Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"Not Yours to Give": A Fable Re-Examined

Any Google search for “David Crockett” or “Davy Crockett” will eventually turn up dozens of hits on conservative websites that relate the story of a speech Crockett allegedly gave in congress called “Not Yours to Give.”

A number of years ago, The Crockett Chronicle published an article I wrote, “Crockett and Bunce: A Fable Examined,” that debunked this story, but recently I’ve received a number of emails asking about the veracity of “Not Yours to Give,” so I figured it might be a good time to readdress the issue. Plus, in the process of researching “David Crockett in Congress,” I came upon new information that updates my Chronicle article.

The short answer is that “Not Yours to Give” is a fabrication.

The tale originated as “Davy Crockett’s Electioneering Tour,” a January 1867 article in Harper’s Magazine written by James J. Bethune, a pseudonym used by Edward S. Ellis. Ellis included the story in an 1884 edition of his Crockett biography, which has subsequently been republished repeatedly on the web by groups hoping to benefit from the Crockett association.

The story, as it is most commonly told, begins with Congressman Crockett delivering an address to the U.S. House of Representatives in opposition to an appropriation for the widow of a "naval officer" who is unidentified in the retelling.

Crockett goes to some lengths to explain to his colleagues that they have collectively no
right to bestow public monies in the form of charity to any individual, even out of "respect for the dead or our sympathy for the living."

He goes on to state that such matters are more appropriately funded by charitable contributions from private individuals and offers to donate one week's pay to the widow's relief if every other member of Congress will do the same. The tale then reports that the motion for the charity failed to pass due to Crockett's erudition.

Congressman Crockett, usually a champion for the poor and disenfranchised, is later challenged about this rather uncharacteristic vote. In explanation,he recounts a story about a meeting with a constituent while on an earlier campaign, one Horatio Bunce, who refuses to support Crockett's reelection effort. Bunce dresses David down for previously voting in favor of a bill that appropriated $20,000 in relief for the victims of a Georgetown fire, and expounds on this misuse of government funds. He accuses Crockett and his cohorts of a frivolous miuse of tax dollars for private gain, and then goes on to teach the Congressman about how the federal tax system should operate under the Constitution.

Crockett, awe-stricken, sees the error of his ways. He fears that Bunce will cost him votes because "he was the oracle of the whole country around him, and his fame had extended far beyond the circle of his immediate acquaintance." David vows that the scales have fallen from his eyes and that Bunce has shown him the light. He promises that he will never again vote to award tax receipts for relief efforts. Bunce, in turn, accepts Crockett's change of heart as sincere and endorses his reelection bid.

This oft-repeated story is amusing, but problematic for a number of reasons.

The first part of the story gives a partially accurate account of Crockett's opposition to the relief effort. Mrs. Brown was the widow of a General Brown, a veteran of the War of 1812. The General contracted an illness during his service that ultimately led to his demise, but he went on to serve in the public sector until his death some years later. A lengthy debate took place in the House of Representatives on April 1, 1828, over whether or not to award public funds to Mrs. Brown, who was portrayed as an indigent mother in desperate need of assistance.

Gale's and Seaton's Register of Debates of the House of Representatives 20th Congress, First Session, records that though David cast a vote against the bill, he was not present for the discussion.

On April 2, however, he and Thomas Chilton (who would go on to help Crockett write his autobiography) spoke out "in opposition to the principle of the bill" and Crockett followed by "offering to subscribe his quota, in his private character, to make up the sum proposed."

Unlike the tale told in the Ellis version and on the web though, Crockett's opposition was countered by a spirited oration by Congressman Clark of New York. The motion for Mrs. Brown's relief was then carried by a vote of 97 to 74,with both Crockett and Chilton voting in the negative.

Perhaps the most egregious falsehood of the Ellis account is his rendering of Crockett's explanation of his vote and his encounter with Horatio Bunce. Bunce's opposition to Congressman Crockett is allegedly based on a vote Crockett made in favor of appropriations to the victims of a Georgetown fire. Crockett never made such a vote. The fire in question was not in Georgetown as stated, but in Alexandria, and the l9th Congress voted on the motion for relief for the victims on January 19, 1827. David Crockett served his first term in the 20th Congress, which convened on December 3, 1827 . In the spring of 1827, David was still on the campaign stump in Tennessee. He won the election in August of 1827.

Ellis also apparently confuses the widow Brown with the widow of naval officer Stephen Decatur. In 1830, Crockett was involved in a similar congressional debate over awarding some unremitted funds to Mrs. Decatur that her husband had claimed as bounty earned in a combat action. Crockett opposed the measure, but likely because of her reputation for profligacy and the fact that she hadn’t been married to Decatur when he’d won the contested prize.

Crockett typically considered petitions for individual relief on a case by case basis, but certainly wasn’t opposed to the government giving its wealth to his constituents despite what many of these websites claim.

His primary goal in congress was to acquire for his constituents legal title to the lands upon which they’d settled, and he petitioned the government repeatedly to provide this public acreage at little or no cost. Crockett was a tireless advocate for the poor, a populist who knew poverty firsthand, and he saw nothing wrong with government helping the little guy get ahead.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled blog...