“Don’t tread on me.” The motto, from a yellow flag with a coiled rattle snake, represents the courageous spirit of justice and freedom at our founding. As a symbol believed to have originated on the drums of enlisting Marines during the Revolutionary War, it is fitting that we reflect upon its significance during this Memorial Day weekend.
Ben Franklin said of the rattlesnake, “she has no eye-lids—She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance.—She never begins an attack . . . she never wounds till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of stepping on her.”
And yet, I fear our shared sense of vigilance is waning, and we are treading upon ourselves. Alexis de Tocqueville is credited with penning the timely and poignant warning: “When the taste for physical gratifications among them has grown more rapidly than their education . . . the time will come when men are carried away and lose all self-restraint . . . it is not necessary to do violence to such a people in order to strip them of the rights they enjoy; they themselves willingly loosen their hold. . . . they neglect their chief business which is to remain their own masters.”
We are witnessing the effects of a nation preoccupied with physical gratifications, its hand out to the government, casting aside the morals and self-restraint that have enabled us to live in peace as our own masters. As we loosen our hold on the rights we enjoy, we are viewing them quietly slip away. A government which can target dissenters with its power to tax, which can crack down on reporters not toeing the party line, which can bury and distort its role in the death of Americans in places like Benghazi, is already treading upon its citizens.
Remember this weekend the fallen heroes who have gone on before. Think of the heavy burden of our freedom they carried upon their shoulders. Honor their memory. Honor it by returning to the vigilance that has preserved our nation. Honor it by mastering your own physical gratifications. Honor it by engaging in the cultural battle around you, even as those energetic enlisting Marines who marched into the jaws of death some 200 years ago, beating their drums, and proclaiming to King George: “Don’t tread on me.”