Trent England | December 6, 2022
Revive civics, revive the Constitution
In April 1867, Harper’s Magazine printed a recollection of Congressman Davy Crockett on the campaign trail. I and others have investigated the story’s veracity, with inconclusive results. Yet the moral of the tale is surely true, and one I’ve thought of after helping with and writing about Florida’s new civics education initiative.
Institutions do not protect themselves. That includes constitutional government. And in a republic, politicians are unlikely to be much worse—or much better—than their constituents.
Too many conservatives believe we’re losing constitutional government because of some mix of activist judges, corrupt politicians, and elitist bureaucrats. While all of these exert some power, they’re just one side of a feedback loop. On the other side are the American people.
Outside the U.S. Capitol, Rep. Crockett was asked to explain his opposition to a particular bill on constitutional grounds. He told the following story about his reelection campaign.
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.
When pressed, the farmer admitted he had voted for Rep. Crockett in his first election, but did not intend to vote for him again.
Well, Colonel, it is hardly worth-while 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 the 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 constituent 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 is.”
Rep. Crockett didn’t remember voting on a constitutional measure the previous winter, but it turned out he had voted for a measure providing federal funds to some victims of a fire.
It is not the amount, Colonel, that I complain of; it is the principle. … 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. … 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.
The story (which you can read in full courtesy of the Foundation for Economic Education) has a happy ending: Rep. Crockett wins reelection and defends the Constitution. Yet the hero of the story isn’t Crockett, but his constituent. The farmer knew the Constitution—what it means, and why it matters—and had no need to outsource his judgment either to politicians or the media. Enough constituents like that, and the Constitution just might have a chance.
David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow
Trent England is the David and Ann Brown Distinguished Fellow at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, where he previously served as executive vice president. He is also the founder and executive director of Save Our States, which educates Americans about the importance of the Electoral College. England is a producer of the feature-length documentary “Safeguard: An Electoral College Story.” He has appeared three times on Fox & Friends and is a frequent guest on media programs from coast to coast. He is the author of Why We Must Defend the Electoral College and a contributor to The Heritage Guide to the Constitution and One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty. His writing has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Times, Hillsdale College's Imprimis speech digest, and other publications. Trent formerly hosted morning drive-time radio in Oklahoma City and has filled for various radio hosts including Ben Shapiro. A former legal policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, he holds a law degree from The George Mason University School of Law and a bachelor of arts in government from Claremont McKenna College.