Regardless of who is the current occupant of the White House, July is a time to show some patriotism, with parades, fireworks and certainly respect for the flag. However, the divisiveness in our country hit a boiling point in July 2019. A number of flags were at the center of the “controversy,” with the Gadsden flag in the spotlight.
Early in the month, former professional football player Colin Kaepernick called out Nike for releasing Air Max 1 Quick Strike “Fourth of July” sneakers featuring the “Betsy Ross flag.” Kaepernick, whose football career crashed and burned when he refused to stand for the U.S. national anthem prior to NFL games as a protest against racial injustice, has been a “brand ambassador” for Nike since his forced retirement from football. He convinced the shoemaker that the flag is offensive because of its association with slavery. The mainstream media then jumped on the bandwagon. They suggested neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other racist fringe groups also used the flag.
The firestorm over past American flags continued later in the month. Actor Chris Pratt was photographed wearing a T-shirt with the Gadsden flag—also known as the “Don’t Tread on Me,” flag. Social Media called out Pratt for wearing a symbol allegedly used by alt-right racists. Veteran-owned apparel maker Forged produced the shirt. It’s a company noted for donating a portion of every sale to several military affiliated, nonprofit 501(c)3 organizations that support wounded veterans.
Meanwhile, radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh released a T-shirt featuring the Betsy Ross flag with the words “Stand Up For Betsy Ross!” and donated $3 million from the proceeds to Tunnel to Towers, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting families of fallen heroes and veterans. It’s unlikely that the same level of altruism or philanthropy can be said for the makers of Che Guevara or “Not My President!” T-shirts.
Historical Context of the Gadsden Flag
Clearly, American schools don’t teach American history anymore. Both the Betsy Ross and Gadsden flags date back to the earliest days of our Republic. Both have links to our military.
The Gadsden flag is noted for its yellow field depicting a rattlesnake coiled and apparently ready to strike. American general and politician Christopher Gadsden designed it in 1775. The timber rattlesnake, which was found throughout many of the original 13 colonies, was reportedly first used as a symbol of those American colonies by Benjamin Franklin in a satirical commentary in 1751 in his Pennsylvania Gazette.
The column noted that Great Britain sent convicted criminals to the colonies. With that in mind, Franklin suggested sending rattlesnakes back to the motherland. Then in 1754, during the French and Indian War, Franklin published what was arguably the first political cartoon in an American newspaper. It featured a woodcut illustration of a snake cut into eight parts; each represented the then-divided colonies. Under the cut-up snake were the words “Join, or Die”; this implied that the colonies needed to stand together to ensure victory over the French. Following the war, the snake was seen to represent the colonies, which were beginning to move away from Great Britain.
Along with the bald eagle, the rattlesnake became one of the early symbols of American ideals and society. The official seal of the War Office adopted by the Continental Congress in 1778 features the rattlesnake.
Since the Revolution, the Gadsden flag has been used both as a symbol of American patriotism and as a symbol of disagreement with the government. In the 1970s, the flag became strongly associated with the libertarian movement. After the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, it became associated with the Tea Party movement. However, the U.S. Men’s National Soccer Team and even Metallica used the flag as well.
The history of the Betsy Ross flag isn’t so clear. According to the well-known version of the story, Ross had a cousin who was friends with the commander in chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, who commissioned the flag. It featured the alternating red-and-white stripes with 13 five-pointed stars in the blue canton. The flag actually evolved from the Grand Union Flag; it featured the stripes but had the British Union flag in its upper corner. It’s worth noting that the Union flag featured the red-and-white cross of England’s St. George and the blue-and-white cross of Scotland’s St. Andrew. The current British Union (it’s only a “Union Jack” at sea), features the added red-and-white cross of Ireland’s St. Patrick.
While known as the “Betsy Ross flag,” the truth about Ross’ involvement in its creation is in debate. There was likely some embellishment on the part of her descendants. However, since the Revolution, this flag has been a popular symbol of American patriotism.
It’s easy to see why the Left in America has shown disdain for the Gadsden flag, even if that disdain is misguided or misplaced. The great offense of the Gadsden flag is that some members of the Tea Party carried it; thusly, it became a symbol of those who opposed President Obama.
In other words, it was used both as a symbol of patriotism and of disagreement with the government. It was carried by Americans who wanted to support their country while still voicing opposition to the policies of the White House at the time. Exactly how that made it a symbol of “alt-right racists” is something that defies logic—but to liberals, the idea of opposing President Obama was enough to brand someone as a racist.
It is harder still to see the Betsy Ross flag as being racist. However, Colin Kaepernick offered an argument, even if it wasn’t all that convincing. The flag’s origin came in a time when, as noted by some in the liberal media, “America was a slavery-driven and openly racist country” — courtesy of Newsweek. In other words, because some of the Founding Fathers were slave owners, the flag has a racist past.
Now, this should have been easily dismissed by the media, given that the flag has been used on countless occasions as a symbol of patriotism and liberty. But then some people started digging and found that the flag was used by neo-Nazis at a rally held in New York City.
Except it was really wasn’t. Here, again, we need some historical context. The images of the rally at Madison Square Garden were of the German American Bund in February of 1939. The event took place on George Washington’s birthday. It featured a huge portrait of Washington with swastikas on each side, and banners—not flags—that included both the then-48 American stars in the blue canton and the Ross-style 13 stars in the blue canton.
So this wasn’t even technically the Betsy Ross flag. And, more importantly, the 13 stars in a circle were alongside both the 48-star banner and the image of Washington. To suggest that the Betsy Ross flag can be associated with Nazis, past and present, because of this image would imply that George Washington is also a symbol of neo-Nazism.
Then there is the fact that this was a rally of the German American Bund, a group dissolved in 1941. It has virtually no connection to the American Nazi Party, which George Lincoln Rockwell founded in 1959.
You Sure It’s Not Racist?
There are images of some neo-Nazis, white nationalists and others carrying the Ross flag in recent years. But the same groups have also carried the “Stars and Stripes”—our current 50-star flag. Of course, context is key. Some liberal outlets, such as the Daily Kos, have offered examples where Trump supporters have carried the flag in one photo, followed by another photo that showed white nationalists with the flag. The message lacks subtlety. If you can tie the flag to racists, then when supporters of President Trump carry the same flag, they can more easily be branded as racists.
There is some bad reporting here, however. The editors at the Daily Kos clearly don’t know their historic flags. One image isn’t of the Betsy Ross flag, but rather the “Stars and Bars” of the Confederate States of America. Instead of 13 stripes, it has just three stripes, or more accurately “bars.”
Then there are the images from the January 2012 inauguration of President Obama, at which the 13-star Betsy Ross flag hangs behind the stage. The image made the rounds in July thanks to Twitter. The argument from the left is that the context of the flag has changed. However, we must ask if the nation’s first African-American president didn’t see a problem with the flag just seven years ago, then why is it a problem now for a former football player?
Final Thoughts on the Betsy Ross & Gadsden Flag
Finally, the Anti-Defamation League sees neither the Betsy Ross flag nor the Gadsden flag as “racist” symbols. For those who don’t know, the Anti-Defamation League tracks the use of controversial symbols. Both are simply past flags. While they’re sometimes used for insidious or vile purposes, it is wrong to toss them into the trash bin of history due to the actions of a few and at the insistence of the uninformed and insignificant.
This article is from the October/November 2019 issue of Ballistic Magazine. Physical and digital copies are available at OutdoorGroupStore.com.