November 8th, 2006

It’s Not Yours To Give

Our country has increasingly become a socialist, welfare state. I’m inspired by the following (true) story by Davey Crockett which shows how true constitutional government should use its resources and tax dollars.


By Col. David Crockett
US Representative from Tennessee

[Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, Volume 34, 1867.]

One day in the House of Representatives a bill was taken up appropriating money for the benefit of a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Several beautiful speeches had been made in its support. The Speaker was just about to put the question when Crockett arose:

"Mr. Speaker–I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings 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 not the 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 so to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made to us upon the ground 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.

"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 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."

He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was put upon its passage, and, instead of passing unanimously, as was generally supposed, and as, no doubt, it would, but for that speech, it received but few votes, and, of course, was lost.

Later, when asked by a friend why he had opposed the appropriation, Crockett gave this explanation:

"Several years ago I was one evening standing on the steps of the Capitol with some other members of Congress, when our attention was attracted by a great light over in Georgetown. It was evidently a large fire. We jumped into a hack and drove over as fast as we could. In spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and many families made houseless, and, besides, some of them had lost all but the clothes they had on. The weather was very cold, and when I saw so many women and children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done for them. The next morning a bill was introduced appropriating $20,000 for their relief. We put aside all other business and rushed it through as soon as it could be done.

"The next summer, when it began to be time to think about election, I concluded I would take a scout around among the boys of my district. I had no opposition there, but, as the election was some time off, I did not know what might turn up. When riding one day in a part of my district in which I was more of a stranger than any other, I saw a man in a field plowing and coming toward the road. I gauged my gait so that we should meet as he came to the fence. As he came up, I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but, as I thought, rather coldly.

"I began: ‘Well, friend, I am one of those unfortunate beings called candidates, and—‘

"Yes I know you; you are Colonel Crockett. I have seen you once before, and voted for you the last time you were elected. I suppose you are out electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine, I shall not vote for you again."

"This was a sockdolager… I begged him to tell me what was the matter.

" ’Well, Colonel, it is hardly worth-while to waste time or words upon it. I do not see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows that either you have not capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting in the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case you are not the man to represent me. But I beg your pardon for expressing it in that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of insulting or wounding you. I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the Constitution is very different from mine; and I will say to you what, but for my rudeness, I should not have said, that I believe you to be honest. …But an understanding of the Constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the more honest he is.’

" ‘I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake about it, for I do not remember that I gave any vote last winter upon any constitutional question.’

“ ‘No, Colonel, there’s no mistake. Though I live in the backwoods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown. Is that true?’
" ‘Well, my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did.’

" ‘It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, 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. So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it 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 $20,000,000 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 to 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 this county 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 in and 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 the necessity of giving by 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.’
"I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this man should go to talking, he would set others to talking, and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I could not answer him, and the fact is, I was so fully convinced that he was right, I did not want to. But I must satisfy him, and I said to him:

" ‘Well, my friend, you hit the nail upon the head when you said I had not sense enough to understand the Constitution. I intended to be guided by it, and thought I had studied it fully. I have heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I ever heard. If I had ever taken the view of it that you have, I would have put my head into the fire before I would have given that vote; and if you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law I wish I may be shot.’

"He laughingly replied; ‘Yes, Colonel, you have sworn to that once before, but I will trust you again upon one condition. You say that you are convinced that your vote was wrong. Your acknowledgment of it will do more good than beating you for it. If, as you go around the district, you will tell people about this vote, and that you are satisfied it was wrong, I will not only vote for you, but will do what I can to keep down opposition, and, perhaps, I may exert some little influence in that way.’

" ‘If I don’t’, said I, ‘I wish I may be shot; and to convince you that I am in earnest in what I say I will come back this way in a week or ten days, and if you will get up a gathering of the people, I will make a speech to them. Get up a barbecue, and I will pay for it.’

" ‘No, Colonel, we are not rich people in this section, but we have plenty of provisions to contribute for a barbecue, and some to spare for those who have none. The push of crops will be over in a few days, and we can then afford a day for a barbecue. This is Thursday; I will see to getting it up on Saturday week. Come to my house on Friday, and we will go together, and I promise you a very respectable crowd to see and hear you.’

" ‘Well, I will be here. But one thing more before I say good-bye. I must know your name.’

" ‘My name is Bunce.’

" ‘Not Horatio Bunce?’

" ‘Yes.’

" ‘Well, Mr. Bunce, I never saw you before, though you say you have seen me, but I know you very well. I am glad I have met you, and very proud that I may hope to have you for my friend.’

