We are being threatened once again with a government shutdown mainly due to FEMA lack of funding. Davy Crockett was and still is an American legend. He served two non-consecutive terms in Congress and the following true story outlines the beginnings of our fiscal mismanagement. If we had learned the lesson taught to Rep. Crockett, our nation would not be morally or fiscally bankrupt.
After you read the article, you will have the answer to the following question by a farmer to Colonel Crockett.
Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?
and in brackets
After his defeat in the 1834 election he said, “I told the people of my district that I would serve them faithfully as I had done; but if not… you may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” He eventually did, and died on March 6, 1836, when the Alamo finally fell to Mexican troops after an 11-day siege.
It is an episode from his time in Congress that I want to tell you about today. Davy himself first told the tale, in a speech on the floor of the House that he later reprinted under the title “Sockdolager!”
A “sockdolager” is one of those slap-your-forehead moments, when something suddenly becomes blindingly clear to you. That’s how Davy felt when he came to realize that his understanding of the U.S. Constitution was sadly lacking. Here’s what happened.
Near the end of his first term, Davy decided to visit the western edge of his district to see how much support he’d get if he decided to seek reelection. To appreciate how different campaigning was back then, let me quote the beginning of Davy’s tale:
“So I put a couple of shirts and a few twists of tobacco into my saddle-bags and put out. I had been out about a week, and had found things going very smoothly, when, riding one day in a part of my district in which I was more of a stranger than any other, I saw a man in a field plowing and coming toward the road. I gauged my gait so that we should meet as he came to the fence.”
Can you believe it? No fancy entourage, no public relations flacks paving the way, no reporters covering the scene. Not even a buggy with a suitcase or two; it was just Davy, a horse, and a couple of saddle-bags. Life sure was different back then, wasn’t it?
Davy introduces himself to the farmer and says, “I am one of those unfortunate beings called candidates, and ….”
Before he could continue, the man interrupted and said, “Yes, I know you; you are Colonel Crockett. I have seen you once before and voted for you the last time you were elected. I supposed you are out electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine. I shall not vote for you again.”
Needless to say, the young congressman is surprised and asks the man why on earth not. The farmer replies, “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. In either case, you are not the man to represent me.”
As Davy says, when he later related the story on the floor of Congress, “This was a sockdolager!” I told the man, “There must be some mistake, for I do not remember that I gave my vote last winter upon any constitutional question.” The man replies, “No, Colonel, there’s no mistake. Though I live here in the back woods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My papers say that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown. Is that true?”
Crockett replies, “Certainly it is. And I thought that was the last vote for which anybody in the world would have found fault with.”
Then comes the classic denouement: “Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?”
Let me pick up the rest of this part of the story, exactly as Davy Crockett told it on the floor of Congress: “Here was another sockdolager; for, when I began to think about it, I could not remember a thing in the Constitution that authorized it. I found I must take another tack, so I said: ‘“Well, my friend; I may as well own up. You have got me there. But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve its suffering women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did.’”
[“It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. In the first place, the government ought to have in the Treasury no more than enough for its legitimate purposes. But that has nothing to do with the question. The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be entrusted to man, particularly under our system of collecting revenue by a tariff, which reaches every man in the country, no matter how poor he may be, and the poorer he is the more he pays in proportion to his means. What is worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there is not a man in the United States who can ever guess how much he pays to the government.
So you see, that while you are contributing to relieve one, you are drawing it from thousands who are even worse off than he. If you had the right to give anything, the amount was simply a matter of discretion with you, and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all; and, as the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to any and everything which you may believe, or profess to believe, is a charity, and to any amount you may think proper. 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.
No, Colonel, Congress has no right to give charity. Individual members may give as much of their own money as they please, but they have no right to touch a dollar of the public money for that purpose. If twice as many houses had been burned in this county as in Georgetown, neither you nor any other member of Congress would have thought of appropriating a dollar for our relief. There are about two hundred and forty members of Congress. If they had shown their sympathy for the sufferers by contributing each one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of wealthy men in and around Washington who could have given $20,000 without depriving themselves of even a luxury of life. The Congressmen chose to keep their own money, which, if reports be true, some of them spend not very creditably; and the people about Washington, no doubt, applauded you for relieving them from the necessity of giving by giving what was not yours to give.
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.”
I have given you an imperfect account of what he said. Long before he was through, I was convinced that I had done wrong. He wound up by saying:
“So you see, Colonel, 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. I have no doubt you acted honestly, but that does not make it any better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and you see that I cannot vote for you.”]
Davy has no choice but to acknowledge the truth of what he’s heard. He tells the man, ‘“Well, my friend, you hit the nail upon the head when you said I had not sense enough to understand the Constitution. I intended to be guided by it, and thought I had studied it fully. I have heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what you have said here at your plow has got more hard, sound sense in it than all the fine speeches I ever heard.
“If I had ever taken the view of it that you have, I would have put my head into the fire before I would have given that vote, and if you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law I wish I may be shot.”