Veteran’s Pensions: Early History
Veteran’s Pensions: The Law and Its Administration From the Revolutionary War to the Civil War
By Edward F. Waite
An Article from Harper’s new monthly magazine (Volume 86, Issue 512, January, 1893) Text from: Library of Congress American Memory Collection
The pension system of the United States, which, including the appropriation for the current year, has taken from the Treasury more than a billion and a half of dollars (over 94 per cent. having been paid out since 1861), had its rise August 26, 1776, in a resolution of the Continental Congress providing that every commissioned officer, non-commissioned officer and private soldier who shall lose a limb in any engagement, or be so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render him incapable of afterwards getting a livelihood, shall receive during his life or the continuance of such disability the one-half of his monthly pay from and after the time that his pay as an officer [or soldier] ceases. The monthly pay of a captain of infantry in active service was $26, and that of a private was $6. The benefits of the resolution were also extended to officers, marines, and seamen serving upon armed vessels. Claims were to be adjusted through the legislative bodies of the States where the applicants resided, which were authorized to make proportionate allowances in cases of less than total disability. In 1782 a maximum pension of $5 per month was granted to disabled privates and non-commissioned officers in lieu of half-pay. On account of the inability of Congress to raise money by taxation, the States, in 1785, undertook the payment of pensions, until the adoption of the Constitution made it possible for the general government to perform this function.
Since the original resolution of 1776 pension legislation has been voluminous, and down to the revision of the pension laws in 1873 may be justly termed chaotic. This paper will attempt only to outline some of the general features. In order to do this the more clearly the various grants of pensions may be divided into four classes, viz.:
I. Pensions based upon disability incurred in service, or the death of the soldier from such cause.
II. Pensions based upon service and indigence, without regard to the origin of existing disability, or the cause of the soldiers death.
III. Pensions based upon service only.
IV. Pensions based upon disability, without regard to the origin of such disability or the pecuniary circumstances of the beneficiary.
Disability, within the meaning of the pension laws, may be defined as the effect of any disease, wound, or injury, by reason of which a person is at a disadvantage in the performance of ordinary unskilled manual labor, as compared with a perfectly sound person; or would be, if compelled thus to earn a living.
Laws granting pensions of the first class have, as a rule, antedated the service in which the pensionable disability might be incurred, and have been designed to encourage enlistments; while with a partial exception in 1780, hereafter referred to, those providing for the other classes have always followed the service on which the right to pension is predicated. Although the Supreme Court has held that the first did not constitute a contract, it is evident that so far as they offered inducements to voluntary enlistment, they are of a quasi contractual character; while pensions of the other classes are, in their legal aspect, pure gratuities.
The resolve of August 26, 1776, remained the basis of the pension rights of Revolutionary soldiers until the act of April 10, 1806, which repealed all previous legislation on the subject, and pensioned all persons unable to procure a subsistence by manual labor on account of known wounds received during service in the Revolution, granting half-pay to commissioned officers, and $5 per month to others.
Invalid pensions on account of disability incurred after the Revolution, began with the act of April 30, 1790, creating The Military Establishment of the United States, and promising pensions to officers and enlisted men who should be wounded or disabled in the regular service, at rates fixed under rules to be established by the President, not to exceed half-pay for commissioned officers, and $5 per month for others. This provision was extended by subsequent enactments to volunteer troops raised for special purposes, including the war of 1812, the Florida and Mexican wars, and the late rebellion. In 1816, rates for disabilities of the highest degree were graduated from $17 per month for first lieutenants, down to $8 for non-commissioned officers and privates. By appropriate legislation, officers and enlisted men in the navy and marine corps were kept on a substantial equality, with respect to pension, with those who served in the army.
No important changes were made in the invalid pension laws until the act of July 14, 1862, which provided that all officers and enlisted men disabled since March 4, 1861, by reason of any wound received, or disease contracted while in the service of the United States and in the line of duty, should receive pension proportionate to the degree of their disabilities, the highest rate for total disability being fixed at $30 per month for lieutenant-colonels and all officers of higher rank in the army and marine corps, and captains and other officers of corresponding degree in the navy; and at gradually decreasing sums for lesser officers, down to $8 per month for enlisted men.
