Gadsden flag plate draws heat in Senate

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A proposal authorizing the Gadsden flag on Kansas license plates — known for its coiled snake and “Don’t Tread on Me” motto — survived the Senate after a hot debate over its creator’s history as a slaveowner.

Democrats challenged a bill that would allow the logo to be used as a distinctive license plate in which sponsors could collect a royalty from the sale of the plates.

The bill not only authorized the Gadsden flag but also distinctive Braden’s Hope
for Childhood Cancer license plates, proud educator license plates and Alpha Kappa Alpha license plates. Delta Sigma Theta, a sorority found at Howard University was added on the Senate floor.

The plates cost $40, and drivers pay anywhere from $25 to $100 more to the organization sponsoring the plate — in this case the Kansas State Rifle Association. The bill advanced to final approval on Thursday.

Democrats took issue with the creator of the Gadsden flag, which was designed by Christopher Gadsden, a South Carolinian who owned two rice plantations but played a prominent role in the American Revolution.

Gadsden served in the First Continental Congress and as a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.

But Democrats said he had an insidious side that should not be recognized on Kansas license plates.

Democratic Sen. Mary Ware of Wichita noted Gadsden’s ownership of the rice plantations and slaves as well Gadsden’s Wharf, where as many as 260,000 enslaved Africans entered South Carolina from 1670 to 1808.

“I just have to ask: Is this what we want our state associated with? For me, I’d say no,” Ware said.

Senate Minority Leader Dinah Sykes tried to strike the Gadsden flag from the bill, but the Senate voted it down 26-11.

Republican state Rep. J.R. Claeys of Salina said the flag is a symbol of gun rights and limited government, regardless of the background of the designer.

He said it was designed in 1775 and was used by the Continental Marines.

“If you Google long enough and you dig far enough in Wikipedia, you’ll find the Betsy Ross flag was deemed racist at one point in time,” Claeys said.

“It is clear that individuals in our history, especially when you go back to the 13 colonies, have associations that we’re all not proud of today,” he said.

Democratic state Sen. David Haley of Kansas City said he thought it was important for the public to know — as proud as they may be of “Don’t Tread on Me” — about Gadsden’s ownership of slaves.

“How can we expose the sordid history between someone who may have created a great ideal — or at least a clever phrase, “Don’t Tread on Me” — and the sordid past or history of his participation in the slave trade?” he said.

Haley said he would make it clear to as many people as possible that anyone with a Gadsden flag plate was tacitly endorsing someone who owned slaves.

Claeys said a number of states make the plate available, including Virginia, South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee, Arizona and Montana.

But Haley said many of the states that Claeys named harbored slaves.

“I would rather that we as a free state stay in the distinct majority that don’t have these kind of connotations,” he said.

Claeys later called the debate “disingenuous.”

“The Democrats’ attack on ‘Don’t Tread On Me’ has nothing to do with a guy long dead who made a drawing,” Claeys said.

“It has everything to do with Democrats’ radical views on gun confiscation that the KSRA opposes,” he said.