The Great Texas "Come And Take It" Controversy
The true origin—and meaning—of one of our state's most sacred mottos is up for debate.
Gonzales wants to take back "come and take it." The motto has been co-opted by everyone from gun rights activists to fast food chains, relentlessly commercialized, and—in some cases—arguably stripped of its original meaning. But 181 years after the verbal challenge was unforgettably uttered by revolutionaries in Gonzales, there's suddenly a hotly contested debate brewing about whether the town actually has proprietary rights to the phrase in the first place.
Gonzales's claim on "come and take it" goes back to 1835, when the South Texas town was under Mexican military control. According to the Texas State Historical Association, Mexicans provided a cannon to the colonists at Gonzales in 1831 to protect them from Native Americans. Four years later, they decided they wanted it back. When the Mexican Army sent a small group of soldiers to recover the cannon, the Gonzales colonists were less than accommodating—they kept the soldiers prisoner, and kept the cannon too. Here's the Historical Association's account of what happened:
On the morning of October 2, 1835, Lieutenant Castañeda requested the cannon be returned to the Mexican military—a condition on which it had been loaned to DeWitt's Colony—but the Texians pointed to the gun which stood about 200 yards to their rear, and said, "there it is—come and take it." Soon after the conflict began, at the request of the Anglo-Celtic leaders, the ladies of the settlement hastily made a flag to fly over the cannon. The flag featured a white ground with a black cannon in the center, and the motto "Come and take it!" above and below.
The colonists eventually lost the cannon, but the incident sparked the Battle of Gonzales, which was the first fight of the Texas Revolution. The phrase quickly became a symbol of Texas's independence and part of the fabric of Gonzales, which holds an annual "Come and Take It" festival and keeps the original cannon on display at the Gonzales Memorial Museum along with a replica of the famous flag. But since 1835, the phrase has been adopted by many people and groups outside Gonzales with varying agendas, and the town isn't happy about it.
"A lot of people take it and co-opt it without understanding the reason behind it," Erik McCowan, a reporter with the Gonzales Inquirer newspaper, told NPR earlier in October. "I think a lot of that has to do with just plain ignorance. People fought and were ready to die over this flag."
As noted by NPR, some of the worst "come and take it" offenders include McDonald's—which held a "come and make it" contest to create the official state burger of Texas, then planted a "come and get it" flag atop the winning entry. Then there are the marijuana enthusiasts who sell items emblazoned with "come and toke it." The Inquirer's McGowan wrote an entire column bemoaning what he felt was the devaluation of the saying:
'Come and Take It' was uttered by a bunch of rebels standing against an army in an antiquated time. It meant something deep to them. It is a battle cry that should only be said by those who really understand its meaning. Lately, it seems that everyone has got their hands on this slogan and have co-opted it for their own, sometimes slanted, always personal gains… When corporate interests take a revered symbol of resistance, rebellion and freedom and splash their logo on it for profit, does that cheapen the essence of what Come and Take It is?
In raising that question, McGowan was also critical of several movements that have adopted the phrase, including gun rights groups (who sometimes substitute an assault rifle in place of the antique cannon), pro-choice advocates (a uterus instead of the cannon), and the "Cocks not Clocks" people (who swapped the cannon with a dildo and changed the slogan to "take it and come"—innuendo that seems to be lost on McGowan, who wrote that the phrase "appears to have been written during a bout of dyslexia").
But the real debate started after NPR came sniffing around:
Allen Barnes, the Gonzales city manager, 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 says. "That's no longer our flag. That is a flag created by other folks.
The NPR piece also notes that the phrase was likely used during the American Revolution (as documented by a historical marker in Georgia). But it was the excerpt above that started the latest skirmish by riling up gun rights activists, who were upset that someone in Gonzales was critical of their use of the phrase while simultaneously laying claim to a motto that they say originated well before Gonzales existed. The Federalist wrote a response to the NPR piece, calling the reporter "hapless" and accusing some locals of being "ignorant" to the motto's true origin. "They are blissfully unaware that 'Come and take it' is a quote from King Leonidas I of Sparta," writes John Daniel Davidson, who has also contributed to Texas Monthly. "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."
But even that may not be completely accurate, at least according to Stephen Hodkinson, a history professor at the University of Nottingham and a well-credentialed expert on ancient Sparta. In 2013, Hodkinson explained to a gun control advocacy blog that the Spartan origin story of "come and take it"/"molon labe" is somewhat shaky. Hodkinson said that the only appearance of the phrase in historical accounts of the Battle of Thermopylae came from Plutarch in the second century, AD, in a compilation of sayings included in the Moralia—sayings Hodkinson asserts were often made up long after the events during which they were said to have been uttered. "Molon labe" is a particular suspect saying Hodkinson says:
Leonidas' saying has a somewhat odd context. Unlike most sayings in Plutarch's compilation, it is not a verbal saying, but a written response by letter to a letter from the Persian king Xerxes. In fact, it is Leonidas' second response in a mini-exchange of letters initiated by Xerxes. The initial exchange between the two men is given in the previous Saying, no. 10. Leonidas' "molon labe" in Saying no. 11 has the appropriate Spartan brevity in response to a brief three-word demand from Xerxes. In contrast, in no. 10 Xerxes' letter and Leonidas' response are both somewhat longer: Xerxes' letter is 10 words long and Leonidas' response is an incongruously verbose 24 words in ancient Greek. The exchange of letters is in itself peculiar, though not because Spartiates couldn't read or write (they could). Oral communication via herald was a more normal mode of exchange and would have given greater public resonance to a dramatic assertion like "molon labe". In sum, the historical authenticity of the phrase "molon labe" is uncertain. One cannot prove that it is a later embroidering of the Leonidas legend; but its sole appearance in a late work which is known to contain many other inventions and its somewhat odd context in that work do not inspire confidence that it is genuinely historical.
"Come and take it" is no more ancient Sparta's than it is Gonzales's, and its actual origin may never be known. But that likely won't stop the tug-of-war between Gonzales, gun rights advocates, and everyone else who has used the slogan. In a way, though, it makes perfect sense that "come and take it" is so divisive. After all, the inherently confrontational phrase doesn't exactly lend itself well to sharing.