Politicians Need to Take a Lesson from Davy Crockett and Horatio Bunce

Fearing another Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana Republican Senator and tea party favorite David Vitter called on President Obama to issue a declaration of emergency so that the state of Louisiana could take advantage of the federal funding that comes with disaster relief. He said:

State and local governments need every tool and resource available to respond to this rapidly approaching hurricane. . . . Due to the serious nature of Tropical Storm Isaac and the worsening forecast by the National Weather Service, there is a clear and justified need for a federal emergency declaration to address this emergency situation.

This reminds me of a tall tale about the legend of Davy Crockett and farmer Horatio Bunce. Crockett was a representative from Tennessee in the earlier part of the 1800s. After a naval officer had died, leaving behind his wife, many ornate and elaborate political speeches were given from many members of Congress in support of an appropriations bill that would gift the widow with a sizable charitable donation.

Representative Crockett gave his own speech explaining his opposition to the bill and instead offered one week’s pay toward the widow and encouraged all other members of Congress to do the same. He argued that if all members were to do this, there would be more money to give the widow than what the bill appropriated. Because of his speech, the bill failed, having received few votes in favor.

Crockett was asked by a friend afterwards why he didn’t support appropriating money to give the grieving widow. Crockett elaborated with a story.

“He explained that several years before, there had been a fire that destroyed many homes and left many families with nothing but the clothes on their backs. He recalled, 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 following summer after this appropriations bill passed, it was time for Crockett to campaign for re-election. As he toured his district, he came across a successful farmer named Horatio Bunce. Bunce was known by his community as a man of unquestionable integrity and intelligence and a stickler for the Constitution. He told Crockett coldly that he wouldn’t vote for him because of his support of the appropriations bill that gave relief to the fire victims. He continued:

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.

In short, Bunce said that the taxpayer’s money was “not yours to give.” Governments are always generous . . . with other people’s money. Bunce suggested that if the representatives really felt sympathy for the victims, they should instead donate their own money. This changed Crockett’s perspective of what the role of government ought to be.

Historical fiction or not, this story’s function as a parable should be taken to heart by all representatives in government. These days, it’s political suicide to be opposed to government funding for disaster relief. But our government has some very wealthy people. Maybe some of the more well off members of Congress should put their money where their mouths are and donate to causes that help victims of natural disasters. They could work with local churches and private organizations to offer far better quality relief than any government agency could do.