Don't Tread On Me
The idea for this collection came from one definitive thing—my love for the country that I live in. I’ve always felt that the United States is a truly special country and couldn’t be more grateful to call this my home.
Growing up, my parents taught me that I was blessed to be an American. To be born with the freedoms and the opportunities that this country provided was a true gift from God. They taught me to never take it for granted and reminded me of all of the sacrifices that were made to provide us with this gift. One example that left a lasting impression was pictures and stories of how both of my grandfathers fought for our country during WWII. I always believed and respected the things my parents taught me and the example that my grandparents left, but it wasn’t until recently—as an adult—that I really started contemplating what being an American really meant.
The responsibilities that came with raising a family of my own and starting a small business really drove me to find validation for the things that I was taught about our country as a kid. I wanted to have confidence and know what to teach my own children. I felt an American-made product was important but I wanted to really know why. Why was America so special? Why is our freedom so important? What is the American dream really all about?
Searching for answers I turned to books. Over the last few years I’ve developed a passion for reading and the more I’ve read about this country and what it stands for, the more I love it and believe in it. One subject I’ve been drawn to lately is the American Revolution. While reading about it I kept finding a symbol that intrigued me, the American Rattlesnake coiled above the phrase “Don’t Tread On Me”. I had seen it in a few random places—Metallica’s album, flags, bumper stickers, and even tattooed across Aaron Lewis’s neck—but I didn’t fully understand its significance until I read about its history during the American Revolution.
The use of the rattlesnake as an American symbol traces back to one of the most important figures involved in the forming of our country, Benjamin Franklin. His words and his artwork published in early newspapers woke up and rallied the underlying desire that the colonists shared for freedom and rebellion against the repressive rule of Britain. His most impactful piece was his now famous woodcut he published of the rattlesnake with the phrase “Join or Die”.
Franklin later wrote why the rattlesnake would be the perfect symbol of our country. He believed it perfectly represented the vigilance, independent nature, and courage of our people as well as the strength that comes from the unity of our colonies. As he explained it:
“She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders: She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage… she never wounds ’til she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her.” He then wrote, “I confess I was wholly at a loss what to make of the rattles, ’til 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. ‘Tis curious and amazing to observe how distinct and independent 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.”
Franklin’s rattlesnake became a cornerstone of our identity during the revolution. We still didn’t have an official flag as a country, not even Betsy Ross’s Stars and Stripes was around yet, which lead to our troops flying quite a few different flags during battle. Many of them, including the Gadsden flag and the First Navy Jack still seen frequently today, used Franklin’s rattlesnake and the phrase “Don’t Tread On Me” which echoed as the battle cry of the revolution.
I got fired up when I read his words and love the symbolism that the rattlesnakes represent. To me it truly reflects the independence, courage, and unified resolve that is found at the heart of our country. Since I’m an artist, I wanted to capture this, to create something that was both a reminder of where we came from as a country as well as a tribute to those who sacrifice it all to give us the freedoms that we have today. That is when pencil hit the paper and I started sketching.
One of the first things I decided was that I didn’t want the rattlesnake isolated by itself like it is usually shown. While sketching I honed in on the concept of using two rattlesnakes woven together around a skull inscribed with F.O.D. (Freedom or Death). This was my way of illustrating how the independent and very different people of this country united together to fight for one cause, freedom. I then wanted to illustrate how this laid the foundation for the truly unique nation that followed. So I decided to sketch the bald eagle, the symbol of our country, resting on the backs of the rattlesnakes and keeping them united together with his talons.
This was my way of showing how the United States was unlike any other country in history. It wasn’t built for a royal family; it was built for its people. Or as Abraham Lincoln put it, “a government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I felt that tying the revolvers into the chest plate and wings of the eagle was the perfect way to illustrate how personal freedom was the central philosophy that our system of government was built around. One of the last ideas that came to me was having “Don’t Tread On Me” on an arrow-shaped banner pointing down to a sea of headstones; with the silver stars and the cross marked headstones paying homage to the countless brave who, as Lincoln said, “have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom”.
Once all of this incorporated into the first jewelry piece sculpted, the buckle, I decided to finish it off with the stars and stripes covering the back.
The buckle established the completed theme of the collection and the pieces that follow incorporate the same symbolism. I tend to be my own biggest critic, but I really love the way that this design came together. It has become my favorite and I think this is due to how important the subject is to me. Our country’s history isn’t perfect. It has its scars and it seems like it is becoming more and more popular every day to tear it down. Designing these pieces was my way of showing that I still believe in this country and what it stands for. It is my small attempt to communicate my gratitude, and that I will not forget the sacrifices made by the countless many who have fought for our country as well as those who still defend it today. I wanted these pieces to show that I don’t take the opportunity to call myself an American for granted.
By Nick Ballantyne,
Don’t Tread On Me is available as a ring, a band, a pendant, a dog tag pendant, and a buckle. Click thumbnails below to view full product details.