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200 Years Ago, Davy Crockett Perfectly Explained the Limits on Government Spending – Not Yours to Give
BY GUEST CONTRIBUTOR
FEBRUARY 1, 2023
By Col. Davy Crockett
Editor’s Note: This incredible story has long been a favorite among that segment of Americans who take the Constitution – and its limits on the federal government – seriously. In this tale, American hero Davy Crockett, then a Representative for the state of Tennessee, explains exactly why the Constitution doesn’t allow the government to spend money on anything it wants. Not even when our heartstrings are given a healthy tug. Ask yourself: how many American politicians serving right now would have the courage to do what Col. Crockett did?
[The following story about the famed American icon Davy Crockett was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1867, as written by James J. Bethune, a pseudonym used by Edward S. Ellis. The events that are recounted here are true, including Crockett’s opposition to the bill in question, though the precise rendering and some of the detail are fictional.]
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 Davy 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 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 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 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.”
7 thoughts on “A Word from Davy Crockett”
This outfit has posted what looks to be a scan of the original, sourced from University of Michigan, https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015056090437&view=page&seq=626&q1=Davy%20Crockett
And for those who might not be familiar with that outfit, this from their website, “Founded in 2008, HathiTrust is a not-for-profit collaborative of academic and research libraries preserving 17+ million digitized items. HathiTrust offers reading access to the fullest extent allowable by U.S. copyright law, computational access to the entire corpus for scholarly research, and other emerging services based on the combined collection. HathiTrust members steward the collection — the largest set of digitized books managed by academic and research libraries — under the aims of scholarly, not corporate, interests.
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OOO! Thank you for this, Scott! New research avenues are ALWAYS welcome! 😀
Delightful, and I agree with just about everything he says, except:
“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.”
Obviously, they *do* have the power to appropriate money, since they have, in fact, done it.
That’s not quite true. What Crockett said was that Congress does not have the power “as an act of charity” to appropriate money, not that they do not have the power at all. Certainly, they have the power to appropriate money – it’s in the Constitution. The House of Representatives is supposed to appropriate funds *for the government.* Not for charity. The government is not a charity and it is not meant to be one. It is meant to defend, protect, and see to the interests of the states and the people in matters they cannot handle themselves.
Charity is the province of the people; communities, families, and individuals. When any government begins acting in the capacity of a charity, it ceases to be a government. Charity is something the people themselves can do. If Congress wants to be charitable, as Crockett points out, then they should be charitable *as individual men*.
They should not foist their God-given responsibility to be charitable onto an instrument (the government) that is not meant for such a task. Nor should they pass their personal obligation on to the people at large. Not without a direct appeal, which is not the purpose of a bill. A bill is meant to pass a law, not to mandate charity from citizens too far from the situation to know about it or be able to personally help with it. As men in Congress close to the situation, the Congress*men* have an obligation *as* men to see to the issue.
The government – specifically the legislative branch, Congress – most certainly does *not.*
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Oh, I get that. My point was, whether it’s permitted in the Constitution or not, the fact that they do it – as in the case of the fire – and money is transferred shows that they do have the *power* to do it.
So, the Constitution does not allow it or provide any justification for it. But as a matter of fact, if Congress votes to draw money from the US Treasury and give it to the victims of a fire as an act of charity, the money *is* taken and *is* given.
Difference between authority and power.
Probably gonna do a whole essay on this, but I think it’s important we get this distinction clear.
Abuse of authority is the same as abuse of power, as authority is a power all its own. Just because someone has the power and/or the authority doesn’t mean they get to use it however they want, as Crockett pointed out. If a father abuses his authority over his son or a mother her daughter by telling them to do something they do not wish to do themselves (i.e. “pay this bill so I don’t have to, even though I’m perfectly capable of doing it, I just don’t want to”), then they automatically have abused their authority or power over their child. If someone does the same thing in government, the difference is largely remanded to terms of scale.
Authority and/or power tempt those who hold them to act corruptly. “Can” too often equals “should” for most of us, whether one is talking about the Constitution or the Ten Commandments. “Honor thy father and thy mother” doesn’t mean walking off a cliff or drinking cyanide when they say to do that, nor does it mean they have a right to tell their child to pay a bill which they can cover themselves but refuse to do so. Same goes for those in positions of government authority and/or power. The difference is in scale for the most part, not in principle.
I confess, I’m playing a bit with Crockett’s statement: taking the word in a more strict definition than he intended. He’s using it in the sense that Congress does not have the *authority* to appropriate funds for charity, which is true, and it means that doing so is an abuse of their position.
But power, in another sense, means simply the ability or force to enact one’s will. So, Congress has no warrant in the Constitution to appropriate funds for charity, but as we see, that doesn’t prevent them from doing it or render such measures null and void in any practical sense, or even impose any real consequences if they do (e.g. none of those Congressmen faced official reprimand, nor was the money given to the fire victims returned after Crockett pointed out that what they did was unconstitutional), meaning that they do, in fact, have the power (in this sense) to do so, regardless of the Constitution, because when they vote it to be done, it is done. That’s the distinction I’m getting at.