Veterans' benefits played a vital role in the development of the nation and its institutions and contributed significantly to the welfare of many citizens. In addition to salary and enlistment bonuses paid to men fighting in American forces, four basic kinds of public benefits were created in recognition of their service and its consequences: pensions for veterans disabled in combat; pensions for the widows and orphans of men killed in combat; grants of land in western regions of the country; and pensions for men based on service alone, or on service combined with poverty.
early american origins
The earliest American veterans' benefits were pensions established by individual colonies for men who were disabled in combat and rendered incapable of earning a living. These "invalid" pensions reflected the English practice of supporting poor, wounded, and disabled soldiers. As early as 1624, the general assembly of Virginia voted to create pension benefits for Englishmen injured in wars against Native Americans and colonists from other countries. In 1636, Massachusetts authorities resolved that any man disabled in the service of the Plymouth Colony would be adequately cared for at the public's expense for life. Some of the colonies also established survivors' pensions for the widows and orphans of men killed in combat. In order to qualify for survivors' benefits, veterans' widows and orphans typically had to be poor and in need of public support.
The outbreak of war with Great Britain required Americans to consider how to provide for men maimed in the war for independence and the survivors of those killed. Despite its limited authority, the Continental Congress enacted disability pension legislation in 1776, promising half pay for life (or during disability) to officers, soldiers, and sailors of the Continental Army or Navy who lost limbs in combat or were otherwise rendered incapable of earning a living. In 1780, the Continental Congress also created the first national-level pensions for widows and orphans in the United States, granting the survivors of Continental Army officers half pay for seven years. It was left to the individual states to supply these benefits and to provide for men serving in the militia and other state-level forces.
u.s. disability and survivors' pensions
After the Constitution was ratified, the newly-established Congress of the United States voted to make the payment of Revolutionary War disability and survivors' benefits a federal responsibility and vested the authority for program administration with the Secretary of War. Between 1792 and 1828, Congress repeatedly extended the deadline for establishing Revolutionary War disability claims. The law providing pensions to the Continental officers' survivors was allowed to expire in the mid-1790s. Much broader legislation was passed in 1836, granting half pay for life to the widows and orphans of Revolutionary War veterans who had died (or would die) from wounds received in the service of the United States.
These benefits were a vital source of public assistance for disabled veterans and veterans' survivors. They provided an honorable source of income for persons harmed by war—a source that was distinct from poor relief. They also forged tangible and psychic links between citizens and national authorities at a time when the U.S. government played a minimal role in the everyday lives of the American people. The last federal law specifically benefiting Revolutionary War widows was enacted in 1878, over a century after the nation's formative war began. Because young women marrying aged veterans were eligible for survivors' benefits, widows remained on the Revolutionary War pension list until the last one died in 1906.
The Revolutionary War pensions served as policy precedents in later wars. The establishment of disability and survivors' benefits was vital to the U.S. government's efforts to raise troops to fight the War of 1812, the Mexican War, and the Civil War. With the Act of 1862, Congress established pensions for those killed or disabled in the service of the United States in the Civil War and all subsequent wars, acknowledging both the government's obligation to provide and the likelihood of future military conflict. Rebels injured or killed in the service of the Confederacy were not entitled to federal veterans' benefits, even after the nation was reunited and the federal pension system grew to unprecedented proportions.
land grants for veterans
In 1776, the Continental Congress devised the nation's first program of veterans' land entitlements, promising land to officers and soldiers serving in the Continental Army for the duration of the Revolution. Acreage was determined by military rank, and claims had to be located in western military districts established by the government. George Washington and other leaders believed that sending veterans to settle the frontier would encourage Native Americans to relinquish their territory and migrate to the far west. However, many Revolutionary veterans eager to realize their benefits sold their land certificates to speculators for cash long before 1796, when the Fourth U.S. Congress finally established a military district in Ohio.
The failure of military land warrants to bring about western settlement did not deter Congress from creating new veterans' land entitlements before, during, and after subsequent wars. Laws enacted in 1811 and 1814 created (and then increased the size of) land grants for soldiers and noncommissioned army officers serving in the War of 1812.
That men enlisting late in the war received more land than those who served longer was a source of conflict, as was the fact that the army's officers (and naval veterans) were not entitled to land at all. The officers lobbied Congress intensely into the 1830s but could not convince a majority that they were deserving of benefits, even when disability and poverty were added as qualifying criteria. Army officers were again passed over when Congress voted to offer land grants to veterans of the Mexican War. However, in laws enacted between 1850 and 1855, Congress gradually entitled all men (including officers) who had served for a minimum of fourteen days in any American war since 1775, and their survivors, to 160 acres of the public domain. Men who served in Union forces in the Civil War believed themselves deserving of military land grants, but they received only the same acreage promised to ordinary citizens under the Homestead Act of 1862.
Pensions granted primarily on the basis of service, in the absence of injury or disability, were the most controversial of early U.S. veterans' benefits. At the time of the nation's founding, many believed that such pensions violated core American values. Military leaders convinced the Continental Congress that granting Continental Army officers half pay for life (and soldiers a one-time grant of $80) was necessary to the success of the Revolution, but its decision was extremely unpopular, and the nation lacked the resources to provide the pensions at war's end. Not until 1818, after victory in the War of 1812, would Congress create a service pension program for men who had served for a minimum of nine months in the Continental Army or Navy and who also were poor and willing to ask for their country's support.
The 1818 service pension law reflected the aged Revolutionary War veterans' increasingly positive image. However, many members of Congress and the public objected to certain aspects of the law, including its exclusion of many Revolutionary War veterans (especially the militia) and its requirement that surviving patriots be poor in order to qualify for benefits. Still others criticized the pension program's cost and argued for retrenchment as national economic conditions deteriorated with the Panic of 1819. Remedial legislation passed in 1820 cut many veterans from the pension rolls, but afterward the program expanded greatly. Congress voted to restore certain benefits to Continental officers in 1828, and in 1832 granted service pensions to militia officers and soldiers, volunteers, and state troops. Despite intense pressure, Congress would not enact service pensions for War of 1812 veterans until 1871. Many Union veterans of the Civil War received pensions because of generous interpretations of the disability benefit laws, but strictly speaking Congress never created a true service pension program for Civil War veterans.
The pensions and land grants created for veterans and their survivors constituted America's original system of public social benefits. In addition to enhancing the economic welfare of individuals and families, they encouraged enlistment, giving shape to the militia and to national-level military forces. They also fostered a sense of public purpose through the expenditure of common resources. Although they were sometimes controversial, early pensions and land grants bound citizens together as a people, turning their imaginations and energies toward the conquest of a continent through war, the extermination of native peoples, and westward migration and settlement.
Jensen, Laura. Patriots, Settlers, and the Origins of American Social Policy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Resch, John. Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republic. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999.
Laura S. Jensen