The Gadsden Flag, like Franklin’s “Join or Die”, is an older symbol, dating from 1775. The flag in and of itself is not necessarily a cartoon, but it has enough meaning and symbolism behind it that it can be considered as such. Plus, we have to address the 2017 rekindling of the Gadsden Flag, which was a meme-phenomenon.
The symbols of the snake that appear on the flag did not originate with the boldly yellow flag, but this is the reproduction that has remained. The origins of the snake symbol are murky, but the flag itself was created for the Marines during the American Revolution by Christopher Gadsden.
Like “Join or Die,” this image is powerful and simplistic. It’s a concise message that is easily interpreted. In this image, we see a warning, “Don’t tread on me,” with the implication that the snake would defend itself if the warning wasn’t heeded. Further, it repeats the snake symbol that we see in Join or Die.
The flag and the symbology are nice, but they’re only one piece of this story. The second half is much more recent.
In the 21st century, the modern-day Tea Party adopted the flag as its own. In response, 4chaners and libertarians started altering this classic image. These alterations took a variety of different forms, from changing the subject matter and the meaning (see figure 1), to making the image look less polished (see figure 2). The sheer quantity of altered images that was created exemplifies the power of technology and the subsequent accessibility to satire and cartooning. Memes allow for the average computer user to be a creator in the meme culture. This meme especially allowed for and encouraged this trend, as many of the variations looked as if they were done in a free program, like Microsoft Paint.
Technology and meme culture promote the altering and reuse of images that are important in our collective memories. This symbol and case study are perfect examples of that. The Gadsden Flag is taught in American history courses nationwide, and is a well-known symbol of colonial resistance during the Revolutionary War. When memesters started creating new versions, they were building off a shared image. There was no need to contextualize their memes, because the context had already been developed and understood.
In short, symbols are living and ever changing. Memes and political cartoons are based off a common understanding of symbols, and they are easily understood because of that shared knowledge. We laugh because we all sat in American history class and learned about the Gadsden Flag at some point in our lives. Our shared knowledge becomes shared humor.
Featured image by Imgur user Dave Hulud.