Monday, September 7, 2009

Government, Charity, and Grover Cleveland

I was inspired today after reading a post over at theblogprof which cited a great article from Daily Inter Lake, a newspaper in Montana. The issue was how Rep. Davy Crockett, when serving in Congress, responded when a voter demanded why he voted to spend federal funds for the relief of people who lost their homes in a fire in the 1820's. Here are a few excerpts from that article (I encourage you to read the whole thing):

"Where do you find in the Constitution any authority to give away the public money in charity?"

That question was asked not of President Obama nor of Sen. Max Baucus or Rep. Nancy Pelosi, but of the less well-known Tennessee congressman, David Crockett.

It was a question that Rep. Crockett was not well-prepared to answer, but his constituent wanted to know why he had voted to spend federal funds for the relief of families that had been left homeless as the result of a ravaging fire in Georgetown....

But back to our story, which comes from an 1884 biography, "The Life of Colonel David Crockett" by Edward S. Ellis, it is instructive to note the puzzlement of Rep. Crockett when he was challenged by his constituent Horatio Bunce while out stumping for votes. Bunce told Crockett in no uncertain terms that he could not vote for him again.

"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," Bunce said in the story, as allegedly recounted by Crockett....

[Crockett:] "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, particularly with a full and overflowing Treasury, and I am sure, if you had been there, you would have done just as I did.'"

But Horatio Bunce, a one-man "Tea Party" of his day, was having none of it. Rather than be hornswoggled by Crockett's attempt to deflect the argument away from the Constitution, he circled right back to it:

"In the first place," he said, 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 entrusted to man... [W]hile 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."

"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."

The well-spoken farmer concluded his presentation thusly: "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."

The only hope we have now is that our congressional representatives and senators have a smidgen of the integrity of Davy Crockett, who having been instructed in the truth was man enough to accept it.
This was not the first time I read about this issue in 19th-century American politics. Several years ago I read a biography of President Grover Cleveland, who served as president 1885-1889 and again 1893-1897. One of the big issues of his day was pensions for Union Civil War veterans. Like many issues today, congressmen both individually and collectively were trying to funnel federal money back to people in their districts, and veterans were one very public, very heart-stirring illustration of this.

In the book Grover Cleveland by Henry F. Graff (Times Books, The American Presidents Series), p. 85, is written this about President Cleveland:
In Cleveland's view, the president was simply what the Constitution said he was, the chief executive, a referee making sure that no individual or group is granted special favors or deprived of their rights. In this regard he was not different from many of his predecessors. Nevertheless, new issues were arising, and an assertive public opinion, made more animated by the coming of the modern media, would change the scene.

Cleveland did not see any of this as altering his proud office. he vetoed a bill that would have provided assistance to Texas farmers largely wiped out by a severe drought. In his accompanying message he declared in words that seemed ordinary but that would be unacceptable today: "I do not believe that the power and duty of the general government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit." He stated a principle: "Though the people support the government, the government should not support the people."
Cleveland—a democrat—was right. It has never been the constitutional duty of government to provide charity or other handouts to people, no matter what situation the people find themselves in. The current healthcare debate is but today's most obvious example. Our federal government has for decades ignored this; Social Security, Medicare, welfare, Katrina relief, and the like are all unconstitutional abuses of the power to tax and disburse monies.

President Cleveland would certainly condemn the current plans to provide "healthcare for all," and probably more than many Republicans in Congress. He would probably find little difficulty in maintaining a balanced budget (which was the case through most of his presidency), and he would probably lose little sleep over the finer philosophical points of today's political debates.

America needs to get back to the Constitution and reject the healthcare-for-all plans circulating today.

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