Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
(?-1899)
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1881
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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1899
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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UNITED STATES PENSION LAWS AND THE PENSION LAWS OF OTHER COUNTRIES

III.280.1

UNITED STATES PENSION LAWS AND THE PENSION LAWS OF OTHER COUNTRIES. A pension is defined by Webster to be an annual allowance of a sum of money to a person by the government in consideration of past services. In theory at least a pension is an arbitrary payment of money by the money-giving power in a country—in this country, congress; in another, the crown or parliament—for what it considers services. A secondary definition, historically the primary one, in Webster, shows us the aspect in which a pension used to be regarded: "An allowance or annual payment considered in the light of a bribe." The more modern idea is to consider it in the light of a payment on an insurance policy. We will briefly consider how these different ideas about a thing called by the same name arose.

III.280.2

—After a man or set of men have done any signal service to their country, it has in every country and in every age been thought only right and just that the popular appreciation and thanks should be expressed in something more than words. And consequently, after such services have been rendered, whether in peace or war, it seems perfectly proper for the country, by its representatives, to vote a pension or any other reward that may seem fit, whether it is to a class of men, an army or an individual. For instance, in this country, pensions in general have, at least until quite recently, been looked upon as un-American and unrighteous. But after every war of any consequence statutory provision has been made for the payment of pensions and bounties to those who have been wounded in it, or to the families of those who have died in it, and this without objection. Special acts of congress also have at every period of our history been passed, giving pensions where needed and deserved.

III.280.3

—Such pensions as these have been, as we have said, at all times natural and proper. It can be easily understood, that in the old days of monarchical independence and independent bounty, the step from this class of pensions to gifts for what the crown called services—that is, personal service or complaisance rendered or to be rendered—was a very short and easy one. And so a door was opened for a vast amount of corruption and bribery. Salaries had to be paid to those who took up the profession of courtiers, just as to any officers of government. The king was the state, and his personal servants were civil servants, and were to be provided for for life as such. When Neckar assumed the administration of the French finances, the public pension list of France amounted to twenty-seven million livres; the private one had to be kept a secret. Every one knows what a shameful use was made of this privilege in England in the times of Charles II., and how from that time for a long period of history the free use of pensions was the only method by which cabinets and governments in that country could hold their own; members of parliament became civil servants too, and had to have their salaries and provisions for life. Finally, the abuses became so great as to force a reform, and an act was passed forbidding any pensioner or placeman to occupy a seat in parliament. Even now, cabinet officers and holders of offices of emolument under the government, when they accept the position, have to resign their seat in parliament. Finally, the subordinate clerks of government began to claim such provision, and while by a gradual process these arbitrary powers were curtailed in nearly all European countries, the principle of pension giving was enlarged, and subjected to statutory provisions. More and more officers of government and classes of officers were embraced in pension giving systems.

III.280.4

—Mr. Dorman B. Eaton, in his book on the "English Civil Service," sketches the rise of the system in England, and we may take his remarks to illustrate the growth of such a system, and his reasoning as to the difference among different kinds of pensions, as an example of the arguments by which the growth has always been aided.

III.280.5

—In 1809 an English statute provided for superannuation allowances to persons in the excise service, reciting, "Whereas no provision is made by law for persons employed in the revenue of excise, to the great discouragement of such officers and other persons, and to the manifest injury of the revenue." In 1810 a law proves a fact already suggested, that the voluntary contributions of those in certain branches of the service had provided a sort of retiring allowance by creating a fund in the nature of an insurance fund. This act is known as 50 Geo. III., ch. 117. The same law also provides for annual statements of persons in the public service, and of their salaries, pensions and allowances. It also establishes a system of superannuation allowances. Other laws from time to time were passed on the subject. In 1859 they were finally revised by 22 Vict., ch. 26, "An act to amend the laws concerning superannuation, and other allowances to persons having held civil offices in the public service." The allowance is given "to all persons who have served in an established capacity in the permanent civil service of the state, whether their remuneration be computed by day pay, weekly wages or annual salary." There is to be granted "to any person who shall have served ten years and upward, and under eleven years, an annual allowance of ten-sixtieths of the annual salary and emoluments of his office; for eleven years, and under twelve years, an annual allowance of eleven-sixtieths of such salary and emoluments; and in like manner a further addition to the annual allowance of one-sixtieth in respect of each additional year of such service, until the completion of a period of service of forty years, when the annual allowance of forty-sixtieths may be granted; and no addition shall be made in respect of any service beyond forty years." There is then a provision for computing the amount of superannuation to persons holding professional and other special offices not embraced by the foregoing provisions. There are also provisions for granting allowances at discretion up to a fixed limit in cases of exceptional merit, severe bodily injury, disability in the service, abolition of offices, etc. Where the pensioner is under sixty, evidence of infirmity incapacitating him from discharging his duties, and of the probable permanence of such infirmity, must be given; and, even when these facts are established, he is liable to be required to serve again at any time before the age chosen as a limit. But persons (§12) retain the right to superannuation on transfer to other employment under the crown. All allowances are to be paid free of taxes. The system is made in principle analogous to pensions in military life. On the other hand, a deduction may be made from such allowances against any person when "his defaults or demerits in relation to the public service appear to justify such diminution. The act further provides, that no person (save a few especially excepted) shall be deemed to be in the civil service in such a sense as to entitle him to any superannuation or retiring allowance, unless he has been admitted to the civil service with a certificate from the civil service commissioners. This being the act under which pensions are now given in England, it has been rather more fully recited than in Mr. Eaton's book. Mr. Eaton further distinguishes between these superannuation allowances and pensions granted by crowns or administrations. Those allowances are really a part of the compensation of the office, of the conditions on which he entered public service, and are not, therefore, given on any theory of a gratuity or of favor. Looked at from the side of the government, they are regarded as presenting an ingenious and just method of receiving a good quality of service at the most reasonable rates; and from the side of the officer, as an inducement to greater economy, at the opening of official life, in order to secure, by reason of what he then forbears to receive, a certain provision for his declining years. The pension proper (in civil life) is a different matter altogether; being the bribe of the crown or administration for political effect, or its favor bestowed upon some person deemed fit for its charity or deserving of its honor, and often irrespective of such person being or having been in the public service. There was an available pension fund apparently in the discretion of the crown for political purposes until 1830, in spite of various statutes. In that year all the pension lists were consolidated. In 1837 Queen Victoria ascended the throne; and, by an act passed in her first parliament, the right of the crown to grant pensions was limited to about six thousand dollars a year (in addition to the previous list), and they can only be granted in that amount "to such persons as have just claims on the royal beneficence, or who by their personal services to the crown, by their performance of duties to the public, or by their useful discoveries in science and attainments in literature and the arts, have merited the gracious consideration of their sovereign and the gratitude of their country." (1 Vict., ch. 11.)

