Civil Discourse Now

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"Don't Tread on Me": The "Gadsden flag" was a symbol of left-wing anti-corporate protest in 1976, over 30 years before the "tea party."

   We did not know what the “Gadsden flag” was, but I sported it proudly on a button for the better part of a year.
   The two-day debate tournament was at Wisconsin State University at Oshkosh in the first semester of my third year at DePauw. Our first rounds were Friday afternoon going into the evening. Saturday morning’s rounds ended at lunch time, as I recall, with speaker awards and “e-lims”—the one-loss bracket format in which the eight or sixteen teams (I forget if the tournament was quart-final or octo-final format)—announced at the awards convo after our return from the mid-day meal.
   We ate at a hippie sort of restaurant. They served “handwiches”—American versions of calzones, sort. They also served Point beer, but hey, it was in Wisconsin.
   At the counter was a cardboard display of identical pins. For one dollar a person could buy a pin with the green, coiled snake and the phrase: “Don’t Tread on Me” over the snake. Under the snake was: “People’s Bicentennial.” I read the info and bought a pin. I’m surprised I had a spare dollar on me.
   The People’s Bicentennial Commission (“PBC”) was an effort to counter the bicentennial fever that was all the rage. Red-white-and-blue knick-knacks were hawked everywhere. Sears even had a bicentennial bathroom one could have installed. This was America and people sought to cash in on the event. Corporations, too, sought to profit from matters.
   The Boston Tea Party, in December, 1773, was a protest that directly affected the dominant corporate entity in the Colonies, the East India Tea Company. The corporate entity was no favored in the early days of our Republic. James Madison, whom some call the “Father of the Constitution,” wrote in the early 1800s that “‘incorporated Companies with proper limitations and guards, may in particular cases, be useful; but they are at best a necessary evil only.’” Clements, “Corporations Are Not People,” 2012, p. 14. Corporations, in general, were chartered for limited purposes and finite periods. By the 1970s, corporations were far beyond the restrictions placed upon them in the early days of the Republic.
   People incorporate for several reasons, the most dominant, in my experience, being to avoid liability. The “corporate veil” is the “legal assumption that the actions of a corporation are not the actions of its owners, so that the owners are exempt from liability for the corporation’s practices.” Black’s Law Dictionary, pocket ed., 1996, p. 142. People who made the decisions that gave rise to the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, the Union Carbide gassing of hundreds in Bhopal, India, and the Exxon Valdez saturation of Alaskan waters in crude oil all escaped retribution. The corporations might have been fined, but ultimately a corporation is a piece of paper—the document that gives it existence in the jurisdiction (many times the State of Delaware) in which the shareholders have chosen to incorporate.
   In late June, 1976, I hitchhiked from Greencastle, Indiana, to Charlottesville, Virginia, where I met my former debate partner. She was in graduate school at UVA (University of Virginia). We took the Greyhound to the D.C. area and I slept on a bed in the basement of the house of one of her sorority sister’s parents’ home.
   On the morning of July 4, I hitchhiked from Fairfax into D.C. A march was to proceed from the Jefferson Memorial (as I recall) to the Mall in front of the Capitol Building. I noticed several people with gloves sticking from their back pockets. I had been to enough Monon Bell games to understand the gloves were not for warmth—this was, after all, the Fourth of July in a former swamp, D.C. As we walked to Blackstock Stadium my Freshman year for the Bell Game, a Senior explained to me people had gloves (on, as I recall, a rather nice, warm autumn day) because if you wore gloves and you hit someone in the face, you would not skin up your hand.
   I walked quickly to the front of the parade, where the nonviolent people seemed to have congregated. The route to the Capitol was lined by police on horseback. No one engaged in violence. About 60,000, people gathered on the Mall to protest corporate greed. That was the estimate CBS gave to the crowd. I had been to enough gatherings of large crowds to say the CBS estimate was about right. The theme was “economic democracy” is needed in the United States.
   The past several years, elements of what have been called the “tea party” have taken up the Gadsden flag as their symbol. I have read very few references to the central symbol of that flag’s use in a protest brought by the Left back in 1976. The Gadsden flag first emerged as a flag for the United States Navy. Benjamin Franklin had written about the rattle snake as a uniquely American creature that gave warning before it struck those who might disturb it.
   Those who use the Gadsden imagery for their protest should understand its history, both in regard to its origins and its uses in intermediate times. There were 60,000, people on the Mall that day in 1976. The largest rally for the current tea party movement may have been 75,000 on the Mall in 2009. In 2010, there a couple of hundred thousand gathered for the Stewart-Colbert rally. I was there. People were packed so tightly on hardly could move. Comedy can top overly-serious imagery, it would seem, in American protests.

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