First Patriots... First Veterans
Issues regarding veterans and their fair treatment pre-date the founding of our nation. The colonists fought a series of wars against the natives and the French in the run up to the break with Britain. The English colonies in North America provided pensions for disabled veterans. The first law in the colonies on pensions, enacted in 1636 by Plymouth, provided money to those disabled in the colony’s defense against Indians. Other colonies eventually followed Plymouth’s example.
But the American Revolution brought treatment of veterans to the forefront of the earliest politics in America. In 1776 the Continental Congress tried to encourage enlistments and reduce
desertions by passing the nation’s first pension law. It granted half pay for life in cases of loss of limb or other serious disability. But because the Continental Congress did not have the authority or the money to make pension payments, the actual payments were left to the individual states. This obligation was carried out in varying degrees by different states. At most, only 3,000 Revolutionary War veterans ever drew any pension. Later, grants of public land were made to those who served to the end of the war.
|Continental Army Soldiers|
A Veterans Rebellion?
But again the money was not appropriated and many veterans or their families sold off what pension rights they had for pennies on the dollar. The political fall out of all this was tremendous. The boiling point came with Shays' Rebellion in 1786 when western Massachusetts farmers, mostly veterans of the War for Independence, could not get credit for their farming despite the government reneging on their wartime and veterans compensation. Shays himself, was a captain who served at Lexington & Concord, was a wounded veteran.
|Shays' Rebellion: A Veterans' rebellion?|
A New Government
Ironically, Shays' rebellion showed the need (among other things) for a stronger central government, which led to the Continental Congress and the US Constitution adopted and ratified in 1789, with the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. The first United States Congress assumed the burden of paying veterans benefits. The first federal pension legislation was passed in 1789. It continued the pension law passed by the Continental Congress. The Secretary of War administered pensions in the early years of the republic. Yet fair payment and treatment for veterans continued to impact America's political landscape. Those who answered the colors had to fight to maintain their rights even as they sacrificed for others to retain theirs.
A Second "War for Independence"
The War of 1812 brought the plight of Revolutionary War pensioners back in the public eye. Veterans of that conflict were provided a reasonable pension, to include widows and orphans. As the economy began to thrive Congress looked to new ways to support veterans, especially the remaining Revolutionary War veterans. A new principle for veterans benefits, providing pensions on the basis of need, was introduced in the 1818 Service Pension Law. The law provided that every person who had served in the War for Independence and was in need of assistance would receive a fixed pension for life. The rate was $20 a month for officers and $8 a month for enlisted men. Prior to this legislation, pensions were granted only to disabled veterans. The result of the new law was an immediate increase in pensioners. From 1816 to 1820, the number of pensioners increased from 2,200 to 17,730, and the cost of pensions rose from $120,000 to $1.4 million.
|War of 1812 brought more veterans to consider|
Congress Takes Action
When Congress authorized the establishment of the Bureau of Pensions in 1833, it was
the first administrative unit dedicated solely to the assistance of veterans. Under the 1832 Act that established the Bureau, Revolutionary War pensions, which until then were given only to regular Army veterans—the Continentals—or disabled veterans, were authorized for all who had served at least six months in any of the military forces during the war. For the most part this meant those who had served in the various state militias, though it also included naval personnel, state line troops, and certain contract civilians such as teamsters. The depositions taken to substantiate the required service are a remarkable record in themselves, providing eyewitness accounts of the Revolution drawn from them reveals.The depositions, however, are more than a collection of personal accounts of service—as fascinating as these can be. They are rich with data concerning Revolutionary War veterans and their families and a unique record of the life and time of this generation.
|Certification that one John Bacon|
was eligible to receive a pension
for Revolutionary War service.
Veterans enrich our History
It is no small final irony also that our knowledge of the American Revolution is filled out by the accounts of the war time experiences of the Revolutionary War soldiers. Because records of that war were sparse and fragmented, it was incumbent on veterans or their families to justify pension applications. These accounts, although often spotty or sometimes spurious, provided a unique insight into the conflict as seen by those who fought it. In a sense, the veterans helped portray the war they fought to posterity. And for that, as well as their service, we should thank them.
Honor All those Who Served - especially our First Patriots
|Honor Our Veterans|