Col. David Crockett
US Representative from Tennessee
Originally published in "The Life of
Colonel David Crockett," by Edward Sylvester Ellis.
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
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
"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
"I began: 'Well friend, I am one of those unfortunate beings called candidates
"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
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
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
"'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
"'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
"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."