The Gadsden Flag, which features a rattle snake along with the words “Don’t Tread on Me,” is a symbol of the American colonies’ fight for independence against British imperial rule. The purpose of the fight for independence was to establish a new nation based upon individual rights and political equality.
Yet this symbol of freedom is the subject of an investigation by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) that could result in the symbol being declared a form of punishable racial harassment, according to The Washington Post. Why? Because a black federal employee identified by the pseudonym “Sheldon D.” complained that the man who designed the flag, Colonel Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, was a “slave trader & owner of slaves.” Sheldon D. complained that he was “subjected . . . to discrimination on the basis of race (African American)” because “a coworker (C1) repeatedly wore a cap to work with an insignia of the Gadsden Flag.”
Is this complaint valid?
First, a little history. Colonel Gadsden was not the originator of either the rattlesnake symbol or the accompanying slogan “Don't Tread On Me.” Gadsden simply copied from a banner he stumbled across. The rattlesnake symbol actually traces back to Benjamin Franklin, who in 1751 used it in protest against Great Britain’s policy of releasing convicted criminals to the Americas.
The charge of racial harassment is wrong on three counts.
First, there is the First Amendment. Should the government have the power to ban political expressions simply because someone claims the expression as such constitutes harassment? It’s a dangerous road. The EEOC already started us down that road when it banned the private display of the Confederate Flag in the workplace. The Confederate Flag is offensive, at least to me. Actual harassment, of course, should not be tolerated. But “harassment” should not be stretched to form a cover for benign actions intended only for expression. The benign expression of an opinion through symbolism is free speech, not harassment, and the way to fight it is to use one’s own free speech rights to debate it, rebut it, and present better ideas, not demand the government ban it. Of course, private employers have the right to set their own rules about political advocacy. But that’s a power the government shouldn’t have and in fact is not a power granted to the government by the U.S. Constitution and explicitly forbidden by the First Amendment.
Second, Sheldon D’s understanding of its meaning is completely wrong-headed. The Gadsden Flag is a symbol of freedom, the exact opposite of slavery. True, Gadsden’s evil activity as a slave trader totally contradicts the principles his flag stands for. But the hypocrisy of an individual does not negate ideas. Ideas stand on their own, not on the character of any individual, even if that individual is the originator of the idea. The meaning and validity of ideas stems from independent observation of reality. Was the fight for American Independence good or not? Are individual liberty and political equality good or not? Those are the only questions. Just as Thomas Jefferson as a slave owner does not negate the principles that “all men a created equal” possessing “certain unalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” so Colonel Gadsden as slave trader does not in any way negate the ideal of American Independence the Gadsden flag stands for.
Third, slavery and racism are two separate and distinct evils. Slavery can and has been virtually ubiquitous in human history, transcending race, nationality, and ethnicity. Sometimes one racial or ethnic group enslaved another racial or ethnic group, and sometimes not. But that could have more to do with economics than racism. And it wasn’t only whites enslaving blacks in America. For example, North African pirates once enslaved Europeans, and Arabs were leading African slave traders. Right here in America, there were black plantation owners in the South who owned white slaves before the Civil War. But it wasn’t primarily about race. At various times, as historian Thomas Sowell observes, “Europeans enslaved other Europeans, Asians enslaved other Asians, Africans enslaved other Africans, and indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere enslaved other indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere.” “This enshrinement of racism as an over-arching causal factor [of slavery],” Sowell observes, “accords far more with current instrumental agendas than with history”—in other words, it’s political, not historical fact.
Colonel Gadsden should rightly be condemned for his slave trading and slave owning. Given that Colonel Gadsden was a plagiarist, one might even demand the renaming of the Gadsden Flag to more accurately reflect its origins. Perhaps the “Franklin Flag” or the “Independence Flag?” But even if Gadsden originated and designed the flag, it still remains true that the Gadsden Flag is a symbol of liberty, not slavery and certainly not racism.
Some compare the Gadsden Flag to the Confederate Flag. Unlike the Confederate Flag, the Gadsden Flag stands not for slavery or racism, but for the principles of individualism that stand in direct opposition to slavery and racism, and of the Revolution to establish those principles in practice. The Confederate Flag was a symbol of an agrarian slave culture and of the willingness of the Southern secessionist states to tear apart the United States of America in order to protect that culture. The Gadsden Flag stands for liberty and an America united against tyranny.
The comparison of the Gadsden Flag with the Confederate Flag is 180 degrees dead wrong. To oppose the symbol featuring the rattlesnake and the “Don’t Tread on Me” slogan is to oppose liberty—what does it mean to be a slave, if not to be “tread on” in the most egregious ways—and to put oneself in the position of the Oceania dupes of George Orwell’s 1984 who mindlessly regurgitate the slogan, “Freedom is Slavery.” Not to mention that it is cowardly and counterproductive to one’s own viewpoints to silence someone you disagree with rather than challenge those beliefs openly. I’d much rather the Confederate Flag be displayed openly so I can expose, oppose, and defeat the evil it stands for than have its defenders not face intellectual scrutiny. In fact, I’d counter the Confederate Flag with the Gadsden Flag. It’s a perfect counterpoint. Rather than be offended, Sheldon D. should be celebrating the symbol of anti-slavery and be supportive of people who openly promote liberty with such symbols.
Of course, all of this may miss the point. The Gadsden Flag has been mainly adopted as a rallying cry against “big government” by libertarian, conservative, and “Tea Party” groups. These groups, though disparate even sometimes to the point of incoherence and hypocrisy, generally stand in opposition to the Democratic Left. A cynic can be excused for suspecting that the attack on the Gadsden Flag is nothing more principled than a sleazy Obama Administration or Democratic Party smear tactic to aid Hillary Clinton by painting her political opposition as a bunch of racists. (Not to mention that there is plenty of racism on the American Left, which supports race-based quotas under “affirmative action,” celebrates racial diversity as an end in itself—two thoroughly racist concepts—and has as one of its “progressive” founders the segregationist racist Woodrow Wilson.) Worse, the attack may be part of the Left’s attack on liberty generally, as individual rights and political equality stand as bulwarks against statism and statists everywhere. If so, the American Right should meet the challenge head on. We on the political Right should call the Gadsden attack for what it is: an indication of the Left’s disdain for individual freedom—which would actually be quite accurate.
Whether the emerging enemies of the Gadsden Flag are motivated by politics or misplaced sincerity, the flag should be judged on the merits of the ideals it stands for. Those ideals are liberty over slavery, and individualism over racism. We must defend the Gadsden Flag symbolism because freedom is worth fighting for. It’s one of the icons that capture the essence of America—individual rights and political equality. More fundamentally, we must defend political expression. When intellectual discourse disappears, violent aggression must necessarily follow. It’s either-or; reason or guns. We must always choose reason. Those are principles that should unite all Americans.
Leftists are the Last People Qualified to Lecture on Race