A few years later pensioners for disability incurred prior to March 4, 1861, were placed on the same footing as to rates with pensioners under the act of 1862. The rates established in the latter act have continued to be the totals of the respective ranks. But the term is misleading; it has never been restricted to cases of total inability to perform manual labor, though for a few years the rates of 1862 were the highest granted in any instance.
A class of specific disabilities i.e., disabilities of fixed degree for which special rates are expressly provided by law arose under the act of July 4, 1864, which granted $25 per month for loss of both hands, or the sight of both eyes, and $20 for loss of both feet, in cases where the total of the pensioners rank was a less sum.
Since 1864 a great number of laws have been enacted affecting rates of pension, all in the direction of increased liberality; and many additions have been made to the specific class. The lowest strictly specific rate now allowed is $30 per mouth for total deafness, or loss of a hand or foot; and the highest is $100, for loss of both hands. By Pension Office usage the total rates prescribed in 1862 are given for anchylosis of the wrist and equivalent disabilities. There is obvious difficulty in comparing a gunshot wound in the head, or a case of heart-disease, or partial loss of sight, with a stiff wrist, yet this is precisely the sort of problem presented in the rating of the great majority of disabilities. For non-specific disabilities greater than total, there are allowed rates varying from $10 to $24.
On June 30, 1891, invalid pensioners under laws prior to the act of June 27, 1890, and under special acts of Congress, were drawing 134 different rates, varying from $1 to $100. Of 419,046 such pensioners, 20 were drawing $1 per month; 17,036, $2; 62,318, $4; 83,- 299, $8; 46,097, $12; 20,246, $24; 14,834, $30; 3210, $36; 3161, $72; and 36, $100. The average monthly rate was $15 16; while among 676,160 pensioners of all classes it was $11.
(Footnote: The total number of pensioners on the roll June 30,1892, was 876,604. It will doubtless exceed a million at the close of the present fiscal year.)
In 1780 the Continental Congress granted half-pay for seven years to the widows of officers dying in the Revolutionary service.
But the system of pensions to widows and orphans really began under the act of June 7,1794, which gave a half-pay pension for five years to widows, or, if no widow survived, to the children under sixteen years of age of officers who should thereafter die of wounds while still in the service.
The act of April 16, 1816, extended this allowance to widows and minor children (under sixteen, which has remained the limit of pensionable age) of officers and enlisted men dying, after discharge, of wounds received in action.
No provision was made for cases where the soldier died of disease until 1848, when a five-years half-pay pension was granted to widows and minor children of officers and enlisted men who died, of either wounds or disease, during service in the Mexican war. By later statutes there were included cases where the soldiers died at any time after discharge by reason of disabilities incurred in the war, and the pensions were continued for a term of five years.
In 1858 they were confirmed to widows for life or until re-marriage. In 1866 and 1868 widows whose right to pension accrued after the Revolution and prior to the rebellion were granted equal rates with those pensioned under acts passed since March 4, 1861.
It will be observed that the early pensions to widows and orphans were confined to cases in which the soldier held an officers commission. Half-pay pensions to widows of enlisted men began during the war of 1812, when special inducements were needed to secure enlistments. Legislation of this sort was restricted to widows of volunteers and militia-men until 1848, when it was extended to widows of regular army soldiers who died of disabilities incurred in the Mexican war. Its benefits did not embrace the regular army equally with. volunteers until 1853, in which year the soldiers of all wars since 1790 were placed on the same footing with respect to the pensioning of their widows.
The act of July 14, 1862, above referred to, was the foundation of the colossal pension system of the last thirty years. The rebellion had been in progress more than a year, and the end was not yet in sight. Troops were needed, and it had become evident that if citizens were to be induced to voluntarily leave their homes and expose themselves to the perils of active service, more liberal provision must be made for the families to which they might never return. It was accordingly enacted that if any officer or enlisted man had died since March 4, 1861, or should thereafter die, by reason of any wound received or disease contracted while in the service of the United States and in the line of duty, his widow should receive the total pension of his rank, to continue during life or until re-marriage; and if no widow survived, or in case of her remarriage, a like pension was granted to his minor children.
