Christopher Gadsden: American Revolutionary and Designer of the Don’t Tread on Me Flag

This is the third guest article contributed by Jen Grant, blogger for American Flags

What I’ve found really interesting in this thoughtful article is the insight it gives into the careers of one of the many minor figures involved in the American War of Independence.

Great historical events have their leading lights, but they could achieve nothing without a large supporting cast of actors; and you can’t really get to grips with events without looking at the lives and achievements of these lesser figures. 

In this case, we have a wealthy member of the colonial elite who is impatient with rule by the British government. He wants at the very least for local people to have more say in running their own affairs, and quite probably he is one of the earliest to think about complete independence for the American colonies.

One of the interesting things for me was that it showed how different was the composition of the American colonial elite from those in Europe at the time. He was both a merchant AND a landowner – in Europe, you were usually either one or the other. Members of the ruling elite were almost always the former. European landowners tended to be aristocrats who had landownership going back generations in their families, and who held merchants in some contempt. This contrast with colonial America neatly sums up the unique nature of American society at the time, and why it really did need to break away and go its own way.

Our non-American readers will need some background, so set out below is some information on institutions referred to in the narrative.

Christopher Gadsden: Politician, Revolutionary War General and
Designer of the Don’t Tread on Me Flag

One of the symbols of the American Revolution, which has returned to notice recently, is the “Gadsden flag.” Currently used to express disagreement with high taxation and other Federal policies, the flag itself was first used as the personal flag by Esek Hopkins, the commander of Alfred, one of the first men-of-war in the U.S. Navy.

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Don’t Tread On Me flag of American Revolution (American Flags)

The Gadsden, or Don’t Tread on Me flag, was designed by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. When he gave the flag to Hopkins, he was a member of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. A little-known figure, he was one of many who helped create the new nation.

Early years

Gadsden was born in 1724 in Charleston, South Carolina. His father was a collector of customs. After his education in England, he served as an apprentice in a Philadelphia counting house. He inherited a large fortune when his parents died in 1741, and was subsequently the purser on HMS Aldborough

Coming ashore in 1747, he repurchased land lost by his father in a gambling failure and began a notable mercantile career in Charleston. By 1774, his holdings included several merchant ships, four stores, a residential district in Charleston, Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston and two rice plantations worked by over 90 slaves.

Politics before the Revolution

Gadsden was first elected to the South Carolina legislature (the Commons House of Assembly) in 1757, and served, in 1759, as a militia captain in a campaign against the Cherokee. He early demonstrated impatience with British authority by objecting to the appointment of a British officer to command local troops, rather than a provincial officer. He also opposed the Governor and Royal Council’s attempts to limit the Assembly’s right to raise local troops, control taxation and set the rules for elections of its members.

In 1762, Governor Thomas Boone was so annoyed by Gadsden’s actions that he kept him out of office because of a minor electoral infraction. Gadsden’s involvement in politics did not end, however. He was sent to the Stamp Act Congress in 1765 and created the Charleston branch of the Sons of Liberty, which worked against every attempt by Parliament to exercise authority over the colonies.

He was elected to both the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the first, he was so extreme that he proposed that Congress reject all Parliamentary laws passed after 1763. He also advocated war preparations.

The Gadsden Flag

While in the Second Continental Congress, he served on the Marine Committee. This committee helped create the U.S. Navy. At some point during the early months of 1775, Gadsden gave the flag which now bears his name to Commodore Hopkins.

The flag was not the first use of the rattlesnake by the colonies. Benjamin Franklin began using it in 1754. Originally it was not a call for independence, but rather a call for unity between and among the colonies during the French and Indian War. During the years after the end of the War, the symbol changed into one calling for unity against Great Britain, as tensions increased before the Revolution.

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Rattlesnake design flag of US Revolutionary period, like in used by Benjamin Franklin

During the Revolution

In early 1776, Gadsden was appointed Colonel of the First South Carolina Regiment. He also served as a member of the Provincial Congress. He was stationed in Charleston and helped repulse the British Navy’s attempt to take Charleston. The Continental Congress appointed him Brigadier General in the Continental Army because of this action.

