These accusations are both true and false; they are half-truths. Allow me to explain.
The flag known as the Gadsden Flag is actually a flag used in the Revolutionary War by General Gadsden's platoon. The flag is rooted in our nation’s historic battle for independence, not gun-totting radicals in the woods.
The meaning of the statement “Don’t Tread On Me” in conjunction with the snake reared to strike is actually very deeply philosophical. Most people fear snakes, but many forget that snakes fear people. A snake is not going to bite anyone unless it is messed with and “tread on” so to speak. That is key here. So the person or group correctly using the Gadsden Flag is saying that they are passive and peaceful people, but if their rights are tread on then they are prepared to strike back with force. This does not necessarily mean violence, but can be seen as a metaphor for organizing to defend those rights. The lethal strike implied is reserved for only the direst circumstances when rather than minor transgressions the government has made a “long train of abuses” and all peaceful avenues of change have been exhausted. This can be encapsulated in the John F. Kennedy quote, “Those that make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” An example of justifiable use of this strike can be seen the Middle East now in countries like Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
In this way the principle of Don’t Tread On Me, can be contrasted with pacifism which advocates that only passive resistance is justifiable. The tactics of Gandhi as compared to those of George Washington and the rest of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
So are the holders of Gadsden Flags advocating violent revolution? Does holding a flag mean that they are at the tipping point? Absolutely not. The most basic message is of the Gadsden flag is that, “I am mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore," and that “I am going to organize peaceably to defend my rights that have been tread upon.”
In this manner, earlier movements seeking to restore lost or absent rights such as the slavery abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, or even the Civil Rights Movement could have taken up the flag for their cause. They would not have been out of place in doing so.
But of course today the Gadsden Flag is most often associated with the Tea Party.
Is that a bad thing? Yes and no. The Tea Party is a very young and fragmented movement that has a wide variety of opinions and very loosely defined policy agenda. Are they racists, bigots, haters of the poor? In a crowd of a couple hundred, or a couple thousand some of these radicals will pop out of the woodwork. But the Tea Party is not an inherently negative movement. Are there fringe elements that say crazy things? Sure. Do the self appointed public talking heads such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman say things that don’t make sense. Yes, sometimes they do. But the definition of a nationwide grassroots movement is such that “The Tea Party” is different in every state, in every county, and in every city. I have been to some very rational and level headed Tea Parties, and I have been to some that made my blood curdle. As such there is no such thing as “being with the Tea Party” in the sense that one can be “with” the Democratic Party, Republican Party, or any other political organization. It is a decentralized movement and in the coming years I am confident will grow into a very positive force in American politics.
So the next time you hear the rallying cry “Don’t Tread On Me!”, or see a yellow Gadsden Flag waved don’t run in terror or judgmentally mutter, "Those tea baggers". Instead assess whether what is happening before you is rational and level headed on a case by case basis - whether you agree or not. You might be pleasantly surprised.