This article is a part of our “Revolutionary Animals” series, which examines the roles of animals in revolution, representations of revolutionary animals, and the intersections between representation and the lived experiences of animals.
By J. L. Bell
Revolutionary Americans adopted native snakes as symbols for their cause, starting with a revival of Benjamin Franklin’s famous “JOIN, or DIE” emblem. In the 1770s serpents slithered across newspaper mastheads. Rattlesnakes coiled on drums and reared on flags. Vipers were carved into early seals of the Continental Congress. And as the Revolutionary struggle progressed, artists chose different American snakes with different symbolic meanings.
This abundance of snakes is striking because in ordinary times British-American culture did not like snakes. That antipathy had deep roots. In Genesis, the serpent is the lead villain, tempting Eve and Adam. Snakes had some godly cachet in the Greek and Roman mythology that gentlemen studied, but classical lore offered plenty of bad examples. Fairly or not, the public image of snakes had not improved much since antiquity.
Indeed, many British scholars of the time believed that humans were instinctively repelled by snakes. The botanist Peter Collinson wrote of “a Sort of Natural aversion in Human Nature against this Creature.” In 1774, Oliver Goldsmith began a chapter on “Serpents in General” with the declaration: “We now come to a tribe that not only their deformity, their venom, their ready malignity, but also our prejudices and our very religion, have taught us to detest.”Enlightenment science was changing the way scholars studied the world, but it did not erase this bias.
The British colonists who settled in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries brought those cultural connotations of serpents with them. They also spent a lot of effort wiping out actual snakes that they thought threatened their livestock. Yet as they entered a confrontation with the royal government in London and sought to sway public opinion, they adopted vipers as their emblems.
In particular, American politicians of the later 1700s seized on the symbolism of two sorts of snakes—the glass snake and the rattlesnake. These creatures were known for different traits and carried different messages, but they shared an important quality: naturalists wrote about both snakes as American species. That made them apt mascots for the American cause.
The glass snake was also called the brimstone snake and joint snake. In A New Voyage to Carolina (1709), John Lawson wrote of this animal: “It is as brittle as a Tobacco-Pipe, so that if you give it the least Touch of a small Twigg, it immediately breaks into several Pieces. Some affirm, that if you let it remain where you broke it, it will come together again.” In An Essay Towards a Natural History of Serpents (1742), Charles Owen accepted how easily the glass snake could shatter but added, “some say, and nobody believes, [the several Pieces] are capable of Re-union.” Nonetheless, people continued to spread that lore.
In reality, of course, glass snakes did not work like that. What we call glass snakes are actually lizards with long thin bodies and no legs or very small legs, making them look like snakes. In North America, these lizards are in the genus Ophisaurus. As an adaptive protection, their tails can snap off, wriggle, and break into further pieces, distracting a predator and giving the animals time to wriggle away. Contrary to the legend, however, the separated pieces do not reunite and come back to life.
British settlers in North America were not the only people who imagined disjointed snakes reforming. Scholars have documented variants of that motif in the folklore of China and the Philippines. Most significant for the development of the American symbol, French authors discussed the phenomenon. Even the proceedings of the French Royal Academy of Sciences alluded to “le Serpent coupé en deux, & qu’on a dit se rejoindre [the serpent cut in two, which is said to rejoin itself].” As Karen Severud Cook has shown, popular French emblem books included images of a snake cut into two pieces with mottos like “Nec mors nec vita relicta [Neither death nor life abandoned]” and “Se rejoindre ou mourir [Rejoin or die].”
In 1754, the Philadelphia newspaper publisher and politician Benjamin Franklin took inspiration from those French emblems and mixed in the American glass snake, able to survive being broken into many pieces—not just two like the European version. On May 9 Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette published what he called “an Emblem” of a snake in eight shards, each representing part of Britain’s North American empire. His message for his fellow Americans was “JOIN, or DIE,” urging the colonies—from New England at the snake’s head to South Carolina at the tail—to work together against the French threat.
Albert Matthews found that four more newspapers—two in New York and two in Boston—echoed Franklin’s message with their own snake woodcuts that month. The August 22, 1754, South Carolina Gazette could not produce a picture but described the snake for readers and approximated it in type. Despite those efforts, however, the colonies did not begin to act together. The intercolonial Albany Congress that Franklin promoted in late 1754 fizzled.
In 1765, American printers brought Franklin’s “JOIN, or DIE” snake back to life. The image resurfaced first in a New York broadside designed to look like a newspaper. Titled the Constitutional Courant, dated September 21, and said to be printed “at the Sign of the Bribe refused on Constitution-Hill, North-America,” this publication was devoted to essays against the Stamp Act. The glass snake’s message of inter-colonial unity was timely again as politicians prepared for the Stamp Act Congress in New York City. In October the Boston Evening-Post reported on this “new political Paper” using its old “Join, or Die” woodcut as an illustration, and a second printing of the Constitutional Courant featuring the identical woodcut appeared mysteriously in Boston.
