This is an excerpt from Edward S. Ellis’ 1884 book entitled the Life of Colonel David Crockett. It is an interesting story about how congress works and how it has strayed from its prescribed path.
LIFE OF COLONEL DAVID CROCKETT.
A Sensible and Timely View of a Certain Constitutional Question.
From time to time, Congress has appropriated money for charitable purposes. The following account of Crockett’s experience, while in Washington, is in that line, and is therefore timely and instructive.
The narrator says :
” While Crockett was in Congress I had business which required me to spend several weeks in Washington city. Waiting upon one of the departments, or rather one of the chief clerks, for my turn, I had much leisure upon my hands; for, though my business might have been dispatched as well in two hours as in two months, yet I had to wait. I had made up my mind that I would not leave until my business was settled. My only regular employment was to go every day to the office to learn that it could not be attended to that day. ” Crockett was then the lion of Washington. I was a great admirer of his character, and, having several friends who were intimate with him, I found no difficulty in making his acquaintance. I was fascinated with him, and he seemed to take a fancy to me. ” I was one day in the lobby of the House of Representatives when 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, rather, as I thought, because it afforded the speakers a fine opportunity for display than from the necessity of convincing anybody, for it seemed to me that everybody favored it. The Speaker was just about to put the question, when Crockett arose. Everybody expected, of course, that he was going to make one of his characteristic speeches in support of the bill. He commenced : Mr. Speaker—I have as much respect for the memory of the deceased, and as much sympathy for the sufferings of the living, if suffering there be, as any man in this House, but we must not permit our respect for the dead or our sympathy for a 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 no power to appropriate this money as an act of charity. Every member upon 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 so 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 have never heard that the Government was in arrears to him. This Government can owe no debts but for services rendered, and at a stipulated price. If it is a debt, how much is it? Has it been audited, and the amount due ascertained? If it is a debt, this is not the place to present it for payment, or to have its merits examined. If it is a debt, we owe more than we can ever hope to pay, for we owe the widow of every soldier who fought in the war of 1812 precisely the same amount. There is a woman in my neighborhood, the widow of as gallant a man as ever shouldered a musket. He fell in battle. She is as good in every respect as this lady, and is as poor. She is earning her daily bread by her daily labor, and if I were to introduce a bill to appropriate five or ten thousand dollars for her benefit, I should be laughed at, and my bill would not get five votes in this House. There are thousands of widows in the country just such as the one I have spoken of; but we never hear of any of these large debts to them. Sir, this is no debt. The Government did not owe it to the deceased when he was alive ; it could not contract it after he died. I do not wish to be rude, but I must be plain. 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 a 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. ” Like many other young men, and old ones too, for that matter, who had not thought upon the subject, I desired the passage of the bill, and felt outraged at its defeat. I determined that I would persuade my friend Crockett to move a reconsideration the next day. Previous engagements preventing me from seeing Crockett that night, I went early to his room the next morning, and found him engaged in addressing and franking letters, a large pile of which lay upon his table. I broke in upon him rather abruptly, by asking him what devil had possessed him to make that speech and defeat that bill yesterday. Without turning his head or looking up from his work, he replied:
‘ You see that I am very busy now ; take a seat and cool yourself. I will be through in a few minutes, and then I will tell you all about it.’ He continued his employment for about ten minutes, and when he had finished it turned to me and said : ‘ Now, sir, I will answer your question. But thereby hangs a tale, and one of considerable length, to which you will have to listen.’ I listened, and this is the tale which I heard: ‘ Several years ago I was one evening standing on the steps of the Capitol with some other 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. When we got there I went to work, and I never worked as hard in my life as I did there for several hours. But, 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 women and children suffering, I felt that something ought to be done for them,and everybody else seemed to feel the same way. 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. I said everybody felt as I did. That was not quite so ; for, though they perhaps sympathized as deeply with the sufferers as I did, there were a few of the members who did not think we had the right to indulge our sympathy or excite our charity at the expense of anybody but ourselves. They opposed the bill, and upon its passage demanded the yeas and nays. There were not enough of them to sustain the call, but many of us wanted our names to appear in favor of what we considered a praiseworthy measure, and we voted with them to sustain it. So the yeas and nays were recorded, and my name appeared on the journals in favor of the bill. The next summer, when it began to be time to think about the 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, and I thought it was best to let the boys know that I had not forgot them, and that going to Congress had not made me too proud to go to see them. 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. As he came up I spoke to the man. He replied politely, but, as I thought, rather coldly, and was about turning his horse for another furrow, when I asked him if he could give me a chew of tobacco.
‘ Yes,’ said he, ‘ such as we make and use in this part of the country ; but it may not suit your taste, as you are probably in the habit of using better.’ With that he pulled out of his pocket part of a twist in its natural state, and handed it to me. I took a chew, and handed it back to him. He turned to his plow, and was about to start off.
I said to him : “ Don’t be in such a hurry, my friend; I want to have a little talk with you, and get better acquainted.”
He replied: ‘I am very busy, and have but little time to talk, but if it does not take too long, I will listen to what you have to say.’
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 sockdologer. I had been making up my mind that he was one of those churlish fellows who care for nobody but themselves, and take bluntness for independence. I had seen enough of them to know there is a way to reach them, and was satisfied that if I could get him to talk to me I would soon have him straight. But this was entirely a different bundle of sticks. He knew me, had voted for me before, and did not intend to do it again. Something must be the matter ; I could not imagine what it was. I had heard of no complaints against me, except that some of the dandies about the village ridiculed some of the wild and foolish things that I too often say and do, and said that I was not enough of a gentleman to go to Congress. I begged him to tell me what was the matter.
