Below is a historic, but relevant lesson concerning that Constitution and the philosophy upon which America was founded—a lesson government should be held to and a spirit Americans should rekindle if we’re to remain free, strong and independent.
The Lesson: Congress is only the steward of OUR MONEY — money that is NOT THEIRS to give away.
One day in the House of Representatives, a bill was proposed appropriating money for a widow of a distinguished naval officer. Speeches were made supporting it. The House was about to vote when Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee arose:
“Mr. Speaker–I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the suffering as any man, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathies to lead us into an act of injustice to the balance of the living. I will not argue that Congress has not the power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member knows it.
We have the right as individuals, to give away our own money in charity; but as members of Congress we have no right to appropriate a dollar of the public money. Some eloquent appeals have been made that it’s a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker, the deceased lived long after the war; he was in office to the day of his death, and I never heard that the government was in arrears to him.
Every man here knows it’s not a debt. We cannot without the grossest corruption, appropriate this money as payment of a debt. We have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as charity. Mr. Speaker, I’ve said we have the right to give as much money of our own as we please. I’m the poorest man on this floor. I cannot vote for this bill, but I’ll 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.”
He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was soundly defeated.
Crockett later explained:
Several years ago, I was standing on the steps of the Capitol with some members of Congress, when our attention was attracted by a large fire in Georgetown. We jumped into a hack and drove there. Houses were burned and many families made houseless, and some had lost all but the clothes they had on. The weather was cold, and when I saw children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done for them. The next morning a bill was introduced appropriating $20,000 for their relief. We put aside all other business and rushed it through.
The next summer, we began to think about the election. When riding one day in my district, I saw a man plowing and coming toward the road. I spoke to him. He replied politely, but coldly.
I began: 'Well friend, I’m one of those unfortunate beings called candidates and—‘:
“I know you; you’re Colonel Crockett. I’ve seen you before, and voted for you the last time. I suppose you’re out electioneering now, but you better not waste your time or mine, I shall not vote for you again."
This was a sockdolger...I begged him tell me why…:
“Well Colonel, it’s hardly worthwhile to waste time upon it.
I don’t see how it can be mended, but you gave a vote last winter which shows that either you have not the capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are wanting in the honesty and firmness to be guided by it. In either case, you’re not the man to represent me. I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the Constitution is very different from mine; but an understanding of the Constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything, must be held sacred, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is dangerous.'
You voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to sufferers by fire in Georgetown. Is that true?”
Well, my friend; I may as well own up. But certainly nobody will complain that a 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’m sure you would have done just the same as I did…:
“It’s not the amount, it’s 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’s worse, it presses upon him without his knowledge where the weight centers, for there’s 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 and you had as much right to give $20,000,000 as $20,000. If you have the right to give at 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’ll very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud, 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.
Colonel, you have violated the Constitution in what I consider a vital point. It’s a precedent fraught with danger, 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 better, except as far as you are personally concerned, and so you see, I cannot vote for you. You defy the Constitution.'”