Sunday marked the 181st anniversary of the Battle of Gonzales, the first military engagement of the Texas Revolution, when Texian militiamen, responding to Mexican soldiers demanding the surrender of a small brass cannon, coined the now-famous battle cry, “Come and Take It!”
An NPR reporter decided to mark this anniversary with a story about how the phrase has been stolen by Second Amendment activists, “with no appreciation of its origins.” Some local residents of modern-day Gonzales, we’re told, “think it’s been cheapened—and they want it back.”
But neither the hapless NPR reporter nor the several anti-gun residents of Gonzales interviewed for the story know the actual origin of the phrase, or why its application to the ongoing national debate about gun control and the Second Amendment is entirely appropriate—and historically accurate.
They are blissfully unaware that “Come and take it” is a quote from King Leonidas I of Sparta. At the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC, during the second Persian invasion of Greece, Leonidas replied to Xerxes’s demand that the Greeks surrender their arms, “molon labe”—come and take them.
Please Learn Some History
But first, a bit of more recent history. As NPR tells it, the American settlers in Texas (then called Texians) had, in 1835, simply “grown restive,” prompting the Mexican army to dispatch troops to take back the cannon at Gonzales. Mexico had lent the cannon to the town four years earlier to defend itself against hostile Apache.
The truth is more complicated. The Texian settlers had “grown restive” because Mexican President Antonio López de Santa Anna had overturned the 1824 constitution of the Republic of Mexico, dismissed state legislatures, and disbanded militias. The Texians were restive because the terms under which they had come to Texas—at Mexico’s invitation—had been revoked. A tyrant had seized power, usurped their rights, and they were prepared to defend their lives and property as their forefathers had during the American Revolution.
All this goes unmentioned in NPR’s telling. Instead, the article says “Come and Take It” is a phrase with a narrow historical context, and it’s been co-opted by gun rights activists who are too dumb to understand its nuanced meaning. We hear from Allen Barnes, the Gonzales city manager, who is “particularly exasperated with Second Amendment activists who have adopted the historic slogan and substituted an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle for the cannon.”
“To me that completely changes the tone and the message of the flag,” Barnes tells NPR. “That’s no longer our flag. That is a flag created by other folks.”
Then we hear from one of those gun rights people, a stand-in for all the ignorant Second Amendment folks who don’t understand the true meaning of phrase:
We fly a ‘Come and Take It’ flag in front of our establishment because we believe the federal government has gotten too big and that it’s reaching out too far,” says Max Bordelon, the proprietor of Max’s Roadhouse, north of San Antonio. Asked who, exactly, is coming to take what, he blurts: ‘Our rights! Our freedoms!’
A History Of Defiance
Unbeknownst to NPR and the Gonzales city manager, Bordelon is exactly right. The Texian militiamen who ran up their makeshift “Come and Take It” flag—a white flag made from a woman’s wedding dress, featuring a lone star, a cannon, and the famous phrase—were educated men who knew very well the long tradition of which they were a part. Their cry of “Come and Take It,” was not a circumstantial case, limited to the particulars of their moment in time. It was an appeal to a timeless truth about the rights and liberties of all mankind.
The phrase itself is also part of a long tradition quite apart from the Texas Revolution. During the American Revolution, Colonel John McIntosh was commander of Fort Morris on the coast of Georgia. When a vastly superior contingent of British soldiers attempted to take the fort in November 1778, and demanded the fort’s surrender through a written note, McIntosh replied, “As to surrendering the fort, receive this laconic reply: COME AND TAKE IT!”
Modern Greece adopted the phrase while fighting for independence against the Ottoman Empire. In 1913, Greece’s I Army Corps was formed. Its motto, up until 2013, when the corps was disbanded a century after its founding, was “molon labe.”
The True Meaning of ‘Come And Take It’
It’s bad enough that NPR and the few anti-gun folks their reporter found in Gonzales are wholly ignorant of this history. That alone is a sad commentary on the state of general education in America today. But those Texian pioneers knew something more than history; they knew a tyrant when they saw one, and they knew that unalienable rights are sometimes only secured at the business end of a cannon—or a spear, or rifle.
By contrast, mainstream media elites and right-thinking liberal Americans of today know much that isn’t so. So much, in fact, that a reporter and all his subjects for a story about the “Come and Take It” flag can assert with confidence that they understand the true meaning of that great battle cry, without an inkling that it reaches back into the mists of history—and that it speaks as loudly today as it did when Leonidas defied the invading hordes of Persia.