As a member of the state Congress, he worked to disestablish the Anglican Church. He also fought for popular election of senators in the state. His foes rewarded him by his appointment as what we now would call the Lieutenant Governor, a powerless position.

He was captured in 1780 when Charleston finally fell to the British after the city’s surrender by General Benjamin Lincoln. He had surrendered the civil government, and was paroled by General Clinton; he then went to his Charleston home. In August of 1780, however, Lord Cornwallis became the new British Commander in South Carolina, and arrested Gadsden and 19 other civilian officials, imprisoning them in St. Augustine.

When offered the chance of parole, he refused, based on the previous showing of bad faith. After ten months, he was released and sent to Philadelphia. On learning of the departure of Cornwallis for Virginia, he returned home.

Balance of his Career

When the state’s legislature met next, he was elected Governor but declined due to ill-health from his captivity. He remained in the legislature, and in 1788 he was a member of the convention which ratified the new U.S. Constitution. He died in 1805 after a fall.

He was married three times and had four children with his second wife. His grandson, James, was the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico who negotiated the Gadsden Purchase in 1854.

Gadsden’s Wharf

Gadsden’s Wharf in Charleston could hold up to six ships at a time. A significant part of the business done there was the importation of an estimated 100,000 West Africans from 1783 to 1808, when the slave trade was banned. Roughly 40% of the slaves imported to the U.S. came through Gadsden’s Wharf.

The Wharf itself will be the site of the International African American Museum, scheduled to open in 2019. That year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first slave ship in the English colonies.

In 2014, archaeologists discovered remnants of the wharf on the plot purchased for the museum. The director of the planned museum notes its greatest artifact will be “the ground.”

Legacy

Gadsden’s legacy is as complicated as much as America’s. Like many of the founders, he was a successful, wealthy businessman. He was a strong advocate for the colonies’ ability to govern themselves, and it’s clear he was leaning towards independence from an early date. He served South Carolina ably and was a troublemaker to those in authority.

Portrait-Christopher-Gadsden
Portrait of Christopher Gadsden

But he, like many founders, was a slaveowner and profited from the slave trade. The slave trade benefited many, North and South, and slavery itself has been called America’s Original Sin.

We are the beneficiaries of the efforts of the founders. We must remember their work. The people who wave the Don’t Tread on Me flag in 2017 continue, in their own way, that work

 

Background information:

South Carolina Legislature – each of the 13 colonies had assembly elected by local people. There was also a governor appointed by the government back in Britain.  By the mid-18th century (if not a lot earlier) there was a tussle for power going on between the two institutions in many colonies, with colonial elites wanting to run affairs in their own communities and not be hamstrung by the colonial officials.

The Stamp Act Congress or First Congress of the American Colonies was held in late 1765. The delegates were sent by some of the British North American colonies to discuss a co-ordinated response to the new British taxation, known as the Stamp Act, which was about to come into force. The Congress established the position that the British Parliament did not have the right to impose the tax because Parliament did not included representatives from the colonies.

The French and Indian War took place from 1754 to 1763. The war merged with the international conflict between France and Britain  known in Britain as the Seven Years War (1756-63). Although the North American theatre wa a crucuial one, where difieerent Native American tribes sided with either British (and British North Americans) or French, in fact the war had a claim to being the first truly global conflict, with fighting also taking place in Europe, India and many of the seas of the world.

First Continental Congress, 1774, was a meeting of delegates sent by the colonies to decide on a co-ordinated response to British attempts to bring the colonies back to their obedience to the British Parliament. It took place in Philadelphia.

Second Continental Congress, 1775, was a second meeting of delegates from the colonies, and it also met at Philadelphia. It ended up running the War of Independence from 1775 to 1783, and was the forerunner of te Congress of the United States.

Anglican church – another name for the church of England (Anglican Church), which the British government sought to impose as the standard form of the Christian religion in territories which it ruled.