In 1868 these pensions were increased by two dollars per month for each minor child; and in 1886 the eight-dollar rate of widows, minors, and other pensionable dependents of enlisted men was increased to twelve dollars. Dependent relatives of soldiers, other than widows and children, were first pensioned under the act of July 14, 1862, which gave the mother, in case no widow or minor child survived, the same pension which a widow, had there been one, would have received; and a like provision was made for orphan minor sisters. Fathers and orphan brothers were included in similar legislation in 1866 and 1868. The dependence contemplated by these statutes might be partial only, but must have existed at the date of the soldiers death. Under the act of June 27, 1890, it is sufficient that a parent shall be in dependent circumstances at the time of applying for pension, without regard to his condition when the son died; but pension under this act begins at the date of filing the application, instead of from the soldiers death, as in cases established under former laws.
Pensions of the second class were first granted nearly thirty-five years after the close of the Revolution, by the act of March 18, 1818, which provided that every officer, soldier, sailor, and marine who served nine months in the Revolution, and who was or should become in need of assistance from his country for support, should be pensioned for life, officers at *20 per month, and enlisted men at $8. There was no further legislation of this general character until the act of June 27, 1890, which grants to the widow of every officer and enlisted man who served ninety days or more in the war of the rebellion a pension of $8 per month, with *2 additional for each child of the soldier under sixteen years of age, in case she is without other means of support than her daily labor. When the widow dies or remarries, the right survives to the minor children, as under former laws, and pension is continued during life to children who are insane, idiotic, or otherwise permanently helpless.
On October 21, 1780, the Continental Congress resolved that the officers who shall continue in the service to the end of the war shall…, be entitled to half-pay during life, to commence from the time of their reduction.
In 1783, at the instance of the officers of General Washington’s army, this half-pay for life was commuted to full pay for five years.
In 1828, officers who served in the Revolutionary army as provided in the resolution of 1780, and enlisted men who performed like service, were granted their full monthly pay, no officer, however, being entitled to higher pay than that of captain.
By the act of June 7, 1832, equal benefits were extended to those who had served two years in the Revolution; and one who served a term or terms in the whole less than the above period, but not less than six months, was authorized to receive out of any unappropriated money in the treasury, during his natural life, each according to his term of service an amount bearing such proportion to the annuity granted to the same rank for the service of two years, as his term of service did to the term aforesaid. This latter provision is interesting as embodying the principle contended for by the advocates of the cent-a-day bill which was introduced in the Fifty-first Congress.
An additional stipend of $100 a year, granted in 1864, completed the measure of the nation’s bounty to the boys of 76. The last Revolutionary soldier borne upon the pension roll died in 1869.
A service pension was first granted to widows in 1836, by legislation which gave to the widows of persons entitled under the act of June 7, 1832, the same pensions which the husbands drew or might have drawn, provided marriage took place before the expiration of the last period of service. This was the first allowance of pension of any sort to the widows of Revolutionary soldiers after the seven years half-pay of 1780 to the widows of officers, nor were children of these soldiers ever pensioned in their own right except by special acts of Congress. The limitation as to marriage was from time to time moved forward, and repealed altogether in 1853.
In 1867 the additional annuity of $100 given to Revolutionary veterans in 1864 was extended to their widows, and in 1878 all widows of soldiers who served fourteen days in the Revolution or were in any engagement were pensioned at $8 per month. Twenty widows of this class were still on the roll at the close of the last fiscal year.
In 1871 pensions of $8 per month were granted to surviving soldiers of the war of 1812, without regard to rank, who served sixty days in that war or had been honorably mentioned in a resolution of Congress for service therein, and who had not espoused the cause of the late rebellion, and to their widows in cases where marriage occurred prior to the end of the war.
In 1878 the requisite term of service was reduced to fourteen days or participation in an engagement, and the limitation as to the date of marriage was removed.
In 1887 a like provision was made for survivors of the war with Mexico and their widows, sixty days service being required, or engagement in a battle, or honorable mention in a resolution of Congress. This was made applicable, however, only to persons who were or should become sixty-two years of age, or subject to any disability [not incurred while voluntarily abetting the late rebellion] or dependency equivalent to some cause prescribed or recognized by the pension laws of the United States as a sufficient cause for the allowance of a pension. This apparent restriction may seem to bring the law within our second class; but when it is remembered that persons who were twenty-three years old at the close of the Mexican war were sixty-two in 1887, it will be seen that the act granted practically a mere service pension. At any rate, such has been its effect in its administration.
The only pensions of this class, for disability without regard to its origin or the pecuniary circumstances of the applicant, are granted by the act of June 27, 1890, which provides that all persons who served ninety days or more in the military or naval service of the United States during the late war of the rebellion, and who have been honorably discharged therefrom, and who are now or may hereafter be suffering from a mental or physical disability of a permanent character, not the result of their own vicious habits, which incapacitates them for the performance of manual labor in such a degree as to render them unable to earn a support, shall…, be placed upon the list of invalid pensioners of the United States, and be entitled to receive a pension not exceeding twelve dollars per month, and not less than six dollars per month, proportioned to the degree of inability to earn a support. This act is substantially the same as the so – called dependent bill, vetoed by President Cleveland in 1887, save in three particulars: the earlier bill provided for a uniform rate of $12 per month, excepted cases where the disability was due to the soldiers gross carelessness, as well as those where it resulted from his vicious habits, and extended its benefits only to those who were dependent upon their daily labor for support. In his veto message Mr. Cleveland construed this last provision as requiring not that the applicant should be wholly dependent upon his daily labor, but only that labor should be necessary to his support in some degree. This construction was fully warranted by that which had been given to the Revolutionary dependent act of 1818, and by the existing practice of the Pension Bureau in the claims of dependent relatives. In the administration of the act of June 27, 1890, actual dependence on manual labor for support, in any degree, is not deemed a requisite. To all pensions granted prior to the rebellion, it was essential that the soldier should have been honorably discharged from the service. Under post-rebellion laws this has been necessary for pensions of our second, third, and fourth classes, but not for those of the first class. A soldier who deserted during the late war in the face of the enemy and was drummed out of the service, or an officer who was cashiered for embezzlement or cowardice, stands on an equal footing, with respect to pension for disability incurred in the service, with his comrades who served honorably from Bull Run to Appomattox. Early legislation fixed the commencement of pensions at the date of the termination of service, and a limitation of two years for the filing of claims was established. This limitation was soon removed, and the pension was made to commence at the date of the completion of the proof.
This was the law until the act of July 14, 1862, which dated pensions of the first class from the discharge of the soldier when the claim should be filed within a year after discharge; otherwise from the filing of the application. The limitation was afterwards extended to three years, and later to five; and it was provided that no claim not prosecuted to a successful issue within five years after the date of filing should be allowed except upon record evidence from the War or Navy Department of the disability on which it was based.
All these checks were swept away by the arrears acts of 1879, which granted pension from the discharge or death of the soldier in all late war claims of the first class which had been or should thereafter be allowed, provided that application should be filed prior to July 1, 1880; otherwise, from the date of the application. This limitation was in turn removed with respect to the claims of widows in 1888. Service pensions, requiring little or no proof beyond that furnished by the official records, have been made to commence from the dates of the several acts by which they have been granted.
In 1887 Commissioner Black thus summarized the results of an inquiry into the pension systems of the European governments: Two bases have been recognized out of which a claim for pension might rightfully arise in the case of almost every civilized power. The first is the mere fact of service of the state in a military capacity, and the second is disablement in that service. The service to be the basis of pension must have been of a very great length, rarely less than ten, and oftener of twenty-five and thirty years. A noticeable feature in all of these pension systems is that they were manifestly prepared only for regular service troops, although no discrimination is made between the regular service troops and the war levies…. No instance can be found where pension is allowed for services dishonorably terminated or marked by a dishonorable record…. The foreign pension codes are based upon this idea of. .. . the right of the state to demand the service of every man capable of bearing arms, without regard to any other than a disability pension, and that the pension itself is a mark of extreme honor, reward of long service, or distinguished ability.
The foreign systems have but one class of pensions in common with our own, those for disability incurred in the service. In its other branches our system is unique. Our service pensions do not at all correspond to the service pensions of other governments, ours being for brief and often merely nominal service, while theirs are for long and actual service. Our retirement on pay of officers and enlisted men of the regular army is more closely analogous to the foreign service pension than are the pensions grouped above in the third class. The principle which is the basis of pensions for disability incurred during service and in the line of duty is too plain to need statement here, and justifies itself at once to all right-thinking minds. Such pensions honor both the nation and the beneficiary. Annuities after long and faithful service are obviously wise in countries where standing armies are required, as furnishing an incentive to such service.
