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Davy Crockett on Social Spending

Copyright 1995 by David W. Neuendorf

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Committees of the US Congress have recently been discussing the cutting or elimination of certain federal spending programs. From beginning to end, the discussion seems to be centering on whether the programs are effective and aimed at a worthwhile goal. There seems to be little or no discussion of whether the programs are in the legitimate province of the federal government, as defined by the enumerated powers of the US Constitution. This is exactly backwards from the proper procedure. Yes, we need effective legislation aimed at worthwhile goals; but it is most important that all legislation stay within the limits set by the Constitution. The fact that a thing is worth doing does not mean that the federal government has or should have the lawful power to do it.

When Davy Crockett was a US Representative from Tennessee, he had an experience that drove this principle home for him. One day, while lounging on the Capitol steps with some other Congressmen, they saw a fire raging in Georgetown. Crockett and the others rode to the fire and worked to get it under control (imagine that happening now, if you can). When the fire was out, a number of people had been left homeless. The next morning, on the House floor, a bill appropriating $20,000 to relieve the victims of the fire was rushed through on a recorded vote. Crockett voted in favor of the bill.

The next summer, when he was up for re-election, Colonel Crockett went back to his home district to do some campaigning. People seemed happy enough with him, until he ran into a man named Horatio Bunce, a well-respected resident of the district. Mr. Bunce told Davy in no uncertain terms that he could not vote for him again. He accused the Congressman of not having the capacity to understand the Constitution, citing the $20,000 appropriation as evidence.

Noting that giving charity is not one of the powers of Congress enumerated in the Constitution, Mr. Bunce told Davy, "...while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he...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."

Thoroughly convinced, Davy incorporated Mr. Bunce's arguments, and a confession of his own wrongdoing, into his campaign speeches. Re-elected without opposition, Crockett returned to Washington with a far better understanding of his duty to uphold the Constitution. When the opportunity came to vote on a relief bill for the widow of a naval officer, he offered in his speech to donate one week's salary to her cause, but not to vote public funds for it. The House followed his lead in voting down the appropriation, but not a single other member contributed any of his own money (though they had been ready enough to contribute that of the taxpayers).

Oh, for a silver tongue like that of Horatio Bunce! To be able to convince citizens and Congressmen alike to respect the Constitution and the founding principles of our nation. Crockett's biographer, Edward S. Ellis, passed on this story in his book, "The Life of Colonel David Crockett." I have some reprints of the whole story (which I have necessarily condensed for this column), available on request.