"It was one of the luckiest hits of my life that I met him. He mingled but little with the public, but was widely known for his remarkable intelligence and incorruptible integrity, and for a heart brimful and running over with kindness and benevolence, which showed themselves not only in words but in acts. He was the oracle of the whole country around him, and his fame had extended far beyond the circle of his immediate acquaintance. Though I had never met him, before, I had heard much of him, and but for this meeting it is very likely I should have had opposition, and had been beaten. One thing is very certain, no man could now stand up in that district under such a vote.

"At the appointed time I was at his house, having told our conversation to every crowd I had met, and to every man I stayed all night with, and I found that it gave the people an interest and a confidence in me stronger than I had ever seen manifested before.

"Though I was considerably fatigued when I reached his house, and, under ordinary circumstances, should have gone early to bed, I kept him up until midnight, talking about the principles and affairs of government, and got more real, true knowledge of them than I had got all my life before.

"I have known and seen much of him since, for I respect him – no, that is not the word – I reverence and love him more than any living man, and I go to see him two or three times every year; and I will tell you, sir, if every one who professes to be a Christian lived and acted and enjoyed it as he does, the religion of Christ would take the world by storm.

"But to return to my story. The next morning we went to the barbecue, and, to my surprise, found about a thousand men there. I met a good many whom I had not known before, and they and my friend introduced me around until I had got pretty well acquainted – at least, they all knew me.

"In due time notice was given that I would speak to them. They gathered up around a stand that had been erected. I opened my speech by saying:

" ‘Fellow-citizens – I present myself before you today feeling like a new man. My eyes have lately been opened to truths which ignorance or prejudice, or both, had heretofore hidden from my view. I feel that I can today offer you the ability to render you more valuable service than I have ever been able to render before. I am here today more for the purpose of acknowledging my error than to seek your votes. That I should make this acknowledgment is due to myself as well as to you. Whether you will vote for me is a matter for your consideration only.’"

"I went on to tell them about the fire and my vote for the appropriation and then told them why I was satisfied it was wrong. I closed by saying:

" ‘And now, fellow-citizens, it remains only for me to tell you that the most of the speech you have listened to with so much interest was simply a repetition of the arguments by which your neighbor, Mr. Bunce, convinced me of my error.

" ‘It is the best speech I ever made in my life, but he is entitled to the credit for it. And now I hope he is satisfied with his convert and that he will get up here and tell you so.’

"He came upon the stand and said:

" ‘Fellow-citizens – It affords me great pleasure to comply with the request of Colonel Crockett. I have always considered him a thoroughly honest man, and I am satisfied that he will faithfully perform all that he has promised you today.’

"He went down, and there went up from that crowd such a shout for Davy Crockett as his name never called forth before.’

"I am not much given to tears, but I was taken with a choking then and felt some big drops rolling down my cheeks. And I tell you now that the remembrance of those few words spoken by such a man, and the honest, hearty shout they produced, is worth more to me than all the honors I have received and all the reputation I have ever made, or ever shall make, as a member of Congress.’

"Now, sir," concluded Crockett, "you know why I made that speech yesterday.

"There is one thing now to which I will call your attention. You remember that I proposed to give a week’s pay. There are in that House many very wealthy men – men who think nothing of spending a week’s pay, or a dozen of them, for a dinner or a wine party when they have something to accomplish by it. Some of those same men made beautiful speeches upon the great debt of gratitude which the country owed the deceased–a debt which could not be paid by money–and the insignificance and worthlessness of money, particularly so insignificant a sum as $10,000, when weighed against the honor of the nation. Yet not one of them responded to my proposition. Money with them is nothing but trash when it is to come out of the people. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it."

15 Responses to “It’s Not Yours To Give”

  1. Curtis
    November 8, 2006 at 11:34 am #

    According to the constitution then, upon what should government be spending public funds?

  2. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 11:36 am #

    This article answers that question very well.

  3. Curtis
    November 8, 2006 at 12:40 pm #

    So, what I got out of that article was that, “The federal government exists only to protect private property and free enterprise.” Sorry for my thick skull, but what is it ok for government to spend money on again?
    I think that Adam Smith stated at one point that in Capitalism, government should use public funds only for military, public infrastructure and public education. Nothing else. Is this what our constitution allows? Can you quote to me where in the Constitution it says that we can’t use tax dollars for other purposes? Thanks.

  4. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 1:10 pm #

    The Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, gives Congress the power “to lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States.”

