Frontier Wisdom: It’s NOT Yours To Give

davy-crockettWe ran across a brilliant piece attributed by a biographer to the legendary frontiersman Colonel Davy Crockett, then a congressman, called, Not Yours To Give. The title was intriguing, and, after finishing, it’s hard not to be struck by the wisdom and relevance of his words.

This short piece starts by recounting Colonel Crockett’s speech on the House floor in response to a proposed bill to appropriate money for the widow of a distinguished naval officer. He challenges his colleagues with the following constitutional principals: “ Congress has no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity…We have the right, as individuals, to give away as much money as we please in charity; but as member of Congress, we have no right to so appropriate a dollar of the public money.”

Colonel Crockett goes on to give background to this somewhat astounding assertion, that it’s ‘not yours to give.’ It seems in his prior term, Representative Crockett had followed the crowd and voted to appropriate $20,000 to townspeople in Georgetown who had lost homes and all belongings in a fire, the popular sentiment being, surely as compassionate and wealthy a nation as was America, it was only right and humane for the government to provide relief.

While campaigning for a second term, Colonel Crockett happened upon a constituent plowing his fields, and was prepared to deliver his folksy stump speech, when he was stopped short by the farmer, who properly but politely gave him a dressing for the very same vote which Crockett considered a fine act of empathy and generosity. This man, Horatio Bunce, powerfully lectured the taken aback candidate about the constitution and the inherent dangers of collecting revenue from thousands of people to relieve some, no matter how well-meaning the intent. “The power of collecting and disbursing money at pleasure is the most dangerous power that can be intrusted to man…” warned Mr. Bunce.

He went on, “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. 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.”

Well, Mr. Bunce had a convert in the humbled Colonel Crockett, who pledged he would both publicly renounce his prior vote in his campaigning and oppose any such actions in the future if re-elected, in exchange for Mr. Bunce’s support. True to his word on both counts, Crockett was re-elected and his speech against government charity which starts this writing turned a tidal wave of support for the charitable appropriation to an overwhelming defeat.

In closing the vignette, Colonel Crockett returns to his speech, to a part where he had suggested that, rather than appropriate money which was not theirs to give, each congressperson should donate individually a week’s wages, providing the widow even more than the amount under consideration. His final thoughts:

“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. Some of those same men made beautiful speeches upon the great debt of gratitude which the country owed the deceased–a debt which could not be paid by money–and the insignificance and worthlessness of money, particularly so insignificant a sum as $10,000, when weighted against the honor of the nation. 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. But it is the one great thing for which most of them are striving, and many of them sacrifice honor, integrity, and justice to obtain it.”

Have we heard those words before – it’s the humane, moral thing to do? Have we had the courage to challenge those who feel entitled to collect our money and re-distribute is as they see fit, even in the name of compassion and humanity, that, it’s not theirs to give? Imagine a country where free individuals make their own decisions on how best to help neighbors in need, and politicians put their money, not ours, where their mouth is…

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