Revolutionary War.” The flag became one of the most iconic symbols of the American Revolution, venerated far and wide until recent years.

Where did the Gadsden flag go wrong? Tea Party activists waved the “Don’t Tread on Me” banner during anti-Obama protests. According to the liberal media, regardless of Obama’s oppressive, intrusive policies, any opposition to his presidency was automatically racist. Thus, the Gadsden flag was irrevocably tainted by association.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission added fuel to this fire:

On January 8, 2014, a U.S. Postal Service maintenance mechanic in Denver, Colorado filed a complaint of discrimination based on race (African American) and reprisal for prior EEO activity when: (1) beginning in the fall of 2013, a coworker repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of a flag with a rattlesnake ready to strike and slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” (2) the coworker continued to wear the cap after management had assured Complainant that they would tell the coworker not to, and (3) on September 2, 2013, a coworker photographed him on the work room floor without Complainant’s consent. According to the federal sector process, that complaint was filed with the employing agency — the U.S. Postal Service.

On January 29, 2014, the U.S. Postal Service dismissed the complaint for failure to state a cognizable claim of discrimination. On June 20, 2014, the EEOC Office of Federal Operations reversed the agency’s dismissal, determining that Complainant had raised a cognizable claim of harassment, and ordered the agency to investigate the claim…. The U.S. Postal Service argued that the previous decision clearly erred because the Gadsden Flag and its slogan do not have any racial connotations.

But the EEOC insisted that the flag could justify a harassment complaint. The EEOC decreed that

while the Gadsden Flag originated in a non-racial context, it has since been “interpreted to convey racially-tinged messages in some contexts,”… Importantly, the Commission did not find that the Gadsden Flag in fact is a racist symbol. Rather, the Commission found only that the complaint met the legal standard to state a claim under Title VII, and therefore should have been investigated by the agency rather than dismissed.

The EEOC has a long history of knuckle-headed decrees, including its 2012 ruling that made it a federal crime not to hire ex-convicts. (The chief of the EEOC repeatedly publicly denounced my articles in the 1990s, but I don’t hold a grudge.)

The EEOC’s prattle was “close enough for government work” for commentators to howl that the Gadsden flag had been condemned by federal civil-rights watchdogs.

The flag ain’t woke 

The Gadsden flag was further vilified by the New York Times–spurred 1619 campaign to paint the American Revolution as a vast conspiracy to perpetuate slavery. This notion is popular with journalists who have never read a book that was published before 2010. Denouncing the Founders as racists absolves wokesters from having to learn anything about the “slavery by Parliament” that Britain sought to impose — the mass confiscation of firearms and other private property, the sweeping censorship, the total destruction of privacy, and the suppression of jury trials.

The Colorado Springs school district declared that the flag was an “unacceptable symbol” linked to “white-supremacy.” It further claimed that the Gadsden flag had its “origins with slavery” because it was designed in 1775 by a South Carolinian who owned slaves. By the same standard, the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights could all be condemned since Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and George Mason were slaveowners. Do the wokesters want to condemn and expunge all of American history prior to the creation of the LGBT rainbow flag?

The Colorado hubbub occurred because many school officials and students are even more ignorant of American history than freshmen members of Congress. Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor groused in 2014 that fewer than 20 percent of high-school seniors “can say what the Declaration of Independence is, and it’s right there in the title.” Americans’ ignorance of history helps explain their docility nowadays.

The Massachusetts colonists rebelled after the British agents received “writs of assistance” that allowed them to search any colonist’s property. Modern Americans submit passively to endless government intrusions at the airport, online, and on the nation’s highways and sidewalks. Virginia revolted in part because King George imposed a two-pence tax on the sale of a pound of tea; Americans today are complacent while Congress imposes billions of dollars of retroactive taxes — even on people who have already died. Connecticut rebelled in part because the British were undermining the independence of judges; nowadays, federal agencies have the power to act as prosecutor, judge, and jury in suits against private citizens. New Hampshire revolted in part because King George claimed that he automatically owned every Pine Tree in the Colonies; modern Americans are largely complacent when the federal government asserts a right to control every acre of private land that is wet for more a few weeks each year.

Many astute Americans are mystified at the retroactive demonization of this cherished symbol of liberty. Olivia Rondeau, co-host of a Foundation for Economic Education online program, scoffed, “No one ever told my black family that the Gadsden flag was racist. I grew up seeing it around the house all the time. 2023 is something else.”

The Colorado ruckus was popular with pundits who know only enough history to hiss and boo on cue. Two months before the Colorado uproar, the Washington Post published a piece headlined: “The disgraced Confederate history of the ‘Don’t Tread on Me’ flag.” Since a Confederate ship had hoisted that flag in 1861, that meant that the flag was forever damned. And anyone who showed or countenanced that flag was collectively guilty for all the crimes of American history.

