Don't Mess With (Armed) Texans

The Real Lesson of the Alamo

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online. April 08, 2004, 12:17 p.m. More by Kopel early 19th century American history.

On February 24, in the year 1836, in San Antonio, Texas, a brave man wrote a letter. It was the last letter ever sent from a missionary fort named the Alamo.

To the People of Texas & all Americans in the World —
Fellow Citizens and Compatriots —

I am besieged by a thousand or more of the Mexicans under Santa Anna — I have sustained a continual Bombardment & cannonade for 24 hours & have not lost a man — The enemy has demanded a surrender at discretion, otherwise the garrison are to be put to the sword, if the fort is taken — I have answered the demand with a cannon shot, & our flag still waves proudly from the walls — I shall never surrender or retreat. Then, I call on you in the name of Liberty, of patriotism & everything dear to the American character, to come to our aid with all dispatch — The enemy is receiving reinforcements daily & will no doubt increase to three or four thousand in four or five days. If this call is neglected, I am determined to sustain myself as long as possible & die like a soldier who never forgets what is due to his own honor & that of his country — Victory or Death.

William Barret Travis Lt. Col.

The Texans were besieged at the Alamo because they were fighting a revolution against the Mexican military dictatorship of General Santa Ana. Santa Anna had been systematically obliterating the right of self-government that the Mexican government had guaranteed to Texan settlers, and the rights guaranteed to all Mexicans by the 1824 Mexican Constitution. All the Texans' peaceful petitions for redress of grievances had been met with contempt.

The war began at Gonzales, Texas, when the Mexicans tried to seize a small cannon that the settlers had used to scare away Indians. The Texans were armed only with Bowie knives, a few pistols, and flintlock rifles, many of which dated back to the American Revolution. The Texans raised a flag that dared, "Come and Take It." The Mexicans tried, and then retreated.

The rationale for the war was articulated in the Texas Declaration of Rights, which set forth fundamental principles of liberty that are still at issue around the globe. These included the notions that:

All political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit; and they have at all times an inalienable right to alter their government in such manner as they may think proper.


14th. Every citizen shall have the right to bear arms in defence of himself and the republic. The military shall at all times and in all cases be subordinate to the civil power.

15th. The sure and certain defence of a free people is a well-regulated militia; and it shall be the duty of the legislature to enact such laws as may be necessary to the organizing of the militia of this republic.

At the Alamo, 136 Texans withstood a siege by the main Mexican standing army from February 23 to March 6, 1836, before finally being destroyed. The defenders of the Alamo did not sacrifice their lives in vain; they gained Sam Houston crucial time to rally the Texan people. The moral example of the Alamo inspired men all over Texas to put their own lives on the line for freedom.

On April 21, 1836, Sam Houston's volunteers met what historian William Jackman called "the flower of the Mexican army" — the best of Santa Anna's 1,500 professional soldiers. The Texans numbered only about half that. But the Texans launched a surprise evening attack on Santa Anna's fortified positions. When the Texans rushed into battle, they yelled "Remember the Alamo!" and "Remember Goliad!" (Goliad was where Santa Anna had murdered 280 American prisoners.)

As the Texans advanced with their rifles and Bowie knives, a single fife and a single drum played the love song "Will You Come to the Bower?"

Will you come to the bower I have shaded for you?

Your bed shall be of roses, be spangled with dew.

Will you, will you, will you come to the bower?

Will you, will you, will you come to the bower?

There under the bower on soft roses you'll lie,
With a blush on your cheek, but a smile in your eye.
Will you, will you, will you smile my beloved?
Will you, will you, will you smile my beloved?

But the roses we press shall not rival your lips,
nor the dew be so sweet as the kisses we'll sip.
Will you, will you, will you kiss me my beloved?
Will you, will you, will you kiss me my beloved?

An odd song for combat? Not to the Texans, who were fighting to protect their wives and families.

In the first hour of battle, the Texans killed 600 Mexicans and captured 200 more. Within a day, the rest of the Mexican army, including Santa Anna himself, had been captured. Texan casualties were 6 dead and 30 wounded.

The Mexican standing army was crushed, and although Mexico refused to formally recognize Texan independence, the dictatorship gave up trying to conquer Texas. Sam Houston was elected the first president of the Republic of Texas, whose people were now free to pursue their own destiny of liberty and greatness.

The "Texan War Cry" — sung to the same tune as the "Star Spangled Banner" — celebrated the victory of a self-armed people over the professional army of a tyrant:

Oh Texans rouse hill and dale with your cry.

No longer delay, for the bold foe advances.

The banners of Mexico tauntingly fly,

And the valleys are lit with the gleam of their lances.

With justice our shield, rush forth to the field.

And stand with your posts, till our foes fly or yield.

For the bright star of Texas shall never grow dim,

While her soil boasts a son to raise rifle or limb.

Rush forth to the lines, these hirelings to meet.

Our lives and our homes, we will yield unto no man.

But death on our free soil we'll willingly meet,

Ere our free Temple soiled, by the feet of the foe men.

Grasp rifle and blade with hearts undismayed,

And swear by the Temple brave Houston has made,

That the bright star of Texas shall never be dim

While her soil boasts a son to raise rifle or limb.

The attitudes expressed in the "Texan War Cry" profoundly shaped American culture, and, even in the early 21st century, these ideas are at the core of the American gun culture: A true man will use a firearm to protect women from predators. The free people of a nation must defend it personally, with their own arms. Professional soldiers — "hirelings" in the pay of unfree governments — are morally and military inferior to American freedom fighters. Dying in defense of freedom is better than living under tyranny. And the quintessence of freedom — the precise reason why the stars of liberty shine — is the patriot's rifle.

These attitudes did not start with the Alamo; their roots precede the American Revolution. Yet it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the influence of Alamo imagery on almost every generation of American youth. The Texan War of Independence helped ensure that the moral lessons of the American Revolution were not seen as one-time events, but the recurring facts of the eternal struggle between freedom and tyranny.

Thus, it is especially fitting that The Alamo is opening during Passover week. The reason Jews celebrate the Passover is the same reason that all Americans should remember the Alamo: to remind themselves, and to teach their children, that God's great acts of liberation are not distant historical events, but are instead part of the eternal present, in which all of us are active participants. As the Jews say at the Seder:

In every generation, each person must look upon himself or herself as if he or she personally had come out of Egypt. As the Book of Exodus says, "You shall tell your children on that day: it is because of what the Eternal One did for me when I went forth from Egypt." For it was not our fathers and mothers alone whom the Holy One redeemed. We too were redeemed along with them.

The Battle of San Jacinto deserves a place of high honor among the greatest victories of freedom over tyranny, including Normandy, Inchon, and Saratoga. The Alamo deserves its own place of honor among great battles such as Thermopylae, where freedom warriors fought to the last man, and where, by their ultimate sacrifice, they saved their people's liberty.

"Remember the Alamo" is a cry of bravery and freedom that rings true not just at one particular time, but for all time.

David Kopel is the research director at the Independence Institute.

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