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  The Unfinished Revolution  

Revolutionary War Veteran Entitlements
By Philip Mead

As the Revolutionary War ended, American soldiers, like Connecticut sergeant Joseph Plumb Martin, turned their attention toward land bounties and other rewards promised in their enlistment contracts.  Martin was a “hard core” veteran of seven years in the Continental Line, the regular army troops of the American Revolution.  Like most veterans, he expected the country to reward his contributions to national independence by providing him with some personal economic freedom.  In an 1830 memoir titled A Narrative of Some of the Adventures Dangers and Sufferings of a Revolutionary Soldier, Martin demanded to know why Congress and the people failed to deliver.  Why were he and his fellow soldiers “turned adrift like old worn-out horses”?  How was it that impoverished soldiers had to sell their land claims to “a pack of speculators who were driving about the country like so many evil spirits, endeavoring to pluck the last feather from the soldiers”?  Why, having spent his youth “suffering everything short of death in his country’s cause,” did poverty still haunt him all his life?  And why, when the United States government finally provided a soldiers’ pension in 1818, thirty-five years after the war, did Martin and his fellow veterans still face scorn from the “hardhearted wretches” who were “vile enough to say that [the soldiers] never deserved such favor from the country?”

 Revolutionary War veterans, like Martin, found themselves victims of a weak government unable to pay them and of conflicts between American republican ideals and the military institutions veterans represented.   The first veterans pension movement began during the war, when officers lobbied Congress in 1779 for half pay for life.   Public outcry charged officers with attempting to establish a military aristocracy on the backs of the civilian population.   After the war, officers responded to the failures of government support by forming a hereditary veterans’ organization called The Society of Cincinnatus, an allusion to an ancient Roman general who gave up his military power to save the republic.  The society provided some mutual support, but only officers could join, leaving enlisted soldiers like Martin to fend for themselves.

 In the decades following the war, divisions within the Revolutionary War generation made achieving widespread veterans’ compensation nearly impossible.   Congressional acts of the 1780s limited settlement on tracts of military bounty lands to properties of greater than 4,000 contiguous acres, a larger area than the land grant even of a major general.  They ostensibly allowed soldiers to combine their claims and settle together.  In reality, the law allowed land speculators to take advantage of veterans, who found it nearly impossible to find and communicate with other veterans who might have contiguous claims.   In 1795, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton and Congressman James Madison, both veterans, disagreed over Hamilton’s financial plan for the nation primarily because it allowed soldier’s compensation notes to be redeemed by speculators.  Hamilton’s plan established the principle of transferable public credit in America, but on the backs of veterans.   Not until after the War of 1812 was any widespread pension act passed for revolutionary veterans, though most states had previously made some provision for wounded veterans and soldiers’ orphans and widows.

In 1818, the Federal Pension Act finally provided support for a large number of veterans, but it reflected the prejudices of its authors and excluded large groups of veterans based on race, gender, and region.   The act provided $96 a year to any male veteran who had served more than nine months in the regular army.  It excluded women camp followers who had, in eighteenth-century terminology, “belonged to the army” as support staff, doing cleaning, fatigue duties and sometimes fighting.   The act also excluded most African-American veterans on the grounds that, because most had served for their freedom from slavery, they did not deserve additional rewards.  Because the act required proof of nine-months’ service, it also excluded thousands of militia veterans and irregular troops, which particularly impacted the southern states, where the war had devolved into largely guerilla fighting by 1780.  Only a small fraction of veterans, about 3,300, received benefits.

One year later, the War Department stripped from the rolls any pensioner not in dire poverty. A new pension act of 1832 liberalized the standards of evidence veterans needed to prove they had served, but it continued to exclude most women and African Americans and to favor northerners.

Even for white, northern, male veterans like Joseph Plumb Martin, who benefited from these federal pension acts, $96 a year was little compensation for what they had lost in their service.  On average, the longer an individual served in the Revolutionary War, the less property he or she accumulated in his or her lifetime.  Martin, for example, took his little military pay and moved to Maine where rumor had it land was free.  One of his former generals, Henry Knox, bought up all the land where Martin lived and forced him and his fellow enlisted veterans to pay for legal title to lands they had already improved.  Though Martin and his neighbors tried everything from law suits, to official petitions, to even firing on Knox’s surveyors with their old Revolutionary War muskets, many of them ended up bankrupt under Knox’s pressure.  By 1820, Martin testified that he had “no real nor personal estate, nor any income whatever, my necessary bedding and wearing apparel excepted, except two cows, six sheep, one pig."
The poverty of Revolutionary War veterans initiated a complicated history between the United States and its soldiers.  During the Civil War, draft rioters marched in protest of the greater burden military service placed on the poor.  During the great depression a “bonus army” of World War I veterans marched on Washington looking for long-overdue compensation.  Vietnam Era veterans faced public outrage for a war that many of them did not choose to fight.   Veterans of the United States Army in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to face threats of cuts to their medical and other benefits. 

Like many veterans in American history, Joseph Plumb Martin drew a radical conclusion from his treatment by the United States government.  “The country,” he wrote, “was rigorous in exacting my compliance to my engagements to a punctilio, but equally careless in performing her contracts with me, and why so?  One reason was because she had all the power in her own hands and I had none.   Such things ought not to be.”  Martin charged his readership with the importance of vigilance against abusive power.   While Martin and his fellow veterans may have thought their military victories their most important contributions to American freedom, these warnings are perhaps a more lasting legacy.

Questions to Consider:

1) Why did it take so long for Revolutionary War veterans to get government pensions for their service?  What kinds of obstacles did supporters of veteran compensation face in American legislatures, or in American politics?  What happened to soldier lands?

2) What happened to Private Joseph Plumb Martin after the war?  What lesson did he take from his treatment as a veteran?  Was he right?

3) How are veterans treated today, or in more recent generations, like World War II or Vietnam?  How does that compare to the treatment of Revolutionary War veterans?

4) Was there legitimacy to any of the objections against compensating and supporting Revolutionary War veterans?  Do any of these arguments apply today?

Further Readings:
Laura Jensen, Patriots, Settlers, and the Origins of American Social Policy (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
Sarah J. Purcell, Sealed with Blood, War, Sacrifice and Memory in Revolutionary America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
John Resch, Suffering Soldiers: Revolutionary War Veterans, Moral Sentiment, and Political Culture in the Early Republi, (Amherst, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999).
Alfred F. Young, Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004).           

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