“Come and take it.”

IMG_1502Our campground is located a few miles from the town of Gonzales, Texas which claims to be the birthplace of Texas freedom. The story is that a cadre of American settlers moved into the confluence of the Guadalupe and San Marcos Rivers in 1831, at the invitation of and under the protection of the Mexican government, which wanted to populate the area and grow its territory.

At one point, the American settlers requested a small cannon from the Mexicans in order to protect them from Indian attacks. They got the cannon but tensions rose in what was basically a civil war within the Mexican territory. The settlers rebelled against the Mexican government when, in 1824, it revoked the Constitution and moved to a centralist form of government. By 1835, a contingent of Mexican soldiers was sent to retrieve the cannon from the rebels. “Not happening”, was the response of the men of Gonzales.

The Betsy Ross of the territory, Sarah DeWitt, sewed a flag bearing the likeness of the cannon with the words “Come and Take It” (see above). The Mexicans tried to do just that and failed. The settlers, now calling themselves Texans, won the first battle of 1835 calling it the “Lexington” of the revolution. Today, we see flags flying all over the town with this motto on it.  The 32 men of Gonzales were the only reinforcements that went to the besieged Alamo in March of 1836, forever connecting Gonzales to the myth of Texans and freedom.

As Americans, we have an obsession with this concept of freedom. Or is it a human experience? Freedom. Our New Hampshire license plate (“Live free or die”) has drawn virtual and literal thumbs up all over the south – from Florida, to Louisiana, to Texas. In parking lots and gas stations and restaurants, people come over and comment on their admiration for the sentiment. Freedom.  The Alamo motto was, “Victory (over the repressive Mexican territorial government) or death”.  We know how that turned out.

I’ve been reflecting on this and it came up most recently in our post on Natchez and the haunting shadow of slavery, the experience of a lack of freedom. Peter reminded me, in his wise way, that this issue has been woven into the economic fabric of the United States since the beginning. An agricultural economy needs labor and even in the wealthy colonies of Virginia, under the enlightened visage of founders like Thomas Jefferson, labor meant slaves. And slaves were not free, they were property, they were counted as “2/3 of a person”. It was rationalized and intellectualized but the ultimate question was that of a system that denied individuals their freedom.

Yesterday, we visited the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library at Austin. It was a personally very powerful experience for me on many levels but for this entry I want to write about a special exhibit in the Library commemorating the 50th anniversary of “Bloody Sunday”, March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. The powerful photographs, many of which are currently in the news, show the clash between the armed Alabama State Police confronting and beating the non-violent mostly African-American demonstrators. I watched the response of people in the room. I watched the expressions of high school students; parents with young children; boomers the age of Peter and me; grandparents with middle-school age grandchildren; Asian, and Anglo and African-American, and Hispanic people – all filing through. It was silent. No chatter. No teenagers on smart phones, texting. It was a sacred and moving witness to the power of photography to document what it looks like when power oppresses, smothering freedom…

In one of the most memorable of quotes from LBJ, he commented, “I have often said that I was proud that I was a free man first and an American second…” This brings to mind a quote from Nelson Mandela: “to be free is to not merely cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others”.

I am aware that this account of freedom is entirely a reflection of my pilgrimage into the enormity of the concept, at this time and in this place. Steinbeck wrote, “I cannot comment that (my) account is … what you will find. So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes…” And this is evening, new eyes looking at the ever deepening mystery around freedom after our full day a the Alamo…

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