Our federal government in recent years has drifted far beyond these bounds and is engaging in conduct not authorized by the Constitution. There is no constitutional basis for most of our entitlement programs. Yet, approximately two-thirds of our federal budget is spent on “objects of benevolence.”
Charity and benevolence are expedient and highly commendable. Worthy persons and causes are deserving of help.
Madison further stressed the intent of the Constitution when in 1794 it was proposed that Congress appropriate funds for French refugees from what is now Haiti, “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which grants a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.” He who in large part wrote the Constitution said there is no authority therein granted to benevolence. Again, I want to say benevolence is admirable but the government is not empowered to practice it.
At about the same time Representative William Giles of Virginia opposed a bill that would have provided relief for fire victims saying Congress had no right to “attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require.”
Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to Pennsylvania Representative Albert Gallatin, stated, “Congress has not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but only those specifically enumerated.”
Congressman Davy Crockett (yes that Davy) opposed a bill that would have provided support for the widow of a naval officer asserting, “I will not go into an argument to prove that Congress has not 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 public money.
“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 that the bill asks.”
At about the time the 13 states adopted their new Constitution, Alexander Tyler, a Scottish professor at the University of Edinburgh, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic: “A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time the voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”
Violation of this Constitutional restraint helps explain our current federal financial dilemma.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.