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Not Yours To Give
Col. David Crockett
US Representative from Tennessee

Originally published in "The Life of Colonel David Crockett," by Edward
Sylvester Ellis.

Also available as a plain text file and as a .prc file for the PalmPilot.

One day in the House of Representatives 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 Crockett arose:

"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. Some eloquent appeals have been
made to us upon the ground that it is a debt due the deceased. Mr. Speaker,
the deceased lived long after the close of the war; he was in office to the
day of his death, and I ever heard that the government was in arrears to him.

"Every man in this House knows it is not a debt. We cannot without the
grossest corruption, appropriate this money as the payment of a debt. We
have not the semblance of authority to appropriate it as charity. Mr.
Speaker, I have said we have the right to give as much money of our own as
we please. 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."

He took his seat. Nobody replied. The bill was put upon its passage, and,
instead of passing unanimously, as was generally supposed, and as, no
doubt, it would, but for that speech, it received but few votes, and, of
course, was lost.

Later, when asked by a friend why he had opposed the appropriation,
Crockett gave this explanation:

"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. We jumped into a
hack and drove over as fast as we could. In spite of all that could be
done, many houses were burned and many families made houseless, and
besides, some of them had lost all but the clothes they had on. The weather
was very cold, and when I saw so many 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 as soon as it could be done.

"The next summer, when it began to be time to think about election, I
concluded I would take a scout around among the boys of my district. I had
no opposition there but, as the election was some time off, I did not know
what might turn up. 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
up, I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but as I thought, rather coldly.

"I began: 'Well friend, I am one of those unfortunate beings called
candidates and---

"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 suppose you are out
electioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine, I shall
not vote for you again."

"This was a sockdolger...I begged him tell me what was the matter.

"Well Colonel, it is hardly worthwhile to waste time or words upon it. I do
not see how it can be mended, but 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. But I beg your pardon for
expressing it that way. I did not intend to avail myself of the privilege
of the constituent to speak plainly to a candidate for the purpose of
insulting you or wounding you.'

"I intend by it only to say that your understanding of the constitution is
very different from mine; and I will say to you what but for my rudeness, I
should not have said, that I believe you to be honest.

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 the more dangerous the honest he is.'

" 'I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake. Though
I live in the backwoods and seldom go from home, I take the papers from
Washington and read very carefully all the proceedings of Congress. My
papers say you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by
fire in Georgetown. Is that true?

"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 the same 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 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 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 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 country 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 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 necessity of 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.'

"'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.'

"I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this
man should go to talking and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I
could not answer him, and the fact is, I was so fully convinced that he was
right, I did not want to. But I must satisfy him, and I said to him:

"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.'

"He laughingly replied; 'Yes, Colonel, you have sworn to that once before,
but I will trust you again upon one condition. You are convinced that your
vote was wrong. Your acknowledgment of it will do more good than beating
you for it. If, as you go around the district, you will tell people about
this vote, and that you are satisfied it was wrong, I will not only vote
for you, but will do what I can to keep down opposition, and perhaps, I may
exert some little influence in that way.'

"If I don't, said I, 'I wish I may be shot; and to convince you that I am
in earnest in what I say I will come back this way in a week or ten days,
and if you will get up a gathering of people, I will make a speech to them.
Get up a barbecue, and I will pay for it.'

"No, Colonel, we are not rich people in this section but we have plenty of
provisions to contribute for a barbecue, and some to spare for those who
have none. The push of crops will be over in a few days, and we can then
afford a day for a barbecue. 'This Thursday; I will see to getting it up on
Saturday week. Come to my house on Friday, and we will go together, and I
promise you a very respectable crowd to see and hear you.

"'Well I will be here. But one thing more before I say good-bye. I must
know your name."

"'My name is Bunce.'

"'Not Horatio Bunce?'


"'Well, Mr. Bunce, I never saw you before, though you say you have seen me,
but I know you very well. I am glad I have met you, and very proud that I
may hope to have you for my friend.'

"It was one of the luckiest hits of my life that I met him. He mingled but
little with the public, but was widely known for his remarkable
intelligence, and for a heart brim-full and running over with kindness and
benevolence, which showed themselves not only in words but in acts. He was
the oracle of the whole country around him, and his fame had extended far
beyond the circle of his immediate acquaintance. Though I had never met
him, before, I had heard much of him, and but for this meeting it is very
likely I should have had opposition, and had been beaten. One thing is very
certain, no man could now stand up in that district under such a vote.

"At the appointed time I was at his house, having told our conversation to
every crowd I had met, and to every man I stayed all night with, and I
found that it gave the people an interest and confidence in me stronger
than I had ever seen manifested before.

"Though I was considerably fatigued when I reached his house, and, under
ordinary circumstances, should have gone early to bed, I kept him up until
midnight talking about the principles and affairs of government, and got
more real, true knowledge of them than I had got all my life before."

"I have known and seen much of him since, for I respect him - no, that is
not the word - I reverence and love him more than any living man, and I go
to see him two or three times every year; and I will tell you, sir, if
every one who professes to be a Christian lived and acted and enjoyed it as
he does, the religion of Christ would take the world by storm.

"But to return to my story. The next morning we went to the barbecue and,
to my surprise, found about a thousand men there. I met a good many whom I
had not known before, and they and my friend introduced me around until I
had got pretty well acquainted - at least, they all knew me.

"In due time notice was given that I would speak to them. They gathered up
around a stand that had been erected. I opened my speech by saying:

"Fellow-citizens - I present myself before you today feeling like a new
man. My eyes have lately been opened to truths which ignorance or prejudice
or both, had heretofore hidden from my view. I feel that I can today offer
you the ability to render you more valuable service than I have ever been
able to render before. I am here today more for the purpose of
acknowledging my error than to seek your votes. That I should make this
acknowledgment is due to myself as well as to you. Whether you will vote
for me is a matter for your consideration only."

"I went on to tell them about the fire and my vote for the appropriation
and then told them why I was satisfied it was wrong. I closed by saying:

"And now, fellow-citizens, it remains only for me to tell you that the most
of the speech you have listened to with so much interest was simply a
repetition of the arguments by which your neighbor, Mr. Bunce, convinced me
of my error.

"It is the best speech I ever made in my life, but he is entitled to the
credit for it. And now I hope he is satisfied with his convert and that he
will get up here and tell you so.'

"He came up to the stand and said:

"Fellow-citizens - it affords me great pleasure to comply with the request
of Colonel Crockett. I have always considered him a thoroughly honest man,
and I am satisfied that he will faithfully perform all that he has promised
you today.'

"He went down, and there went up from that crowd such a shout for Davy
Crockett as his name never called forth before.'

"I am not much given to tears, but I was taken with a choking then and felt
some big drops rolling down my cheeks. And I tell you now that the
remembrance of those few words spoken by such a man, and the honest, hearty
shout they produced, is worth more to me than all the honors I have
received and all the reputation I have ever made, or ever shall make, as a
member of Congress.'

"Now, sir," concluded Crockett, "you know why I made that speech yesterday.
"There is one thing which I will call your attention, "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.
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 $20,000 when weighed 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."