Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818

Academic journal article Historical Journal of Massachusetts

The Revolutionary War Pension Act of 1818

Article excerpt

Editor's Introduction. On August 26, 1776, the Continental Congress passed the first pension legislation for the American colonies. It provided half pay for Continental Army officers and enlisted men who became disabled due to their war service and were incapable of earning a living. The half pay was to continue for the duration of the disability. In 1780, the Continental Congress turned its attention to providing for the widows and orphans of Revolutionary War soldiers and passed an act offering pensions to those who met the act's requirements. In 1789, the first U.S. Congress passed a law providing that the so-called "invalid pensions" that some states had paid to their disabled soldiers be paid instead by the newly-established federal government for one year. Subsequent legislation extended the time limit. In 1806, the invalid pension law was significantly expanded so that disabled veterans of state troops and militia service would be eligible for federal pensions.1

In his annual message to Congress in December of 1817, President James Monroe called for a further expansion of the law to cover not only disabled veterans but all those "who are reduced to indigence, and even to real distress."2 Passed in May, the 1818 Revolutionary War Pension Act represented a dramatic change in Congressional policy. It extended pensions to all indigent Continental Army veterans. However, the act remained limited in that it only applied to former soldiers of the Continental Army. State militia veterans were deliberately excluded. This issue engendered heated debates in both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives. In this article, historian Ann Becker explores these debates and the sectional and partisan divisions they reflected.

War Department records reveal that the vast majority of indigent pension claimants came from the North. The leading states were New York, Massachusetts, the District of Maine, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania. The entire absence of southern states from this list is indicative of the fact that primarily Northerners had served in the Continental Army. In contrast, in the South, Revolutionary War veterans had served almost exclusively in the state militias and support for Britain remained much higher. Congressional debates reflected these sectional divides. Although the initial draftof the bill passed by the House of Representatives included both Continental Army and state militia veterans, the Senate's version eliminated pension eligibility for militia members. House members sought to reinstate this provision but failed in their efforts.

One senator had estimated that only 1,614 Revolutionary War survivors remained alive in 1818. However, nearly 20,000 impoverished veterans applied for benefits. Later that year, the Secretary of War submitted the list of eligible pensioners to the Senate.3 The 1818 Pension Roll (covering twenty-four states) is available online, as are the actual pension files (held at the National Archives). Revolutionary War pension records remain an important source of information for both genealogical researchers and social historians and provide a window into the economic problems experienced by many elderly veterans. Pension files often contain many types of records which would have otherwise been lost to historians, including military commissions and discharges, muster rolls, deeds, wills, marriage certificates, diaries, journals, newspaper clippings, and letters.4

Historian Ann Becker explores the young nation's reinvigorated spirit of patriotism which, combined with a growing sense of nostalgia, sentimentality, and calls for national unity following the divisive War of 1812, led to the successful passage of the 1818 Revolutionary War Pension Act. Becker has a Ph.D. in Early American History and has written extensively about Revolutionary War topics.

On December 2, 1817, President James Monroe (1758-1831) delivered his annual message to Congress. …

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