While folklore about Davy Crockett is filled with stories of courage and daring, it’s Horatio Bunce, a respectable farmer in the Tennessee district represented by Crockett in Congress—at least in the version found in Edward S. Ellis’ biography about the larger-than-life “King of the Wild Frontier”—who’s the hero of this story.
Ellis recounts how Crockett and several congressmen in their sympathy for victims of a fire that occurred near Washington on a cold winter’s night not only scurried to the scene and helped extinguish the blaze but also supported rushing a $20,000 appropriation through Congress the following morning to aid the victims.
Who could argue with such a move?
Farmer Bunce, that’s who.
When Crockett tracked Bunce down in his fields the following summer to ask him for his vote, the farmer took a break from plowing to tell the congressman he wouldn’t support his reelection because of that vote.
“Well, Colonel, where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?” the farmer asked.
Crockett’s response was one typical of most politicians who cast votes based on emotion and a do-gooder mentality rather than on constitutional principles.
“But certainly nobody will complain that a great and rich country like ours should give the insignificant sum of $20,000 to relieve women and children, particularly with a full and overflowing treasury; and, I am sure, if you had been there, you would have just as I did,” Crockett told that farmer.
Bunce’s response offers a template for the kind of pushback that Kentuckians should use when big-government Democrats want to expand social welfare programs like Medicaid and do-gooder Republicans desperately want to prove their compassion.
“It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of, it is the principle,” Bunce responded.
That principle, he says, is based upon the fact that it:
– Involves disbursing revenue “not yours to give” to benefit government’s chosen recipient “from thousands who are even worse off than he.”
– Opens the fiscal floodgates to “fraud and corruption and favoritism, on the one hand, and for robbing the people on the other.” After all, “if you have the right to give to one, you have the right to give to all.”
– Violates the Constitution by usurping it in going way beyond the power granted to Congress by the people, which is limited to “collect and pay moneys (sic), and for nothing else.”
– Infringes upon the “I’m my brother’s keeper” principle by replacing individuals’ charity with government dependency. In fact, Bunce strongly chastised Crockett for not personally helping out the fire’s victims, arguing that the members of Congress could have raised more than $13,000 immediately by “contributing each one week’s pay.”
Bunce ended up supporting Crockett’s successful reelection campaign after the congressman publicly acknowledged the unconstitutionality of his earlier vote, vowing never to repeat that mistake.
Crockett later stopped a bill headed for easy passage that appropriated funds to assist the widow of a distinguished naval officer, urging his colleagues to contribute a week’s congressional pay instead.
He was willing to do it even though “I am the poorest man on this floor.”
Ellis is accused of embellishing his 1884 account of Crockett. He probably did, which wouldn’t have been unusual in telling the story of a bona fide American hero during that era.
Still, if we applied this lesson learned by a 19th century American hero to 21st-century policy—even if it was a parable taught by his biographer—there would be a lot more Crockett-like heroism as citizen helped citizen based on the constitutionally sound example portrayed by those in power and our federal government wouldn’t be $19 trillion in debt.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at email@example.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.