“Don’t Tread on Me” will soon be seen above Virginia tire treads.
The slogan will join more than 200 other specialty Virginia plates including those representing military branches, dozens of colleges, and hobbies, sports, and personal passions. Though there are no overtly political plates, there is a “Choose Life” option, as well as ones for the AFL-CIO, Friends of Tibet, the National Rifle Association, and homeschooling.
The new plate is being tagged as the “Tea Party” plate, since Tea Party activists and small government enthusiasts campaigned to make it available. (This led one site to incongruously say Virginians “will soon be able to express their support for smaller government and protest the Federal Government’s intrusion into the affairs of private citizens” by paying extra for a government-mandated plate. But still, it beats higher taxes.) Texans could soon have a similar option.
The plate represents more than just the small government movement, however. It is based on the Gadsden Flag, designed by Christopher Gadsden, a Revolutionary War general and South Carolina statesman. Its rattlesnake image is derived from Benjamin Franklin’s 1750s gibe that since the British sent their convicts to America, the colonies should return the favor by sending some of our native rattlesnakes across the sea. Franklin later published his famed “Join, or Die” woodcut showing a divided snake representing the disjoined colonies -- and so the snake became a symbol of colonies united against Britain, and later united in a new nation.
The Gadsden Flag was one of the unofficial early flags of the United States of America, but it later became a symbol for those concerned about the growth of federal power and fearful of the restriction of civil liberties. In 2009, a report by the government-funded Missouri Information Analysis Center, one small and rather silly part of the massive homeland security apparatus, called the Gadsden Flag a “militia symbol.” Just a couple of months later, the federal Department of Homeland Security published a report that, in the words of seven angry senators, identified supporters of “limited government, legal versus illegal immigration, and limited federal government as potential terrorist threats.”
So the Gadsden Flag, and the “Don’t Tread On Me” slogan, is about more than just the latest small government movement. It also represents American freedom against encroachment of any sort -- encroachment that continues today.
But what if you’re not a Tea Partier, nor fearful of big government? What if “you drive a Prius with more than one Obama bumper sticker”? Then maybe a “Reston!” plate -- with an annoying exclamation mark that makes it look like the title of a Broadway musical -- is more your style. Restonian says the “push to get the Virginia DMV to issue awesome Reston! license plates” continues -- but unlike the Gadsden plates, it’s proving hard to gather the 350 signatures needed. Perhaps, the blog muses, the Reston Association is “offended by the disturbing lack of bona fide earth tones.”
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC