A Tale of Davy Crockett,
Charity and Congress
A "sockdolager" is a knock-down blow. This is
a newspaper reporter's captivating story of his unforgettable encounter
with the old "Bear Hunter" from Tennessee.
From "The Life of Colonel David
Crockett", by Edward S. Ellis
(Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1884)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
CROCKETT was then the lion of
Washington. I was a great admirer of his character, and, having several
friends who were intimate with him, I found no difficulty in making his
acquaintance. I was fascinated with him, and he seemed to take a fancy
was one day in the lobby of the House of Representatives when 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 — rather, as I thought, because it afforded the speakers
a fine opportunity for display than from the necessity of convincing
anybody, for it seemed to me that everybody favored it. The Speaker was
just about to put the question when Crockett arose. Everybody expected,
of course, that he was going to make one of his characteristic speeches
in support of the bill. He commenced:
"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, but we must 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 to the day of his death, and I have never heard
that the government was in arrears to him. This government can owe no
debts but for services rendered, and at a stipulated price. If it is a
debt, how much is it? Has it been audited, and the amount due
ascertained? If it is a debt, this is not the place to present it for
payment, or to have its merits examined. If it is a debt, we owe more
than we can ever hope to pay, for we owe the widow of every soldier who
fought in the War of 1812 precisely the same amount.
There is a woman in my neighborhood, the widow of as gallant a man as
ever shouldered a musket. He fell in battle. She is as good in every
respect as this lady, and is as poor. She is earning her daily bread by
her daily labor; but if I were to introduce a bill to appropriate five
or ten thousand dollars for her benefit, I should be laughed at, and my
bill would not get five votes in this House. There are thousands of
widows in the country just such as the one I have spoken of, but we
never hear of any of these large debts to them. Sir, this is no debt.
The government did not owe it to the deceased when he was alive; it
could not contract it after he died. I do not wish to be rude, but I
must be plain. 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 of our own
money 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."
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.
many other young men, and old ones, too, for that matter, who had not
thought upon the subject, I desired the passage of the bill, and felt
outraged at its defeat. I determined that I would persuade my friend
Crockett to move a reconsideration the next day.
engagements preventing me from seeing Crockett that night, I went early
to his room the next morning and found him engaged in addressing and
franking letters, a large pile of which lay upon his table.
broke in upon him rather abruptly, by asking him what devil had
possessed him to make that speech and defeat that bill yesterday.
Without turning his head or looking up from his work, he replied:
see that I am very busy now; take a seat and cool yourself. I will be
through in a few minutes, and then I will tell you all about it."
continued his employment for about ten minutes, and when he had
finished he turned to me and said:
sir, I will answer your question. But thereby hangs a tale, and one of
considerable length, to which you will have to listen."
listened, and this is the tale which I heard:
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
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 hack and
drove over as fast as we could. When we got there, I went to work, and
I never worked as hard in my life as I did there for several hours.
But, in spite of all that could be done, many houses were burned and
many families 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, and everybody else seemed to feel the same way.
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. I said everybody felt as I did.
That was not quite so; for, though they perhaps sympathized as deeply
with the sufferers as I did, there were a few of the members who did
not think we had the right to indulge our sympathy or excite our
charity at the expense of anybody but ourselves. They opposed the bill,
and upon its passage demanded the yeas and nays. There were not enough
of them to sustain the call, but many of us wanted our names to appear
in favor of what we considered a praiseworthy measure, and we voted
with them to sustain it. So the yeas and nays were recorded, and my
name appeared on the journals in favor of the bill.
The next summer, when it began to be time to think about
the 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, and I thought it was best
to let the boys know that I had not forgot them, and that going to
Congress had not made me too proud to go to see them.
So I put a couple of shirts and a few twists of tobacco
into my saddlebags, and put out. I had been out about a week and had
found things going very smoothly, 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 to the fence. As he came up I spoke to the
man. He replied politely, but, as I thought, rather coldly, and was
about turning his horse for another furrow when I said to him: "Don't
be in such a hurry, my friend; I want to have a little talk with you,
and get better acquainted."
He replied: "I am very busy, and have but little time to
talk, but if it does not take too long, I will listen to what you have
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 out electioneering now, but you had better not waste
your time or mine. I shall not vote for you again.'
This was a sockdolager... I begged him to 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 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 Constitution 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; and I will say to you what, but for my rudeness, I
should not have said, that I believe you to be honest. 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 more honest he
"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 by 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?"
Here was another sockdolager; for, 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."
"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, 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 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. If twice as many houses had been burned in this county 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 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; and
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."
I have given you an imperfect account of what he said.
Long before he was through, I was convinced that I had done wrong. He
wound up by saying:
"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 talking, he would set others to
talking, and in that district I was a gone fawn-skin. I could not
answer him, and the fact is, 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 full. I have
heard many speeches in Congress about the powers of Congress, but what
you have said there 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
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 in that
"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
"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 see to getting it up on Saturday a 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 name."
"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. You must let
me shake your hand before I go."
We shook hands and parted.
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 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
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 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, 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 before.
I have told you Mr. Bunce converted me politically. He
came nearer converting me religiously than I had ever been before. He
did not make a very good Christian of me, as you know; but he has
wrought upon my mind a conviction of the truth of Christianity, and
upon my feelings a reverence for its purifying and elevating power such
as I had never felt before.
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 everyone 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 around a stand that had been erected. I opened my speech
"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
I went on to tell them about the fire and my vote for
the appropriation as I have told it to you, 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 of 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 the 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. 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 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,
particularly so insignificant a sum as $10,000, 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."