Government Charity: Unconstitutional & Unlawful, Part 2


  • Limitless Spending Changes the Very Nature of the Republic

James Madison, in describing the consequences of this forced construction of the Constitution, [redefining the General Welfare clause] prophesies for our day.

“…I venture to declare it as my opinion, that, were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for,it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited government established by the people of America.” 

  • Government Charity: A Dangerous Precedent

Yet, America did not listen. In 1831, Congress once again attempts to reconstruct its powers through the artifice of “charity.” This time, the argument is about supplying wood. The Mayor of Georgetown sent a letter to the House of Representatives asking for relief of the poor of that city and soliciting the House to grant a donation of some wood in the vaults of the capitol for their use. This sparked a forgotten, yet a very relevant debate for this day.

  • Congress Cannot Give Public Property For Charity

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The first to speak up was Congressman James K. Polk (D-TN), the future 11th President of the United States. In showing a moral character and commitment to the Constitution that is rarely seen today, Polk said he knew it would be viewed as being ungracious to oppose a resolution in behalf of the suffering poor of this District, or any other. However, he went on to oppose the resolution of the House to offer this support as “the precedent of appropriating the public funds for such a purpose was a bad one." He reasoned that if they allowed this seemingly small act of charity, then “every winter, when the snow fell, or the Potomac was frozen, applications would be made to Congress, and members would be engaged in the dignified object of buying and stowing wood, to give to the poor District of Columbia.”

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Congressman Polk opposed this spending on principle, as the House “had not the power to make the donation requested.” And what began with Georgetown would lawlessly expand into dependency throughout the nation. It was not the amount Polk objected to, but that the “representatives came to legislate on great concerns of the nation, not to give away the public property.” He made a final plea to the House, with their vote, to “put a check” on legislative power.

The next to argue was James Blair, Congressman from South Carolina. Blair gets right to the point; that it is not in the power of Congress to give out donations from the public treasury for the purposes of charity.

Congressman Blair correctly reasons:

“If so, it would have power also to vote millions of the public money to feed and clothe the suffering poor. The House had no right to give away the public money for any such purpose; and if gentlemen were disposed to be liberal, let them be liberal out of their own money.” 

Congressman Polk then moved the floor for the following substitute, by way of amendment: “That the Sergeant-at-arms be required to deduct from the compensation of the members of this House on day’s pay, and deliver said sum to the Mayor of Georgetown, to be applied to purchase fuel for the paupers of that town: Provided, nevertheless, that such deduction shall be made from the compensation of such members only as vote in favor of the resolution.” 

I believe our representatives could learn several lessons from this:

  1. The money collected from the people is NOT revenue but PUBLIC PROPERTY.
  2. In spending public property Congress is limited by the proper confines of the Constitution [Article 1, Sec. 8] not ones established through forced construction.
  3. Personal moral integrity could inhibit Congress from violating points 1 and 2.

Let ours be the generation that listens to the framers and their experience. Let ours be the generation that avoids what others called the inevitable demise of a Republican government. Let ours be the generation that can claim the victory of Liberty for our future generations.

Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Thomas Cooper in 1802, made this observation he based upon history:

“… if we can but prevent the government from wasting the labours of the people, under the pretence of taking care of them, they must become happy.” 

KrisAnne Hall is an attorney, former prosecutor, a disabled Army veteran, a Russian linguist, a mother, a pastor’s wife and a patriot. Hall hosts weekly radio and TV programs and teaches an average of 265 classes each year on the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Learn more at krisannehall.com.

The Language of Liberty series is an outreach project of the Center for Self Governance, a non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, dedicated to training citizens in principles of liberty. The views expressed by the authors are their own and may not reflect the views of CSG. CenterForSelfGovernance.com

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