- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 4, 2000


Mel Gibson's much-anticipated Revolutionary War epic, "The Patriot," hits America's multiplexes on Wednesday. Previews of the movie show Mr. Gibson's character, Benjamin Martin of South Carolina, charging across a battlefield with the Stars and Stripes in an courageous frontal assault on the British. But if history is any guide, the flag of choice for many revolutionaries is startlingly absent.
Long before there was a stars and stripes, the patriots had flown a far more defiant symbol of liberty. Its designer was a neighbor of the fictional Martin, a man named Christopher Gadsden from Charleston. Gadsden's face and name may not be immortalized on any bill or coin, but this firebrand gave us another great flag, the blazing yellow emblem with the deadly coiled rattlesnake and revolutionary warning, "Don't Tread on Me."
Today we don't take the time as we once did to remember those iron men who fought the revolution. We seem to have forgotten the principles, energy and sacrifice they poured into defending freedom and the rule of law. In that sense, "The Patriot" is a welcome entry into our pop culture.
Gadsden and his flag are the perfect symbol of the spirit of the American Revolution. He was a man of principle who understood that government, unless held in check, grows slowly and inexorably. A government without limits soon becomes the master and the citizens, heavily-taxed and without security in their rights, are little more than slaves.
When parliament passed the Stamp Act in 1765, Gadsden helped rally opposition to that oppressive law. He argued that taxation without representation in parliament violated the most basic laws of the English constitution and the natural rights of citizens.
The Stamp Act, like many of the attempts to control the colonies, would set an unlawful precedent. The taxes on tea, trade and even paper were modest. The real problem, the revolutionaries understood, was that the Stamp Act laid the groundwork for the unlimited and unrepresentative expansion of government. It was the thin edge of the wedge.
Without representation the ability to fight for their interests the colonies would be subject to the whim and will of politicians ever in search of more revenue and swag to grant the "court locusts" who buzz around institutions of power expecting a handout.
As John Dickinson of Pennsylvania wrote, "If Parliament succeeds in this attempt, other statutes will impose other duties… and thus Parliament will levy upon us such sums of money as they choose to take without any other limitation than their pleasure."
When the British sent an envoy to Charleston to enforce the Stamp Act, Gadsden led the Sons of Liberty against the tax-collecting functionary. The patriots would not let his ship anchor. When the captain tried to drop anchor at nearby Fort Johnson, the patriots, no doubt alcohol-fueled and intoxicated with raucous songs of their victory, decided to make their point more forcefully. They took over the fort and turned the British guns at the Stamp Act collector's ship.
Outmatched and obviously outgunned, the captain set to sea never to return. Gadsden and his men then went home. Through legal channels, the patriots continued their resistance to the Stamp Act and eventually had it overturned.
Eight years later, America was in full rebellion against British rule, which had become more capricious and still threatened unjust and burdensome taxation. It was then that Gadsden became a colonel in the revolutionary army and presented his unique ensign as the flag of "the cause."
The coiled snake might seem a strange symbol today. But it was and is effective. No American who ever sees it forgets and that's just the kind of message the revolutionaries wanted to send.
For those early Americans, the rattlesnake had special significance. Like liberty, the rattler was found only in America. But that wasn't all. That wily serpent was usually just a harmless, humble creature. But aroused, angered and prodded, first it warned with violent rattle, then it struck with a deadly bite. Gadsden emphasized this by printing the legend, "Don't Tread On Me" on his flag.
The symbol swept the nation. It became the banner of minutemen militias. The Culpeper Minutemen chose the coiled snake ready to strike and Gadsden's words; and, as if the point wasn't clear enough, added the words: "Liberty or Death."
At sea, the first flag of the Continental Navy carried Gadsden's warning, this time with a sea snake slithering across the 13 red-and-white stripes.
Early Americans saw the tremendous opportunities of a land born of liberty where men were free to innovate, invent and explore. They could reap the rewards of freedom without government meddling and were safe because they answered to God, family and their local communities.
Most of all, those early Americans understood that liberty is fragile. To give any distant body of elites the power to tax and spend to stay in power assured a government more interested in concentrating power for itself than in protecting the rights of its citizens.
The saga of Benjamin Martin in "The Patriot" hopefully will remind American audiences of what their forefathers had to do when those rights were tread upon. Those hard-fought and hard-won lessons of what it takes to be free are worth remembering.

Matthew Robinson is an adjunct fellow of the Claremont Institute.

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