Representative Davy Crockett
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
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
"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
"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
"'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
" '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
"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