But the Gadsden flag became increasingly vilified even before the Tea Party protests. The real objection by officialdom is to the flag’s message: “Don’t Tread on Me.”

That flag got swept up in the vilification of dissent after the 9/11 attacks. The Department of Homeland Security warned local law-enforcement agencies in 2003 to keep an eye on anyone who “expressed dislike of attitudes and decisions of the U.S. government.” DHS pushed to treat the Gadsen flag practically as a terrorist warning signal. DHS-funded Fusion Centers attached the “extremist” or potential terrorist tag to the individuals and groups displaying the Gadsden flag — as well as to individuals who assert a “right to keep and bear arms,” individuals “rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority” (like many Founding Fathers did), people who were “reverent of individual liberty,” and anyone with a “Know Your Rights or Lose Them” bumper sticker.

Law-enforcement agencies have come a long way since targeting Deadhead stickers on Cadillacs in the 1970s. The FBI Domestic Terrorism Symbols Guide included the Gadsden flag as one of the “commonly referenced historical imagery or quotes” used by violent militia extremists. Maybe the feds should formally announce that “distrust of government” is now a hate crime?

Jaiden, an honor roll student, watched wide-eyed as his mother lured the school official to become a nationwide laughingstock. The mother justified Jaiden’s patch: “The Founding Fathers stood up for what they believed against unjust laws, and this is unjust.”

The school official glowered: “I am here to enforce the policy that was provided by the district” after repeating the vexing phrase: “Don’t tread on me.” Did Jaiden threaten the public-school system’s divine right to tread on students and scorn parents’ values?

A victory for free speech 

Connor Boyack, president of the Libertas Institute in Utah, helped publicize the case. After the school conceded, he declared on Twitter: “Let this be a lesson — document your encounters w/ government employees. Had Jaiden’s mom not recorded the video, this wouldn’t have got nearly the attention that it did.” Jaiden was a reader of the Tuttle Twins — the pro-freedom series written by Boyack.

Permitting wokesters to turn the Gadsden flag into the moral equivalent of the Nazi swastika will only encourage more demolitions of American heritage. Will a Babylon Bee headline prove prophetic?: “FBI Seizes Jaiden’s Backpack in Predawn Raid.” Colorado’s liberal governor Jared Polis sought to end the lunacy when he endorsed the Gadsden flag for providing an “iconic warning to Britain or any government not to violate the liberties of Americans.”

The school board backed down but with a huge caveat: Jaiden could express his values only as long as no school staffer or student caterwauled. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) objected, “So long as the school district maintains that Jaiden may wear the Gadsden flag patch only if no student or staff member complains, this controversy is not over.” FIRE warned the school district: “The First Amendment does not allow the ‘heckler’s veto’ as envisioned by the district’s assistant superintendent, where anybody can suppress a student’s speech or viewpoint simply by objecting to it.” The heckler’s veto is especially perilous when domineering government officials are seeking any pretext to suppress whom they please.

Ironically, students would face no official pushback if they came to school wearing t-shirts and backpacks decorated with the logo of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (despite its crimes at Ruby Ridge and Waco), the Drug Enforcement Administration (despite DEA’s persecution of peaceful citizens), the National Security Agency (despite its preemptive destruction of privacy online and beyond), the Centers for Disease Control (despite their falsehoods and fear-mongering during the Covid pandemic), the Food and Drug Administration (despite the shenanigans it used to give full approval to dubious Covid vaccines), the Transportation Security Administration (despite their endless molesting of hapless travelers), the Department of Homeland Security (despite its secret censorship regimes seeking to suppress dissent), and even the Internal Revenue Service — which has wrongfully pilfered legions of Americans.

The Gadsden flag will be needed as long as government officials keep trying to trample Americans’ rights and liberties. None of the pundits who condemned that flag have offered any evidence that politicians nowadays are less perfidious than they were 250 years ago.

This article was originally published in the February 2024 issue of Future of Freedom.


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3 Responses to Trampling on a Symbol of Liberty

  1. Philip L horner February 21, 2024 at 6:00 pm #

    Unfortunately the ‘nazi’ swastika became appropriated too by bad actors and it’s widespread meaning throughout many cultures but especially Asian its ancient meaning obscured by a megalomanic.

    We shouldn’t let modern authoritarian Karen scolds suppress history. But their strident ear splitting screeching sends us to the sidelines.

    molon labe

  2. Steve Mosley February 21, 2024 at 7:34 pm #

    Jim, thanks for another great article. It was very nice to see you linked at the liberty daily site as one of the main articles. I learn or am reminded of something I should remember every time I read your writings. As it warms up, I’ll be pulling out my Gadsden Flag shirt and wear it around town. Hope all is well.

    • Jim February 21, 2024 at 8:25 pm #

      Steve, thanks – glad you liked the piece. South Carolina is a great place to wear a Gadsden Flag shirt — folks there will appreciate far more than they did in your former domain of Maryland. Hope y’all are getting an early Spring down there.

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