We first read this dead-on primer on Constitutional powers decades ago, and recently unearthed it. It creates a profound respect for Davy Crockett,beyond his well-known role in American history, and is well worth the short read! Where would this country be today if Congress had not usurped its foundational restrictions!
Hero of the Alamo Davy Crockett was a colonel in the Tennessee Regulars and was elected to the House of Representatives from his native state. That was before his part in the valiant defense of the famed Alamo. He served three terms as congressman from 1827 to 1833.
While Crockett was in Congress a distinguished naval officer died, leaving a widow. Members of the House proposed to appropriate $20,000 of public money to give to the widow to assure her welfare and to honor the memory of the late officer. Crockett opposed that appropriation in such persuasive terms that it received only a few votes and was defeated.
Before you consider him heartless, hear the facts which will show he was just the opposite. Others before him had said that the country owed the departed officer a debt. Crockett reminded the House of the countless men who had served their country with distinction, but to whom Congress never admitted owing a cash debt. In Crockett’s speech before the House, he said the following:
“Mr. Speaker — I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the suffering of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a part of the living to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living.
“I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon this floor knows it. We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much of our own money as we please in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to so appropriate a dollar of the public money.
“Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the grounds that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I have never heard that the government was in arrears to him. This government can owe no debts but for services rendered, and at a stipulated price. If it is a debt, how much is it? Has it been audited, and the amount due ascertained? If it is a debt, this is not the place to present it for payment, or to have its merits examined. If it is a debt, we owe more than we can ever hope to pay, for we owe the widow of every soldier who fought in the War of 1812 precisely the same amount.
“There is a woman in my neighborhood, the widow of as gallant a man as ever shouldered a musket. He fell in battle. She is as good in every respect as this lady, and is as poor. She is earning her daily bread by her daily labor; and if I were to introduce a bill to appropriate five or ten thousand dollars for her benefit, I should be laughed at, and my bill would not get five votes in this House. There are thousands of widows in the country just such as the one I have spoken of, but we never hear of any of these large debts to them.
“Sir, this is no debt. The government did not owe it to the deceased when he was alive; it could not contract it after he died. I do not wish to be rude, but I must be plain. Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot, without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as a charity.
“Mr. Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I am the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I will give one week’s pay to the object, and if every member of Congress will do the same, it will amount to more than the bill asks.”
When Crockett was later asked why he invoked the Constitution in that manner, and what led him to speak so clearly and forcefully against appropriating such a seemingly small amount, he told of an earlier, somewhat similar event.
There had been a fire in suburban Georgetown during Crockett’s first term in Congress. He was among several congressmen who rushed to the scene, helped to fight the fire, and sought shelter for the victims who were shivering on a cold night. The very next morning Congress appropriated $20,000 for the relief of the fire victims. Crockett spoke in favor. Because there was opposition, the vote on the issue was recorded in the journals of that day’s proceedings and a listing was made of those who voted for and those who voted against the appropriation.
Crockett said that when he went back to his home district to run for re-election he stopped to solicit the vote of a farmer plowing in his field. The man remembered Colonel Crockett, said he had voted for him the first time, but that he would not vote for him again. The farmer had read a newspaper account of that $20,000 gift to victims of the fire. He saw Crockett’s name listed as supporting the measure. The farmer then proceeded to explain to congressman Crockett:
“The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be trusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means. What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government.
“While you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20 million as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and in any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.
“No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in the country as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life. The congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from necessity of giving what was not yours to give.
“The people have delegated to Congress, by the Constitution, the power to do certain things. To do these, it is authorized to collect and pay moneys, and for nothing else. Everything beyond this is usurpation, and a violation of the Constitution. So you see, Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It is a precedent fraught with danger to the country, for when Congress once begins to stretch its power beyond the limits of the Constitution, there is no limit to it, and no security for the people. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.”
Every American citizen has a moral and spiritual obligation to see that no neighbor, no person, child or adult, suffers for the lack of necessities while he has the slightest surplus in his own name. But neither does man have the right to use government and the law, in the name of charity, to force the unwilling to do that which he would not do if the choice were his.
Before any citizen concludes that the poor have a better life under state welfare than their counterparts had under true charity one hundred years ago, he should examine the present and investigate the past.