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–by William diGiacomantonio

In the earliest days of Congress, before administrative mechanisms existed for dealing with veterans’ benefits, addressing the overwhelming number of private petitions seeking back pay, invalid pensions (for those permanently disabled by war injuries), and other compensation for military service in the Revolutionary War absorbed a significant portion of Congress’s day-to-day order of business. Early legislators knew to pay a due regard to petitions, because—after elections—they were the primary means of knowing what their constituents expected of them. Two hundred years later, the petitions relating to the Revolutionary War still merit our attention because, more than almost any other primary source, they attest to the personal, human costs paid by the nation’s first soldiers.

Gilbert Stuart’s c. 1805 portrait of Gen. & Sec. of War Henry Knox (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston)

There were more than 300 such petitions to the First Federal Congress alone (1789-1791). They include many that remind us the War for American Independence was not won exclusively by Anglo-Americans. There were petitions from Hessian mercenaries like Nicholas Westfall, who sought money for deserting; French Canadian volunteers like Prudent La Jeunesse, who sought compensation for abandoning their homeland; and Oneida Indians like Lt. Col. Louis Atayataronghta, who sought the same invalid pensions as their fellow (white) officers. The vast majority of petitions that escaped being tabled immediately were generally dismissed because of various “statutes of limitations” that cut off the eligibility of certain types of claims after a given date. Nowhere was this policy more rigidly adhered to than with the approximately 150 petitions submitted to the First Congress concerning invalid pensions—requests for new ones, or arrearages for old ones. (Disabled officers were entitled to half pay for life; non-commissioned officers and soldiers were entitled to no more than five dollars per month, with proportional allowances for partial disabilities.)

Even apart from the statutes of limitations, Secretary of War Henry Knox was inclined to reject new applicants if they had failed to persuade the state authorities, who were responsible for maintaining the pension rolls. Henry Carman’s case is a perfect example of the kind of fraud Knox was trying to guard against. Carman had petitioned the House, claiming a disability caused by a shoulder wound. In his report, Knox verified that Carman had served in the New York militia, but he was not convinced the wound dated from Carman’s time of service. An affidavit by five of Carman’s neighbors, later submitted to the War Department by the local examining board, testified that he had in fact “received his wound in his own house, by the accidental discharge of a pistol [while] said Carman had been in pursuit of a cat.”

With other invalid petitioners, it is harder to look the other way. Thomas Simpson rose from private to captain lieutenant in a New Hampshire unit between 1775 and 1779, when he saw action at Quebec, Saratoga, and Monmouth. During that period he lost his left eye to smallpox, had an inextractable musket ball lodge near one of his kidneys, and had his right leg crushed by the fall of a horse. Yet Knox still denied his request for an increase from a quarter pension to a half pension, on the grounds that it would set a “pernicious” precedent to deviate from the states’ pension boards.

In the absence of any new legislation, petitioners could only claim a change in their pension status if they were mentioned by name in a private act. Not until March 1792 did Congress enact legislation altering the manner of establishing or changing a claim. A comprehensive 1818 act offered pensions to all Revolutionary War veterans based on service and need rather than disability. In general, what one discovers—not surprisingly, perhaps—is that, as the pool of eligible claimants died off, those who were left acquired near-mythic status, and Congress became less stingy in relaxing its purse strings to support them. By the Jacksonian era, a pension was virtually guaranteed to any veteran who had done as much as beat a drum at Yorktown and was still around to brag about it. Although their impact in the form of legislative remedies was relatively minor, petitioners with war-related claims kept Congress mindful of the needs and attitudes left in the wake of the Revolutionary War—still the longest declared war in American history.

Source: Charlene Bickford et al., The Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 1789-1791 (20 vols. to date; Baltimore, 1972-), volume 7.

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