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"Drain the Swamp"? Davy Crockett Did It With a Speech

Donald Trump is the latest in a long line of politicians who have promised to “drain the swamp” that is Washington, D.C.  Yet our nation’s capital remains hopelessly sunk in the primordial ooze.

No one should be surprised. Logically, the money we pay in federal taxes ought to be spent on programs that benefit the nation as a whole.  But Washington doesn’t work that way. 

Constituents, campaign contributors and special interests are always lobbying for favors and federal largesse, and politicians get elected by providing them. That’s how Washington really works—and that’s why things never change.

As far as I know, the closest that any politician ever came to draining the swamp was Davy Crockett—and he did it with a speech.

Crockett served in the House of Representatives from 1827 to 1831, and again from 1833 to 1835.  According to a biography published in 1884 by his friend Edward Ellis, Crockett once gave a speech on the House floor entitled, “Not Yours to Give.”

As Ellis tells the story, the House was considering a bill for the relief of the widow of a distinguished naval officer. There was general agreement that this was a worthy cause, and everyone expected the bill to pass easily. But then Crockett rose and gave what he himself might have called a “sockdolager” of a speech. 

He said this:

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.

When Crockett sat down, the bill was dead. He had shamed it to death. Furthermore, according to Ellis, not a single member of Congress offered to join him in contributing a week’s pay for the relief of poor widow, about whose plight so many of them had waxed eloquent when they thought they were going to be spending the taxpayers’ money rather than their own.

At that time, the records of the House did not include transcripts of speeches made on the floor. So some historians have questioned the authenticity of Crockett’s speech. But Crockett is known to have opposed a similar bill in 1828, and the speech certainly sounds like him.

So does the observation that Ellis says Crockett made to him in private afterwards:

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—and the insignificance and worthlessness of 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.

So President Trump can make all the promises he wants about “draining the swamp.” Even a giant like Davy Crockett could do no more than make a brave attempt, and few if any politicians have done as much since.