The Role of Government in Charity

Estimated reading time: 3 minute(s)

Check this out… long quote from a book I just picked up from our library. I read this part with Jen last night and we both thought it was pretty astounding.

In 1887, Congress passed a bill appropriating money to Texas farmers who were suffering through a catastrophic drought. These days, that funding would not only be authorized, it would probably be done so under an emergency program that gave more money to the farmers than they ever dreamed of. But not in 1887. Not with Grover Cleveland as president.

Here’s how he answered Congress’ request:

“I feel obliged to withhold my approval of the plan, as proposed by this bill, to indulge a benevolent and charitable sentiment through the appropriation of public funds for that purpose. I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner related to the public service or benefit. A prevelant tendency to disregard the limited mission and duty of this power and duty should, I think, be steadfastly resisted, to the end that the lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government the Government should not support the people.


“The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow-citizens in misfortune. This has been repeatedly and quite lately demonstrated. Federal aid in such cases encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character, while it prevents the indulgence among our people of that kindly sentiment and conduct which strengthens the bond of a common brotherhood.”

(I omitted the author’s comments in between the two Cleveland quotes above, and the emphasis in the second paragraph of Cleveland’s response was mine.)

What I found so fascinating (aside from the stark contrast to how our government is thought of and run today…) was the part I emphasized in the second paragraph. Not only was it a misappropriation of public funds, thought President Cleveland, it was also harmful to our country’s character. Who says that today? No one seems to even think of such things today. How sad. But how true this man’s words are. If not given the opportunity to think of other people (by choice, rather than coercion … taxing) how will we ever be charitable? How will we exercise our “character”?

The author added “the rest of the story” at the end.

Even more impressive was that Cleveland turned out to be a hundred percent right. Those “fellow-citizens” that he put so much trust in donated ten times more money to those farmers than the amount the president had vetoed, once again proving that when individuals personally sacrifice to help each other, it not only makes us better people, it makes us a better country.

Amazing. I sure wish our current government leaders would realize the truth of this. (Rather than spending more and more “money” that doesn’t exist.) Eventually… we’ll be held responsible for these trillions and trillions of dollars in debt. It’s hard to imagine what that will look like. But I suppose we’ll be bankrupt in both finances, and character.

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