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Published by EH.NET (December 2002)

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Emily J. Teipe, America’s First Veterans and the Revolutionary War Pensions. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. vi + 245 pp. $109.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-7734-7100-6.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Joanna Short, Department of Economics, Augustana College.

In America’s First Veterans Emily J. Teipe explores the pension program for veterans of the Revolutionary War. As the first federal pension program in the U.S., the Revolutionary War pension program set an important precedent in the development of military and civil service pensions. Teipe, chair of the history department at Fullerton College, focuses on how well society regarded and rewarded the men who won American independence. The author mines data from pension applications to see if receipt of a pension conferred benefits substantial enough to affect living standards. Were veterans honored and adequately rewarded for their sacrifice? Or were they treated with indifference and disdain?

Throughout the book, Teipe argues that Revolutionary War veterans were not held in particularly high regard. Although the Continental Congress was quick to provide pensions to soldiers disabled in the war, service pensions were a much more contentious issue. Congress first offered service pensions to officers in 1781, in order to prevent mass desertion. General Washington lobbied tirelessly for the pension, which promised half-pay for life to officers who served to the end of the war. In 1783, the officers astutely recognized that Congress could not afford to pay the pension annuities, given the precarious state of the federal budget. A group of officers at the Newburgh Garrison in New York refused to disband (in effect, threatening a coup) until they were paid. General Washington again brokered a deal — the officers received full pay for five years, paid in a commutation bond. Many officers eventually sold the bond at a steep discount.

In lobbying for their own service pensions, enlisted men faced a series of obstacles. Chief among them was the widespread view that a pension was a giveaway, or patronage. Veterans’ advocates avoided using the word ‘pension,’ instead they emphasized that veterans were only seeking back pay. The government had stopped issuing pay to soldiers in 1777, as the value of the Continental was rapidly declining. So, veterans could legitimately claim that they had not received the pay that had been promised them. Revolutionary War veterans also made up a very small proportion of the electorate, so they were not able to organize a powerful lobby. Officers formed a secret and elitist group called the Order of the Society of the Cincinnati. Membership was open to officers only, and membership was passed on in hereditary succession. Because of these membership requirements, most viewed the veterans’ group with suspicion.

With the support of veteran presidents, such as Monroe and Jackson, Congress finally passed pension legislation for indigent veterans in 1818, and service pensions for all veterans in 1832. Thus, a non-indigent veteran could receive a pension for military service, but only if he survived forty-nine years after the close of the war. Widows who were married before or during the war could receive a pension beginning in 1836. Because of the long delay between the end of the war and the development of indigent and service pensions, it is clear that few veterans were able to take advantage of the pensions. Among veterans receiving a pension, Teipe finds that the average age at receipt was sixty-seven, and half of veterans received a pension for five years or less. In addition, Teipe uncovers evidence that many applicants were rejected because of missing discharge papers, service questions, or other problems. Widows were also frequently rejected if they could not provide proof of the marriage date. The women who did benefit from widows’ pensions were young women who married older veterans. These women frequently survived long enough to benefit from later pension liberalization, which eventually granted pensions to women who married veterans long after the close of the war.

The strength of America’s First Veterans is its treatment of women who received pensions, either as veterans or as widows. Many women served in the Revolutionary War as camp followers. These women provided cooking, laundering, and nursing services in return for rations. A few women served as paid couriers, nurses, or soldiers. Two women received veteran pensions for their role in the conflict. Margaret Corbin was wounded after taking the place of her husband, who was killed in the artillery line. Corbin could be the woman canonized as ‘Molly Pitcher’ (the nickname originates not from bringing drinking water for troops, but for proficiency at swabbing down the cannons). Deborah Sampson disguised herself as a man in order to participate in a combat role. Both women received pensions in part through impressive male sponsorship. Corbin benefited from the lobbying efforts of her superior officers. Sampson was aided by her acquaintance with Paul Revere. In addition to bringing Sampson’s service to the attention of Congress, Revere took pains to emphasize that Sampson had reformed her cross-dressing ways, and performed her roles as a wife and mother admirably.

Although the America’s First Veterans stands out for its attention to women veterans and widows, the book also has a few weaknesses. In the nit-picking category, the book suffers from sloppy editing, particularly with regard to punctuation. This reviewer found ten misuses of the apostrophe alone. In the more profound category, there are several points where the author makes claims based only on small amounts of data. For example, on the large number of rejected applications for pension, “(These are) clear examples of a bureaucracy which would use any excuse to refuse a pension since they were intent on issuing as few payment certificates as possible.” It is not clear why individual clerks or pension commissioners would have had this motivation, unless they were expressly directed to do so. No further evidence is presented to indicate that pension commissioners were pressured to reject a lot of applicants.

Also, on the desperate financial situations of many of the applicants, and the small pensions that some eventually won, “it is inconceivable how an individual or family could have benefited or improved their circumstances.” There is no mention here of the selection bias. Many of the applicants in the sample applied for indigent pensions. Therefore, the sample is heavily weighted toward the poorest veterans, who had an incentive to exaggerate their circumstances to make their case for a pension stronger. Teipe’s assertion that no one benefited from receiving a small pension seems based on the assumption that the elderly recipients were supporting several dependents. However, at this time, most elderly men moved in with children, so the veterans themselves were dependents. A pension could have at least provided a welcome contribution toward the veteran’s support.

Teipe concludes that society did not place a high value on the men who won American independence, since Revolutionary War pensions provided small benefits long after the close of the war. However, providing pensions is only one way society can honor its veterans. The public perception of pensions, along with the state of the federal budget may have made honoring veterans through pensions a policy that was ahead of its time. Nonetheless, the Revolutionary War pension program provided the precedent for the more generous public pensions to come.

Joanna Short is Assistant Professor of Economics at Augustana College. Her research interests include the role of Confederate veteran pension programs on retirement in the South, and the evolution of savings strategies in nineteenth-century America.