Don’t Tread on Me Meaning: Here’s What It Means and How To Use It

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We have another word of the day for you! Let’s learn about the old saying don’t tread on me. You may have seen these words printed on a bright yellow flag, but did you know they’re considered quite controversial? 

We’re here to answer all your questions with this simple guide. Below you’ll find an explanation of the phrase don’t tread on me, what it means, and how to use it.

What Is the Definition of Tread?

According to, “tread” means to trample, crush, press, or injure something or someone. It’s used in this historical expression or motto that was coined during the revolutionary war. The original context was a way to show American patriotism.

What Is The Origin of Don’t Tread on Me?

Don’t tread on me was a way to express American patriotism and individual rights; it was coined by the American colonies during the revolutionary war. America fought long and hard against the British, and they wanted to have a flag representing their grit. This was when the iconic coiled-up timber rattlesnake became a part of the American mythos. 

The yellow “don’t tread on me” flag first appeared on battleships in 1775.

The man responsible for coining the term was a South Carolina soldier named Christopher Gadsden. While this bright yellow flag with dramatic black detailing is more commonly associated with right-wing political views and ideologies, the original context behind it was simply a way for Americans to show they were ready to fight for what they believed in!

Chances are you’ve seen a don’t tread on me flag on a car license plate or as a sticker on a co-worker’s laptop. Its history runs deep, but popularity amongst this saying has only recently sky-rocketed — but why?

If this saying has sparked curiosity in your mind, then we’re here to answer all your questions about surrendering the Gadsden flag. So, what does the coiled rattlesnake depict? And why has it just recently become popular in North America again?

Why Is There a Rattlesnake on the Don’t Tread on Me Flag?

You may be wondering why Gadsden chose a rattlesnake to represent America on his flag design; why not something more traditionally “American” like a bald eagle? Well, a rattlesnake may have actually been the best choice, and here’s why.

At the time, the rattlesnake was closely related to America and its 13 colonies because of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin’s political cartoon’s depiction of the 13 colonies was of a rattlesnake divided into 13 parts, with each part representing one of the 13 colonies. 

Below the drawing was the phrase “Join, or Die.” Franklin drew this cartoon in response to the British shipping their convicts to American soil — the rattlesnake represented what America 

would ship back to Britain if they didn’t halt their shipments to the U.S.

Rattlesnakes are very dangerous creatures; if provoked, they will act immediately in self-defense. Gadsden and Franklin thought a rattlesnake would best fit America’s feelings toward the war. Like a rattlesnake, if tread on, the American soldiers would be ready to attack. America was saying, “Don’t tread on us, or there will be consequences.”

hy Is Don’t Tread on Me Popular Today?

Even though the famous (and controversial) band Metallica released an album titled Don’t Tread On Me, it isn’t the reason the term has gained such controversial attention.

The term don’t tread on me (and the rattlesnake symbol) gained massive popularity in the early 2000s after it became massively politicized by the tea party movement. Conservatives and other libertarian groups adopted the term — they used this motto to represent less government, lower taxes, and second amendment rights.

While this flag was once a way to show patriotism during the American Revolution, after its adoption and heavy usage by certain political groups, it has since taken on a negative connotation to some people.

Many right-wing conservative groups are accused of bigotry and racism against African Americans and other minorities, which is why the flag and term aren’t considered as patriotic as before. The don’t tread on me flag is even often compared to the confederate battle flag.

For example, in 2014, an African American federal employee felt discriminated against when he complained about his co-worker wearing a don’t tread on me hat to work. 

He claimed that Gadsden was a slave owner and that the flag was a historical indicator of white resentment against African-Americans stemmed from the tea party. While his initial complaints were dismissed, the federal post office eventually acted in his favor. 

How Can You Use Don’t Tread on Me? 

Don’t tread on me can be a way to show dominance or that you’re not fearful of someone or something. It was originally used to send the message that American soldiers would not back down during the revolutionary war. However, it is now commonly used to protest gun laws and other non-conservative beliefs.

Given the definition of this word, you could use it to show a lack of fear in a certain way that is meant to intimidate others. However, given the recent use of this word, the context may get misconstrued. 


While this flag and saying may be considered controversial today, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes, as societal norms change, certain sayings and beliefs are seen differently than they once were. The political climate of the world now is much different than it was during the revolutionary war.


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CONTEXT | definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary

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