Christopher Gadsden was a colonel in the Continental army, a slave owner and slave trader from South Carolina. History remembers him for designing what is known as the Gadsden Flag, depicting a coiled rattlesnake about to strike, with the motto, “Don’t Tread on Me”. To the outnumbered and outgunned Revolutionary army defying the tyranny of England, Gadsden’s flag was meant to inspire courage and personify the indominable spirit of the American Revolution.
Since then, the Gadsden Flag has been adopted by conservative, libertarian and right-wing anti-government groups. It was a favorite of The Tea Party, militia activists at Ruby Ridge and the January 6 insurrectionists. There’s even a rainbow version used by the Queer Nation defense group. Now, if Senate File 47 is adopted, the belligerent Gadsden Flag will be an option for personalized Iowa license plates. For an extra $35, Iowans will be able to pick a fight with strangers without even getting out of their car.
Thirteen other states are already offering the Gadsden license plate option, including, Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia—mostly former slave states and states most likely to secede from the Union.
The Gadsden Flag was the result of some basic biological confusion about the true nature of rattlesnakes. A fan of the flag, Ben Franklin, (you remember, the guy, who as the story goes, wanted to have the turkey named as the symbol of America, instead of the bald eagle), was quoted saying, “The Rattlesnake never backed down when provoked.” As macho and brave as this sounds, it’s not accurate. While it might bite if you step on it, a rattlesnake rattles in order to avoid confrontation. And even then, given the opportunity, the timid reptile will slither away and hide. The fact is, an army of rattlesnakes would be an army of deserters.
A license plate is a kind of abbreviated promotion for its state. Florida’s license plate motto is, “The Sunshine State.” New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment”. Wyoming is “The Equality State.” It makes you want to go there. But I’m not so sure “Don’t Tread on Me!” is a good fit for Iowa. Do we want the world to see us as aggressive isolationists? Is that who we are?
Will states now start changing their license plate mottos to reflect the new national feistiness? Instead of “The Peace Garden State”, will North Dakota’s motto be “When Push Comes to Shove”? Instead of “The Sunflower State”, will Kansas be “Cruisin’ for a Bruisin’”? Will Missouri change from “The Show Me State” to the “Make Me!” state? Will the New Jersey motto be, “So’s Your Mother!”? (Actually, I think that is their motto.)
While I don’t want anybody to tread on Iowans, I don’t think we should be looking for trouble. Come on, this is Iowa! We’re nicer than that.