‘ Well, Colonel, it is hardly worth while 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 in 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 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.’
Thank you for that, but you find fault with only one Vote. You know the story of Henry Clay, the old huntsman and the rifle ; you wouldn’t break your gun for one snap.
‘ No, nor for a dozen. As the story goes, that tack served Mr. Clay’s purpose admirably, though it really had nothing to do with the case. I would not break the gun, nor would I discard an honest representative for a mistake in judgment as a mere matter of policy. 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 more honest he is.’
I admit the truth of all you say, but there must be some mistake about It, for I do not remember that I gave any vote last winter upon any constitutional question.
‘No, Colonel, there’s no mistake. Though I live here 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 that last winter you voted for a bill to appropriate $20,000 to some sufferers by a fire in Georgetown. Is that true ?’
Certainly it is, and I thought that was the last vote for which anybody in the world would have found fault with.
‘Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?’
Here was another sockdologer ; 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, articularly 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 intrusted 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 centres, 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,’ continued Crockett, ‘ 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.’
“I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this man should go to talking, he would set others 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 say that 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 round the district, you will tell the 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 the 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 is 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-by. 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 that I have met you, and very proud that I may hope to have you for my friend. You must let me shake your hand before I go.’
We shook hands and parted. 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 incorruptible integrity, and for a heart brimful 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 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 a 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. It is not exactly pertinent to my story, but I must tell you more about him. When I saw him with his family around him, I was not surprised that he loved to stay at home. I have never in any other family seen a manifestation of so much confidence, familiarity and freedom of manner of children toward their parents mingled with such unbounded love and respect. He was not at the house when I arrived, but his wife received and welcomed me with all the ease and cordiality of an old friend. She told me that her husband was engaged in some out-door business, but would be in shortly. She is a woman of fine person ; her face is not what the world would at first sight esteem beautiful. In a state of rest there was too much strength and character in it for that, but when she engaged in conversation, and especially when she smiled, it softened into an expression of mingled kindness, goodness, and strength that was beautiful beyond anything I have ever seen. Pretty soon her husband came in, and she left us and went about her household affairs. Toward night the children—he had about seven of them began to drop in ; some from work, some from school, and the little ones from play. They were introduced to me, and met me with the same ease and grace that marked the manner of their mother.
Supper came on, and then was exhibited the loveliness of the family circle in all its glow. The father turned the conversation to the matters in which the children had been interested during the day, and all, from the oldest to the youngest, took part in it. They spoke to their parents with as much familiarity and confidence as if they had been friends of their own age, yet every word and every look manifested as much respect as the humblest courtier could manifest for a king ; aye, more, for it was all sincere, and strengthened by love. Verily it was the Happy Family. I have told you Mr. Bunce converted me politically. He came nearer converting me religiously than I had ever been before. When supper was over, one of the children brought him a Bible and hymn-book. He turned to me and said ” Colonel, I have for many years been in the habit of family worship night and morning. I adopt this time for it that all may be present. If I postpone it some of us get engaged in one thing and some in another, and the little ones drop off to sleep, so that it is often difficult to get all together.’ He then opened the Bible, and read the Twenty-third Psalm, commencing :
‘The Lord is my Shepherd ; I shall not want.’ It is a beautiful composition, and his manner of reading it gave it new beauties. We then sang a hymn, and we all knelt down. He commenced his prayer: ‘Our Father who art in Heaven.’ No one who has not heard him pronounce those words can conceive how they thrilled through me, for I do not believe that they were ever pronounced by human lips as by him. I had heard them a thousand times from the lips of preachers of every grade and denomination, and by all sorts of professing Christians, until they had become words of course with me, but his enunciation of them gave them an import and a power of which I had never conceived. There was a grandeur of reverence, a depth of humility, a fullness of confidence and an overflowing of love which told that his spirit was communing face to face with its God. An overwhelming feeling of awe came over me, for I felt that I was in the invisible presence of Jehovah. The whole prayer was grand—grand in its simplicity, in the purity of the spirit it breathed, in its faith, its truth, and its love. I have told you he came nearer converting me religiously than I had ever been before. He did not make a very good Christian of me, as you know ; but he has wrought upon my mind a conviction of the truth of Christianity, and upon my feelings a reverence for its purifying and elevating power such as I had never felt 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 everyone 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 to-day 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 to-day offer you the ability to render you more valuable service than I have ever been able to render before. I am here to-day 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 as I have told it to you, 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 of it. And now I hope he is satisfied with his convert and that he will get up here and tell you so.”
He came upon 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 to-day.”
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. I have had several thousand copies of it printed, and was directing them to my constituents when you came in. There is one thing now to 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 $10,000, 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.”
The hour for the meeting of the House had by this time arrived. We walked up to the Capitol together, but I said not a word to him about moving a reconsideration. I would as soon have asked a sincere Christian to abjure his religion. I had listened to his story with an interest which was greatly increased by his manner of telling it, for, no matter what we may say of the merits of a story, a speech, or a sermon, it is a very rare production which does not derive its interest more from the manner than the matter, as some of my readers have doubtless, like the writer, proved to their cost. By Crockett’s aid I succeeded in having my business settled in three or four days afterward, and left Washington. I never saw him again.”