But the sentiment of gratitude affords the only legitimate reason that can be urged for any of our service pension laws since the resolution of October 21, 1780. To this sentiment has been added as a ground for our pensions of the second class, in which the indigence of the beneficiary is a requisite, the consideration that the nations defenders and their dependents ought not to be abandoned to want, or the humiliation of alms, from whatever cause their need may have arisen.
But the principle upon which pensions of the fourth class were granted by the act of June 27, 1890, is not so clear. So far as relief is given under this law to needy persons, or to those who are suffering from disabilities probably due to military service, but not provable to be so, and it was the existence of. many such cases that furnished the chief argument for the measure, the principles above cited apply.
But another group of pensioners is being added to the rolls under this act, those who are not in needy circumstances, and whose disabilities are not even colorably due to military service. On what principle are these pensioned for their disabilities? If from gratitude, why discriminate in rates ac- cording to the degree of the disability? Would not length or character of service be the proper criterion? If the well-to-do business man, who served ninety days in the commissary department, sustains today a serious and permanent injury while exercising his favorite horses, why should he receive an expression of public gratitude, if he choose to ask for it, to which he would have had no title yesterday? And why should he have $12 per month, while his coachman, who served four years at the front, injured in the same accident, but only half so severely, can get but $6? One year after the passage of the act of June 27, 1890, 391,431 invalid claims had been filed under its provisions, of which 236,362 were in lieu of pensions or applications under previous laws, the remaining 155,069 coming from new claimants. How many of these claims have been made by men who are far from indigent, and whose disabilities are in no wise due to service in the army or navy, let the reader judge from his own observation.
Some curious anomalies have arisen under this latest experiment in pension legislation. Men who, after serving under the stars and bars, enlisted in the Union army, are rewarded by a grateful nation for wounds received while bearing arms against her. The thrifty bounty-jumper who entered the service with a concealed disability, which, after three months of wearing the blue, he used to secure his discharge, may, upon a full showing of the facts, receive a pension for that very disability. A woman who served a term in a penitentiary for poisoning her husband now claims a pension on account of his military service and death, and no reason is known why she may not have it.
The current of ever-increasing liberality which has flowed through our pension legislation may also be traced in the administration of the laws. In the earlier years there were some attempts to throw about the adjudication of claims certain judicial safeguards, which gradually fell into disuse. An act of 1792 provided for the attendance of each applicant and the production of his evidence before the United States Circuit Court of his district, and the court was required to make a personal examination of the disability, and forward the papers to the Secretary of War with a report and recommendation.
The following year it was enacted that whereas the act last referred to was found by experience inadequate to prevent the admission of improper claims to invalid pension, and not to contain a sufficient facility for the allowance of such as may be well founded, therefore all evidence relative to invalids (the requisite evidence being minutely prescribed) should be taken upon oath or affirmation before the judge of the district in which such invalids reside, or before any three persons specially authorized by commission from said judge; and this evidence was to be transmitted to the Secretary of War for final action. This office of the courts came to be discharged in a perfunctory way, and by degrees evidence submitted in pension claims assumed a wholly ex parte character.
Proceedings of this sort always open the door to fraud, and it is only saying that citizens of the pensionable classes have not maintained among themselves a higher level of integrity than prevails among their fellows, to say that fraud and imposition have here found a peculiarly inviting and profitable field. In the debate on the Revolutionary service pension act of 1832 the extensive frauds committed under former acts were referred to as matters of common knowledge. The compiler of the first digest of pension laws, in 1854, a late chief clerk of the Pension Office, attributed to the chaotic state of pension legislation, and to the ex parte system of adjudicating claims, the perpetration of innumerable frauds against the government.
In 1872 Commissioner J. H. Baker said, in his annual report: . So long as pensions are to be granted upon evidence which (except record evidence) is purely ex parte, so long frauds will continue to exist…. In our system the record of the soldier is too meagre at best, and during the late war the hospital records were illy kept, very frequently, as the experience of the office daily shows, so indefinite as to be utterly worthless in determining the origin and character of the alleged pensionable disability; hence the law authorizes a resort to parol evidence…. in which the government has not exercised the right of cross-examination, and upon which a decision could not be had in any court of justice. General Baker suggested that a special pension court should be established in each congressional district, in which there should be opportunity for open cross-examination of witnesses.
