“Plain and Simple Duties”

Andrew Jackson
“To suppose that (because) our Government has been instituted for the benefit of the people it must therefore have the power to do whatever may seem to conduce to the public good is an error into which even honest minds are too apt to fall.” — Andrew Jackson
Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Presidential File [LC-USZC4-4563 DLC]

Andrew Jackson, whose tenure stretched from 1829 to 1837, was our seventh president and an exceedingly popular one. He, too, reminded Congress frequently in Jeffersonian terms what the federal role was. In his fourth annual message on Dec. 4, 1832, he wrote:

"Limited to a general superintending power to maintain peace at home and abroad, and to prescribe laws on a few subjects of general interest not calculated to restrict human liberty, but to enforce human rights, this government will find its strength and its glory in the faithful discharge of these plain and simple duties."

In his second Inaugural Address three months later, Jackson again underscored the federal government's limited mission. He said:

"(I)t will be my aim to inculcate by my official acts the necessity of exercising by the General Government those powers only that are clearly delegated; to encourage simplicity and economy in the expenditures of the Government; to raise no more money from the people than may be requisite for these objects, and in a manner that will best promote the interests of all classes of the community and of all portions of the Union."

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As if to head off any misunderstandings about the role of the federal government, Jackson went on to say, "To suppose that because our Government has been instituted for the benefit of the people it must therefore have the power to do what ever may seem to conduce to the public good is an error into which even honest minds are too apt to fall."

Compared to giants like Jefferson, Madison and Jackson, Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire is often thought of as a mere cipher. But he was another in a long string of 19th century American presidents who had their heads on straight when it came to the matter of federal poverty assistance. Among his nine vetoes was one in 1854 that nixed a bill to help the mentally ill. Here's what Pierce said:

"It can not be questioned that if Congress has power to make provision for the indigent insane ... it has the same power to provide for the indigent who are not insane, and thus to transfer to the Federal Government the charge of all the poor in all the States. It has the same power to provide hospitals and other local establishments for the care and cure of every species of human infirmity, and thus to assume all that duty of either public philanthropy, or public necessity to the dependent, the orphan, the sick, or the needy which is now discharged by the States themselves or by corporate institutions or private endowments existing under the legislation of the States. The whole field of public beneficence is thrown open to the care and culture of the Federal Government. ... If Congress may and ought to provide for any one of these objects, it may and ought to provide for them all."

It is a testament to the lack of federal welfare-style programs during more than 60 years under our first 13 presidents that Pierce, our 14th, termed as "novel" the very idea of "providing for the care and support of all those among the people of the United States who by any form of calamity become fit objects of public philanthropy."

Meanwhile, the poor of virtually every other nation on the planet were poor because of what governments were doing to them, often in the name of doing something for them: taxing and regulating them into penury; seizing their property and businesses; persecuting them for their faith; torturing and killing them because they held views different from those in power; and squandering their resources on official luxury, mindless warfare and wasteful boondoggles. America was about government not doing such things to people — and that one fact was, all by itself, a powerfully effective anti-poverty program.