Disney’s new film "The Alamo" is reintroducing the American people to a once-celebrated backwoodsman-turned-politician. Davy Crockett, who died at the Alamo in 1836, forged his commoner’s roots and southern gentility into a Congressional career marked by a principled defense of limited government.
Crockett was elected by Tennesseans to three terms in the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1820s and 1830s. An 1884 biography by Edward Sylvester Ellis recounted a speech given by Crockett that eloquently explains why government should not take on the role of charitable benefactor.
An excerpt from Ellis’s book, containing the speech now called "Not Yours to Give," follows:
One day in the House, 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 Rep. David Crockett arose:
"Mr. Speaker--I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the suffering of the living, if there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for 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 on 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 appropriate a dollar of the public money. 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."
Later, when asked by a friend why he had opposed the appropriation, Crockett said: "Several years ago, I was one evening standing on the steps of the Capitol with some members of Congress when our attention was attracted by a great light over in Georgetown. It was evidently a large fire. In spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and many families made houseless. . . . The weather was very cold, and when I saw so many children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done. A bill was introduced appropriating $20,000 for their relief. We rushed it through.
"The next summer, when riding one day in a part of my district. I saw a man in a field plowing. I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but rather coldly.
" 'You are Colonel Crockett. I shall not vote for you again.' "
"I begged him tell me what was the matter."
"'Well Colonel, 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. You voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by fire in Georgetown.
" 'Certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing treasury,' I replied."
"'It is not the amount, Colonel, it is the principle. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man. . . . 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. 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.'
" '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.'
"Now, sir," concluded Crockett, "you know why I made that speech yesterday. . . . 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. 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."
Congress could use a few more Representative Crocketts today. But no one needs to be elected to public office to use his own resources to meet the needs of the poor, and persuade others to do likewise.
Thanks to John Fund of the Wall Street Journal for information used in the remarks above.