    As per what Uncle Sam is allowed to spend our money on, I firmly agree and stand with the platform of the Constitution Party on this issue:

    A legitimate and primary purpose of civil government is to safeguard the God-given rights of its citizens; namely, life, liberty, and property. Only those duties, functions, and programs specifically assigned to the federal government by the Constitution should be funded. We call upon Congress and the President to stop all federal expenditures which are not specifically authorized by the U. S. Constitution, and to restore to the states those powers, programs, and sources of revenue that the federal government has usurped.

    Now some might say “well any powers not prohibited by the Constitution are still okay”, but the 10th Amendment assigns all such powers to the States:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved for the States respectively, or to the people.

    The amazing feat of the Constitution was to tear down power from the executive and localize it as much as possible. There has been a dangerous trend reversing this intent of the Founding Fathers, as our executive now has an astonishing amount of power.

  5. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 1:11 pm #

    Also, federal government should have no oversight over, funding for, or dealings with public education, contrary to what you say Adam Smith stated. Education is also reserved for the states.

  6. Curtis
    November 8, 2006 at 1:55 pm #

    Thanks Connor for the education. It seems that some liberty can be taken with the vague term, “the general Welfare of the United States.” (Why is the “W” in Welfare capitalized here?)
    I suppose it could be argued that Social Security, for example, is part of the general Welfare of United States.

  7. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 2:00 pm #

    It seems that some liberty can be taken with the vague term, “the general Welfare of the United States.”

    Not really, if one understands that we’re talking about the welfare of the country and not the people. It’s not the “general welfare of the citizens of the United States”…

    (Why is the “W” in Welfare capitalized here?)

    Interesting question. I believe it’s because it’s a god-given right (a self-evident truth). Check out the capitalized words in the Preamble and see if you notice the pattern:

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

  8. Curtis
    November 8, 2006 at 2:22 pm #

    Aren’t there things that are good for the citizens that are also good for the United States then? Social Security being one example.
    So, would it be good then to leave social taxation and spending issues up to the states then? In that case, you are not against socialistic policies, but just against them when they are undertaken by the federal government since the constitution doesn’t allow that sort of spending?

  9. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 2:28 pm #

    Aren’t there things that are good for the citizens that are also good for the United States then?

    Yes – it’s good for citizens and the United States that the government stay out of our wallets and lives as much as possible. How many codes, policies, laws, and regulations control our lives these days? You can’t start any sort of private enterprise without first getting the government’s stamp of approval. We must separate the idea of the “United States” from the government—they are not one and the same.

    By reducing government size and spending, individual enterprise and prosperity will increase which will in turn benefit the country at large. That’s why, in our current system of government, free enterprise capitalism works wonders. Adam Smith, whom you quoted earlier, agrees:

    …every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good.

  10. BrianJ
    November 8, 2006 at 2:33 pm #

    All that Capitalization is simply because They liked to capitalize just about every Noun back in the Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries. It has nothing to do with God-given Rights, but was instead a writing Style. (See Franklin’s Autobiography if You would like an Example.)

  11. Curtis
    November 8, 2006 at 7:35 pm #

    So, are you ok with socialist policies if they are initiated by on the state level since this doesn’t go against the US constitution? Or is it against the constitution for local government to spend public money in a socialist manner as well?

  12. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 9:50 pm #

    So, are you ok with socialist policies if they are initiated by on the state level since this doesn’t go against the US constitution?

    Heavens, no! Pres. Benson’s “The Proper Role of Government” clarifies the evils and inherent fallacy of socialism. What right does anybody have to take my hard-earned goods and give them to another by force?

  13. Jason
    November 8, 2006 at 10:56 pm #

    Hmm.. good entry Connor. Especially because I think it covers the entire issue nicely. It’s not that people don’t need and deserve assistance, its that it is not Congress’s job to be giving out our tax dollars, like THEY are being so charitable. If they and the people of this great land want to give, let them give for that purpose instead of thinking they are giving for taxes. Certainly this would lower the tax rate significantly, though it puts more onus on each of us to give charitably (I seem to remember you making an blog entry on this topic before).

    I especially like (*read like with sarcasm*) the principle of Congress doling out cash to charities and then hanging their hats on how generous THEY are (and the people of the USA as a sidenote), but if they were truly generous they wouldn’t be handing out our money, but their own instead.

  14. Curtis
    November 8, 2006 at 11:18 pm #

    Connor,
    There are several holes I can see in Pres. Benson’s arguements against socialism, but I should not hijack your thread to talk about them. Thanks for your answers and for your thoughts on the constitution.

  15. Connor
    November 8, 2006 at 11:21 pm #

    I guess you’ll have to write up a post over at your blog allowing me to comment on your thoughts! :)

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