In his report for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1875, Commissioner H. M. Atkinson said: The development of frauds of every character in pension claims has assumed such a magnitude as to require the serious attention of Congress… From the nature of the system under which the right to pension is determined under existing laws, viz., upon ex parte evidence, the successful prosecution of many fraudulent claims cannot be prevented, even though the utmost caution be exercised. The lapse of time since the war, and the consequent unreliability of parol proof relating to facts at this remote date from their occurrence, afford the most forcible argument for the adoption of a more thoroughly organized system of adjudicating these claims. By actual test in cases taken from the files of this office it is shown that a large percentage of the affidavits filed in support of claims for pension are signed and sworn to without being read over to affiants, and without their having a full and proper knowledge of the contents, though accompanied by a certificate of the magistrate before whom they are executed that the witnesses have been fully informed of the purport.
In his report of 1876 Commissioner John A. Bentley presented a forcible indictment of the ex parte system, and recommended a plan by which testimony should be taken viva voce in all cases, and subjected to proper tests. A measure known as the sixty surgeons bill, embodying this recommendation, was introduced in Congress, but failed of passage. In 1878 he said, I am convinced that a great number of persons have been pensioned who have no just title, and that the number of that class is being constantly increased in the settlements which are now going on. In 1879 he presented a table showing that in 500 cases dropped from the rolls since July 1, 1876, there were 3084 false affidavits out of 4397 affidavits in all, and 92 forgeries. More than half a million dollars had been paid to these pensioners before the frauds were discovered. He said in 1880, The number of frauds discovered year after year, when it is considered that the attention of the office was attracted to them through accident or some suspicious circumstance, or by the statement of a volunteer informer, is very great, and renders it certain that but a very small percentage of the frauds committed come to the knowledge of the office.
In 1862 the Commissioner of Pensions was authorized to detail a clerk, with power to administer oaths, for the personal investigation of cases of suspected fraud. Such special investigation was found necessary and effective in a growing number of cases, and additions to the force of employees assigned to this duty were made from time to time.
In 1882 it was greatly augmented, and the special agents or examiners instead of making their headquarters in Washington, as before, were stationed in different parts of the country, each with a definite district. A marked increase in the quantity and thoroughness of the work performed by this branch of the Pension Bureau was thus effected. Commissioner Dudley said, in his report of 1883: The means taken to prevent the successful consummation of fraud are reasonably efficient to that end, and it may be easily demonstrated, I think, that such claims [i.e., claims without merit] are, to be found mostly in our rejected files. If it be doubted whether the rejected files have gathered in so large a proportion of the unworthy claims as this opinion would indicate, it is at least safe to say that instances of gross fraud have become comparatively rare. The ratio of the cases specially investigated in any year to the whole number of pending claims is always very small. Of those that are tested in this way, it is probable that few dishonest ones pass the ordeal successfully; and it is certain that the presence throughout the country of agents of the government charged with the detection of violations of the pension laws has a deterrent effect upon those who would otherwise resort to fraudulent practices.
On June 30, 1891, there were 110 special examiners in the field. Not only are cases of suspected fraud referred to them, but also many cases of probable merit in which the evidence filed by the applicant does not warrant allowance, and there is reason to believe that a more explicit showing of the facts would establish their merit, the government thus practically undertaking to supply the deficiencies in the prosecution of the case by the claimant and his agents. The benefit of this procedure to worthy claimants is apparent from the fact that during the last fiscal year over two thousand claims were admitted after special investigation, most of which must have been rejected if settled upon the original ex parte evidence. And it is a fact indicative of either a high average of merit in the pension claims of the present day, or great liberality on the part of the Bureau, or both, that the proportion of specially investigated cases finally allowed during the last two years to those rejected was eight to one.
The question of the sufficiency of evidence is obviously an individual one in every claim, but this general statement may be ventured, that the requirements of the Pension Bureau have since the late war undergone a steady reduction. That this Bureau has been, on the whole, as honestly and intelligently conducted as any administrative branch of the government, no one who is conversant with the facts will deny; but an effective public sentiment has demanded a constant liberalization of the process of adjudicating claims, just as it has by legislation increased rates, removed limitations, and created new groups of pensioners. No course has been open to the officials of the Bureau but compliance, and though all safeguards that the people will tolerate are still retained, thousands of pension claims are annually allowed upon evidence which would not draw one dollar from the pocket of a prudent business man, however anxious to satisfy all just demands. A prima facie case is made out in every instance, to be sure; but there is generally a very high degree of probability that the affidavits exceed the real knowledge of the witnesses concerning the facts in question. It is notorious that a great proportion of the ex parte affidavits in pension cases, even when made by men who in ordinary business are distinguished for strict integrity, are made with shameful lack of care and scruple. Statements are drawn up by the agents of applicants containing such averments as the exigencies of the case demand, and in numberless instances these are signed by persons who not only have no knowledge of the facts recited, but are not even aware of the contents of the writing; while many magistrates habitually take acknowledgments of pension affidavits without administration of the oath. If this prevailing laxity could have any excuse, it would lie in the fact that some of the matters * required to be proved, especially those elating to symptoms of disease shown by the applicant in the service, or from time to time since discharge, are such that an ordinary memory cannot retain them with certainty; and witnesses, fearing that a just claim may fail through their forgetfulness, are ready to blindly assent to the averments of the parties in interest, or at best assume as an original and positive recollection what they should know to be a mere untrustworthy impression. But there is no excuse. The sanction of an oath should be no less in an ex parte pension affidavit than in a court. proceeding. It must not be supposed that reckless swearing in pension claims is more prevalent among ex-soldiers than other classes of citizens. The average comrade or officer is neither a more scrupulous nor a more unscrupulous witness than the average neighbor or family physician.
If pension legislation has been too lavish, and the administration of the laws too loose, the responsibility lies upon the whole country. In the solicitude with which they have regarded the soldier vote our law-makers have but reflected the sentiments of their constituents; and the tendency toward a wide-open policy in the adjudication of claims has been in accordance with the manifest will of the people. In numerous communities throughout the land respectable citizens believe that they have among them some flagrant instance of dishonest pension; and yet information of supposed fraud is rarely volunteered except when prompted by motives of personal hostility, and even when sought is denied or given with reluctance. There is a growing conviction that the government is being shamefully plundered through the pension system; and the existence of this belief, whatever the fact, with acquiescence in the supposed abuse, cannot but have a most demoralizing influence on the public conscience. It is all too easy at best to regard the national Treasury as a public grab-bag; and the sight of A. drawing with impunity, year after year, a stipend from the government known or even believed to be obtained by dishonest means, is a most potent incentive to B. to try his hand at the same trick. Hardly less deplorable is the gradual lowering in the general esteem of the veterans of the late war as a class. The suspicion is abroad that a mercenary spirit, incompatible with that lofty sense of honor which the popular imagination would fain attribute to its military heroes, is spreading among them. This suspicion may be unjust, but its increasing prevalence is no less sure than it is unfortunate.
For years to come our pension system must be an impressive object-lesson to rising generations of Americans, and to those who come to us from other lands. Should they learn from it that here the citizen owes no duty to the state for which he may not demand compensation in hard cash? Or, scattering abroad its bounty with a generous but discriminating hand, should it teach that while the nation will not forsake her true defenders in their time of need, nor look on with cold indifference when they are handicapped in the race of life by the lasting infirmities of camp and field, her real debt to them is not to be reckoned in dollars, but in boundless gratitude and honor?
It is not probable that any backward step will ever be taken in pension legislation, nor that in the administration of the laws the lines will ever be more closely drawn than public sentiment shall require. If in the unparalleled munificence of our pension system there lurk serious evils, there seems to be no remedy save through an awakening of the public conscience and a shaking off of that easy-going acquiescence in abuses which is one of the most conspicuous vices of the American character. Reckless legislation may thus be prevented in the future, and a more just and honest distribution of the nations bounty under present laws may be secured. Let the great and rich Republic be liberal even lavish, in comparison with less-favored nations with her deserving veterans; she will never do too much for them. But let her not forget that if she is blind to the plain distinctions between truth and falsehood, need and greed, genuine military service and holiday campaigning, this is not liberality, but prodigality, which brings reproach upon herself and unmerited discredit upon every worthy soldier who accepts her aid.
Source: Library of Congress American Memory Collection — http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/ndlpcoop/moahtml/snctitles.html