Clara Barton
“Instantly, we felt the help and strength of our organization (the Red Cross), young and untried as it was.” — Dansville, N.Y., Red Cross officers following a call from Clara Barton (above) to help the victims of a massive Michigan fire in 1881.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division [LC-USW33-042483-ZC DLC]

Consider a story that I first learned from the eminent Hillsdale College historian Burton Folsom, a good friend of mine.

In 1881, a raging fire swept through the state of Michigan's "Thumb" area, killing nearly 200 people and destroying more than 1 million acres of timberland. "The flames ran faster than a horse could gallop," said one survivor of the devastating blaze. Its hurricane-like fury uprooted trees, blew away buildings and destroyed millions of dollars of property across four counties.

This disaster produced an outpouring of generosity from Americans everywhere. In fact, the Michigan fire became the first disaster relief effort of Clara Barton and the newly formed American Red Cross. As the smoke billowed eastward across the nation, Barton's hometown of Dansville, N.Y., became a focal point of relief. According to the officers of the Dansville Red Cross, a call from Clara Barton "rallied us to our work."

"Instantly," they said, "we felt the help and strength of our organization (the Red Cross), young and untried as it was." Men, women and children throughout western New York brought food, clothing and other gifts. Before the Red Cross would send them to Michigan, a committee of ladies inspected each item and restitched garments or replaced food when necessary.

Speed was important, not only because many were hungry, but also because winter was approaching. Bedding and heavy clothing were in demand. Railroads provided the shipping. People left jobs and homes and trekked to Michigan to get personally involved in the rebuilding. Soon, the Red Cross in New York and the local relief committees in Michigan were working together to distribute supplies until "no more were needed," according to the final report from the Red Cross.

The Red Cross' assistance was much appreciated. And it made disaster relief faster, more efficient and national in scope.

But even if such help had not come, Michiganians were prepared to organize relief voluntarily within the state. During an 1871 fire that left nearly 3,000 Michigan families homeless, Gov. Henry Baldwin personally organized the relief efforts and gave about $150,000 out of his own pockets — a sum equivalent to more than $3 million today. Few, if any, thought it necessary to create a federal relief bureaucracy.

Baldwin and the Red Cross met the true definition of compassion. They suffered with the fire victims and worked personally to reduce their pain. Baldwin, the Red Cross and the fire victims themselves might even have felt that aid from Washington, D.C., might dampen the enthusiasm of the volunteers who gave their energy and resources out of a sense of duty and brotherly love. And this was in a year when the federal budget had a $100 million surplus, not the $400 billion deficit of today!

Government relief is in fact pre-emptive. There is little reason to believe that politicians are more compassionate or caring than the population that elects them. There is little reason to believe that politicians who are not on the scenes of either poverty or disaster and don't know the families affected will be more knowledgeable about how best to help them than those who are present and personally know the victims. There is even less reason to believe that politicians spend other people's money more effectively than those people to whom it belongs in the first place. Instead, when government gets involved, there is good reason to believe that much of its effort simply displaces what private people and groups would do better and more cost-effectively if government stayed home.