After another few years, with the political conflict ratcheting up, that glass snake evolved. On June 23, 1774, John Holt’s New-York Journal replaced the royal arms on its masthead with a shattered glass snake over the motto “UNITE OR DIE.” This serpent included the colony of Georgia, showing it was a new engraving rather than a relic of 1754. A similar image started to appear atop the Bradford brothers’ Pennsylvania Journal on July 27.
Soon that snake took even more mythical forms. On July 7, the Boston printer Isaiah Thomas unveiled an expanded masthead for his radical Massachusetts Spy newspaper. As engraved by silversmith Paul Revere, this new woodcut featured a giant snake, its reconnected parts labeled with the initials of colonies from New England to Georgia. Thomas made clear in his History of Printing in North-America how this was a formidable animal: “The head and tail of the snake were supplied with stings, for defence against the dragon [of Great Britain], which appeared furious, and as bent on attacking the snake.”
Yet another new form of the snake appeared on the masthead of Holt’s New-York Journal in December 1774. This serpent was not only in one piece, but it had coiled twice and grasped its tail in its mouth, completing a symbol of unity like the ancient ouroboros. Words on the snake spelled out that it was “UNITED NOW AND FREE.” Holt used that device right up until August 29, 1776, when he left the city ahead of the British military takeover.
As the Americans’ conflict with the Crown turned military, however, the glass snake was overtaken by another serpentine symbol. This was the rattlesnake, America’s most famous viper. Because their species were unknown in the Old World, rattlesnakes fascinated European authors. As Whitney Barlow Robles recently wrote, “the uniquely New World rattlesnake is one of a handful of animals that might be said to have its own historiography.”
Naturalists saw particular significance in how those serpents rattled their tails in warning before they struck. In 1737 John Bartram declared: “We may justly admire the goodness of Providence in giveing this noxious Animal a Rattle in his Tail to give notice where he is.” But there were limits to such admiration—American farmers were trying to destroy as many of these venomous snakes as they could.
As with the glass snake, the first American author to use the rattlesnake in political debate was Benjamin Franklin. In 1751 he wrote an essay for his Pennsylvania Gazette criticizing the British government’s practice of transporting criminals to North America. Franklin sarcastically proposed that in return the colonies could send some of the famous American rattlers to Britain.
After the Revolutionary War broke out in April 1775, however, rattlesnakes went from being an unwanted threat to an American mascot. By May, all thirteen colonies were represented at the Second Continental Congress, so the “JOIN, or DIE” message was no longer paramount. With battles under way on land and sea, the glass snake probably seemed too fragile, too harmless, to stand for the American cause.
In December 1775 the new Continental Navy began to recruit marines, and one of those companies sported a drum on which “was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, ‘DON’T TREAD ON ME.’” This image inspired a disquisition on the symbolism of rattlesnakes in the December 27 Pennsylvania Journal—the same newspaper that still featured a “UNITE OR DIE” glass snake on its masthead. “An American Guesser” concluded that the rattler was a fine symbol for America because of keen eyesight, refusal to surrender, unseen but deadly weapons, and how “she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.” This echoed what naturalists had written about the rattlesnake and its warnings for over a century.
In short order the “Don’t Tread on Me” rattlesnake popped up elsewhere around the colonies, starting with a flag that Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina presented to the Congress for its new navy. Newspapers said it had “thirteen rattles, the fourteenth budding,” for soon-to-be-conquered Canada.
In 1778 the Continental Congress incorporated a rattlesnake into the iconography of the official seal for its Board of War and Ordnance, the serpent hovering over a collection of flags and weaponry. Georgia issued a $20 bill featuring a rattler and the motto “Nemo me impune lacesset [No one will provoke me with impunity].” South Carolina ships flew a banner with “a Rattlesnake in the Middle of the thirteen Stripes.” With all those rattlesnakes slithering around, even the British political press picked up on the American symbolism, as Bob Ruppert has traced.
For the American Revolutionaries, the rattlesnake held three important qualities. First, it was dangerous, ready to defend itself. Nonetheless, it gave fair warning to anyone coming too close, thus behaving more honorably than people expected of serpents. Finally, like the glass snake that broke into many pieces but supposedly could rejoin, the rattlesnake was an American native. It reflected the continent’s special place in the world, according to the best science. In the heady years of the Revolution, Americans could set aside their traditional, Biblical, and agronomical aversion to snakes and adopt them as admirable symbols of the new nation—coming together, treating others fairly, and able to strike with deadly effect.
J. L. Bell is the author of The Road to Concord: How Four Stolen Cannon Ignited the American Revolution. He maintains the Boston 1775 website, offering daily helpings of history, analysis, and unabashed gossip about Revolutionary New England. He has never owned a snake.
