Last week, President Bush promised the nation that the federal government will pay for most of the costs of repairing hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, adding, "There is no way to imagine America without New Orleans, and this great city will rise again." There's no question that New Orleans and her sister Gulf Coast cities have been struck with a major disaster, but should our constitution become a part of the disaster? You say, "What do you mean, Williams?" Let's look at it.
In February 1887, President Grover Cleveland, upon vetoing a bill appropriating money to aid drought-stricken farmers in Texas, said, "I find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution, and I do not believe that the power and the duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering which is in no manner properly related to the public service or benefit."
President Cleveland added, "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 bonds of a common brotherhood."
President Cleveland vetoed hundreds of congressional spending measures during his two-term presidency, often saying, "I can find no warrant for such an appropriation in the Constitution." But Cleveland wasn't the only president who failed to see charity as a function of the federal government. In 1854, after vetoing a popular appropriation to assist the mentally ill, President Franklin Pierce said, "I cannot find any authority in the Constitution for public charity." To approve such spending, argued Pierce, "would be contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Constitution and subversive to the whole theory upon which the Union of these States is founded."
In 1796, Rep. William Giles of Virginia condemned a relief measure for fire victims, saying that Congress didn't have a right to "attend to what generosity and humanity require, but to what the Constitution and their duty require." A couple of years earlier, James Madison, the father of our constitution, irate over a $15,000 congressional appropriation to assist some French refugees, said, "I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents."