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    by Mike McHugh

A Civics Lesson From Davy Crockett
Date Posted: October 18, 2007

On September 18th, 2007 the U.S. Treasury department announced its intention to petition the Senate to approve a measure that would increase the national debt ceiling by eight hundred billion dollars. This measure would permit the U.S. government to continue to operate through the end of 2007, and would raise the national debt to a record level of over nine trillion dollars. The simple and unvarnished truth is that the U.S. is now broke, and in the process of mortgaging it’s financial future.

In light of the fact that every citizen of the U.S., including students who attend Christian home schools, are going to inherit this massive financial burden it only makes sense to at least let them know how and why this has happened. It is the younger generation, after all, that will be forced to work as indentured servants longer and harder than most Americans in order to try to pay for the unconstitutional spending policies of politicians in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

It might surprise some home school parents to discover that a wonderful civics lesson was provided nearly two hundred years ago by Davy Crockett, which helps citizens to understand why it is suicidal for them to permit their elected representatives to act like Santa Claus. No matter what political affiliation parents may have at present, they must summon the courage to share this information with their children as a part of their civics instruction. This lesson or story first appeared in print within the pages of a book that was written in 1884 by Edward S. Ellis entitled The Life of Colonel David Crockett. In recent decades, this story has been published most often under the title Not Yours to Give. The version of the story that follows was edited by Michael J. McHugh merely to update some of the writing style and punctuation, but is otherwise true to the original.

Not Yours to Give

One day in the year 1833, the U.S. House of Representatives debated a bill that was seeking to appropriate 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 to a vote when David Crockett arose:

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. We must, however, 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 until the day of his death, and no testimony brought before us has shown that the government failed in its financial obligations 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 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 soon brought to a vote, 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 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 carriage and drove over as fast as we could. In spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and many families were made homeless, 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. 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 the election, I concluded I would take a scout around among the people 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 portion of my district in which I was more of a stranger than any other, I saw a man plowing his field. He soon started 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.

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 outelectioneering now, but you had better not waste your time or mine. I shall not vote for you again.’

This remark came as a genuine shock. 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 lack the capacity to understand the Constitution, or that you are lacking 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. In spite of what might think, I actually believe you to be sincere and honest. Nevertheless, an understanding of the Constitution different from mine I cannot overlook, because the Constitution, to be worth anything must be regarded as a sacred trust, and rigidly observed in all its provisions. The man who wields power and misinterprets it is the more dangerous the more sincere 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 of a fire in Georgetown. Is that true?’

“Certainly it is, and I thought that was the last vote 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?”

As I began to think about that question, it suddenly dawned upon me that I could not remember a thing in the Constitution that authorized charity. For this reason, I determined to 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. 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 entrusted to man. This is particularly true under oursystem 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, forthere 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, since the Constitution neither defines charity nor stipulates the amount, you are at liberty to give to anyone or any cause that you believe is a worthy charity, in any amount you may think proper. You will very easily perceive what a wide door this would open for fraud, 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 part of the 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 each contributing one week’s pay, it would have made over $13,000. There are plenty of 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. Meanwhile, the people around 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.

“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. I trust that you now understand why I cannot vote for you.’

“I tell you I felt streaked. I saw if I should have opposition, and this man should go talking, he would set others to talking, and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I could not answer him, and in truth, I was so fully convinced that he was right, I did not want to. But I needed to answer him, and so 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. If you will forgive me and vote for me again, if I ever vote for another unconstitutional law, you may have me whipped.’

“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 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 to help you.’

“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 set the gathering for next Saturday. 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 do not recall seeing you previously though you say you have seen me, but I have heard of you before. I am glad to have met you, and very proud that I may hope to have you for my friend.”

“It was one of the finest days of my life when 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 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 family I visited. It was often the case that when I told the story, 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, would have gone to bed early, I stayed up until midnight, talking to Mr. Bunce about the principles and affairs of government. During my stay with him, I obtained more real, true knowledge of constitutional government than in any meeting that I had ever had in the past.

“I have known and seen much of him since, for I respect him deeply. No, that is not the word. I honor him more than any living man, and I go to see him two or three times every year. There is no doubt in my mind, that if every one who professed 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 partly a duty to myself, as well as to you. Whether you will vote for me in the future, 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 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 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 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 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 during my speech in Congress to give a week’s pay in order to help the widow. As I am sure that you realize, the House of Representatives has many very wealthy men ---men who think nothing of spending a week’s pay, or a dozen of them, for a dinner or wine party when they have something to accomplish by it. Some of those same men made beautiful speeches regarding the great debt of gratitude that the country owed the deceased. These men insisted that such a debt could not merely be paid by money, particularly so insignificant a sum as $10,000, when weighed against the honor of the nation. Yet not one of them was interested in contributing any of their own money to the great cause that they spoke about so eloquently. Not a soul responded to my proposition. Money with them is nothing but trash, when it is to come out of the people. But when a financial issue effects them on a personal level, most of them will strive to keep as much of it as possible in their own pockets. And many of them are willing to sacrifice honor, integrity, justice, and the Constitution of the United States to obtain it.”

---Compiledfrom The Life of Colonel David Crockett, Member of the U.S. Congress 1827-31 &1832-35, by Edward S. Ellis (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1884)

Christian home school students need to comprehend the simple principle that although charity is a virtue, it must be exercised by private citizens --- not government bureaucrats. Once the citizens of a nation begin to vote individuals into political positions on the basis of how much they are willing to redistribute of the public treasury into charities and causes that they consider “worthy”, such people have ensured the financial doom of their own nation. As the old saying goes, “There is no free lunch.” Some portion of the taxpayers in a nation, must ultimately pay for the benefits or services provided by the government. It is critical, therefore, that the next generation of citizens and voters be aware of their duty to elect and support only those politicians who are willing to abide by the financial restraints placed upon them by the U.S. Constitution. The financial future of our nation depends largely upon how quickly it’s citizens, as well as it’s representatives in government, can embrace the truth that charity belongs solely in the realm of private charities, individuals, and churches.

Copyright 2007 Michael J. McHugh

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Biography Information:
This column is written by the staff at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights, Illinois. As a pioneer in the homeschool movement, Christian Liberty ministries has been operating a full service, K-12 home school program for over thirty years and a Christian textbook ministry (Christian Liberty Press), since 1985. The mission of Christian Liberty is to provide parents with quality, affordable educational products and services that will enable them to teach their children in the home and to train their children to serve Christ in every area of life. A more extensive explanation of the CLASS home school program can be obtained at
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