Title Image: Benjamin Franklin, Boston Gazette 1754, Join or Die.
Adelman, Joseph M. Revolutionary Networks: The Business and Politics of Printing the News, 1763–1789. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
Fischer, David Hackett. Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Matthews, Albert. “The Snake Devices, 1754-1776, and the Constitutional Courant, 1765,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts Publications, 10 (1910), 409–53. Available at https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/187#ah1104.
Olson, Lester C. Emblems of American Community in the Revolutionary Era: A Study in Rhetorical Iconology.Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
Ruppert, Bob. “The Rattlesnake Tells the Story,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 14, 2015, https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/the-rattlesnake-tells-the-story/.
 Collinson to John Bartram, September 20 or 22, 1751, quoted in Whitney Barlow Robles, “The Rattlesnake and the Hibernaculum: Animals, Ignorance, and Extinction in the Early American Underworld,” William and Mary Quarterly, series 3, 78 (2021), 15.
 Goldsmith, A History of the Earth: and Animated Nature (Omskirk: John Fowler, 1808), 4:173.
 Robles, 22–5.
 Lawson, The History of Carolina (Raleigh: Strother and Marcom, 1860), 219. John Brickell repeated Lawson’s description almost word for word in The Natural History of North-Carolina (Dublin: James Carson, 1737), 151–2.
 Owen, An Essay Towards a Natural History of Serpents (London: John Gray, 1742), 130. Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina(1734-1747) omitted the tales of the glass snake reforming.
 “The Jointed Snake” in E. T. C. Werner, Myths and Legends of China (New York: Dover, 1994), 393. Histoire générale des voyages (Paris: Didot, 1752), 39:123.
 Histoire de L’Academie Royale des Sciences, Année 1741 (Amsterdam: Pierre Mortier, 1747), 46.
 Karen Severud Cook, “Benjamin Franklin and the Snake That Would Not Die,” The British Library Journal, 22 (1996), 95–6. Nicolas Verrien, Livre curieux et utile pour les sçavans et artistes (Paris: 1685), XXV.14, LXI.7. To explore the artistic and literary genre of the emblem book, visit Emblematica at http://emblematica.grainger.illinois.edu/.
 “From Benjamin Franklin to Richard Partridge, 8 May 1754,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-05-02-0085. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 5, July 1, 1753, through March 31, 1755, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 272–5.]
 The newspapers that created their own versions of Franklin’s snake in May 1754 were the New-York Gazette, New-York Mercury, Boston Gazette, and Boston News-Letter. Albert Matthews, “The Snake Devices, 1754-1776, and the Constitutional Courant, 1765,” Colonial Society of Massachusetts Publications, 10 (1910), 417–8. Available at https://www.colonialsociety.org/node/187#ah1104.
 Matthews, 422–35.
 See Matthews, 448–51, for Loyalist printer James Rivington’s poetic jibe that America was now “typ’d by a Snake—in the grass” and Patriot printers’ responses in kind.
 Thomas, The History of Printing in America (Worcester: Isaiah Thomas, Jr., 1810), 2:252. Revere and Thomas also included a snake in the decoration surrounding portraits of John Hancock and Samuel Adams in issues of the Royal American Magazine for March and April 1774.
 For further discussion of this image, see Lester C. Olson, Emblems of American Community in the Revolutionary Era: A Study in Rhetorical Iconology (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).
 Robles, 7.
 Quoted in Robles, 19.
 “Felons and Rattlesnakes, 9 May 1751,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-04-02-0040. [Original source: The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 4, July 1, 1750, through June 30, 1753, ed. Leonard W. Labaree (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961), 130–3.]
 “An American Guesser” assured readers that in heraldry one could consider only the “worthy properties” of an animal while “the base ones cannot have been intended.” Some authors have guessed that “An American Guesser” was none other than Franklin, but he never made a claim to this essay.
 Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), May 11, 1776, for example. This report about Gadsden’s flag came with an adaptation of the “American Guesser” analysis of its symbolism.
 The original form of the Board of War seal on Continental Congress commissions shows the snake had a rattle: http://berryhillsturgeon.com/BSL/JohnJay/JohnJay1779.html. That detail was lost as the U.S. military adapted the seal over the succeeding centuries.
 See an image of this bill at https://coins.nd.edu/colcurrency/currencytext/GA-05-04-78.html.
 “The Commissioners to Domenico Caracciolo, 9 October 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-07-02-0084. [Original source: The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 7, September 1778 – February 1779, ed. Gregg L. Lint et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989), 122–123.]
 Bob Ruppert, “The Rattlesnake Tells the Story,” Journal of the American Revolution, January 14, 2015, https://allthingsliberty.com/2015/01/the-rattlesnake-tells-the-story/.