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The Rattle-Snake As A Symbol Of America
Only one man would have had the wit, the audacity, and the self-confidence to make the case
March 1988 | Volume 39, Issue 2
At the end of 1775, when fighting had already begun between the Americans and the British, an essay about the character of rattlesnakes appeared in the Pennsylvania Journal signed by “An American Guesser.” The Guesser, obviously a patriot and a witty one, has just recently been identified as Benjamin Franklin. This piece, and fifty-six other newly attributed writings, which have never before been collected, are included in the recently published Library of America volume Benjamin Franklin: Writings. The editor, J. A. Leo Lemay, reports that Franklin had used the rattlesnake symbol before—notably in a savage piece he published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1751 suggesting that America send rattlesnakes to England in exchange for the felons the British were dumping in the American colonies. That fact and various internal stylistic characteristics helped Dr. Lemay recognize Franklin as the author of this essay.
I observed on one of the drums belonging to the marines now raising, there was painted a Rattle-Snake, with this modest motto under it, “Don’t tread on me.” As I know it is the custom to have some device on the arms of every country, I supposed this may have been intended for the arms of America; and as I have nothing to do with public affairs, and as my time is perfectly my own, in order to divert an idle hour, I sat down to guess what could have been intended by this uncommon device—I took care, however, to consult on this occasion a person who is acquainted with heraldry, from whom I learned, that it is a rule among the learned in that science “That the worthy properties of the animal, in the crest-born, shall be considered,” and, “That the base ones cannot have been intended;” he likewise informed me that the antients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration—both which circumstances I suppose may have been had in view.—Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them, it occured to me that the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her.
But then “the worthy properties” of a Snake I judged would be hard to point out—This rather raised than suppressed my curiosity, and having frequently seen the Rattle-Snake, I ran over in my mind every property by which she was distinguished, not only from other animals, but from those of the same genus or class of animals, endeavouring to fix some meaning to each, not wholly inconsistent with common sense.
I recollected that her eye excelled in brightness, that of any other animal, and that she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage.—As if anxious to prevent all pretentions of quarrelling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenceless animal; and even when those weapons are shewn and extended for her defence, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive and fatal:—Conscious of this, she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.—Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America? The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies—This may be understood to intimate that those things which are destructive to our enemies, may be to us not only harmless, but absolutely necessary to our existence.—I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ’till I went back and counted them and found them just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers—Perhaps it might be only fancy, but, I conceited the painter had shewn a half formed additional rattle, which, I suppose, may have been intended to represent the province of Canada.—’Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independant of each other the rattles of this animal are, and yet how firmly they are united together, so as never to be separated but by breaking them to pieces.—One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living. The Rattle-Snake is solitary, and associates with her kind only when it is necessary for their preservation—In winter, the warmth of a number together will preserve their lives, while singly, they would probably perish—The power of fascination attributed to her, by a generous construction, may be understood to mean, that those who consider the liberty and blessings which America affords, and once come over to her, never afterwards leave her, but spend their lives with her.—She strongly resembles America in this, that she is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with her age, “her tongue also is blue and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks.”