III.280.6

—There are nine classes of civil pensions in England: 1, annuities; 2, compensation allowance; 3, compassionate allowance; 4, hereditary pensions; 5, political pensions; 6, pensions; 7, retiring allowances; 8, special pensions; 9, superannuation allowances: and the amount thus spent was in 1881 over twenty millions. The oldest pension is to the heirs of Sir Thomas Clarges. The date is put at 1673. Nearly a million dollars have been paid to him and his heirs, and over three and a half millions to the duke of Marlborough and his heirs.

III.280.7

—In France, pensions are awarded to civil, military and naval officers, to ecclesiastics, and to those distinguished in literature, science and the arts; also to the widows and children of high officials. In 1874 thirty-six thousand francs were awarded to aged and infirm ecclesiastics. Pensions for long services are given to non-commissioned officers and privates in the army who have served twenty-one years in the infantry, or twenty-four years in the cavalry, or sooner in case of disability from wounds, loss of health, etc.

III.280.8

—In Germany the military pension list was, in 1874, 37,996,878 marks.

III.280.9

—We will now briefly consider the advantages and disadvantages of a pension system, with especial reference to the United States, and then go somewhat into detail concerning the pension laws and system now existing here.

III.280.10

—In our consideration of the general theory of pensions, we may withdraw one class from discussion. That is the first class we have spoken of: those which, combined with the wish of men to live without working, originated all the other kinds; what are called in France national recompenses, granted by legislative or kingly acts for distinguished services. As we have already said, these have always been granted, whether to armies or individuals, and so long as such are carefully scrutinized, and the merits for which they are given are first weighed in the balance and found worthy, no objection can be raised. They should be given, too, if the primary object should die, only to his dependent relatives, and not to his children after they attain a self-supporting age. It follows from this, that military pensions should be granted after any especial service or war, and with immediate reference thereto. And besides these, if any one enters the government service where there is a pension in existence already, he has a right to demand the pension. That does not affect the question whether such system should be abolished for the future, or the question whether any should ever be introduced.

III.280.11

—Leaving these matters, therefore, out of the question, what we are to discuss is the advisability, or otherwise, of a pension system as a part of the method by which a government agrees to pay its servants, civil or military, for services not yet rendered.

III.280.12

—1. There is an objection in theory to a government's either creating an insurance fund for the benefit of, or promising to confer a gift on, its agents, civil or military, for future services, by any statutory provision. It is not within the province of government, as that province has been limited and defined by history and by writers on the subject. A government's business is to protect its citizens' rights and to transact the clerical business of the state as a whole. There may be many things the government does now which do not come within this rule; but because it is difficult or not advisable to remove those already there, is no reason why, if the theory be true, still more exceptions should be added to the list. But, it is said, the government may hire a clerk or a soldier at so much a year to do certain duties. Has it not a right to choose its own manner of paying? may it not each year subtract so much from the salary, telling its servant, "If you work for me for a certain number of years without conducting yourself so badly as to get turned out, you shall get the proceeds of this investment that is made for you; and if you do get turned out, it will go to others who serve out their time"? Or, looking at it in another light, may it not, when the clerk or soldier enters its employ, say, "If you work for me for so many years, and I don't meantime dismiss you, I will at the end give you so much in every future year, and you need do no more work for it"?

III.280.13

—It will readily be seen, that here, in a very finely drawn line, comes up the old question as to the powers of a government. Shall a government be "strong" or "weak"; paternal and grandmotherly, or not? shall it build and run railroads and telegraph lines, subsidize and regulate industries and arts and society, and institute social reforms? or shall it let all these things arrange themselves, so far as the rights of its citizens remain unimpaired, and confine itself closely to the business as we have defined it? The moment discretion is given a legislature or other governing body, to create and distribute funds for servants who may become invalid; or to confer in the future benefits on other servants if they perform good service; or to make any arrangement other than one of a strictly business nature, whether it be to establish an insurance fund or otherwise; that moment it takes to itself new powers, and these seem to us to be dangerous in their tendency, as liable to abuse. Their utility in fact we will deal with next. There are a great many arguments on both sides of the theory of the government question, and this is not the place to examine them. (See GOVERNMENT INTERVENTION, and other articles.) Each individual looks at it from his own standpoint. Here the writer can only express his personal opinion, that for a government to do anything more than pay its servants so much for so much work on an ordinary business or cash basis, is wrong in theory and outside its proper powers.

III.280.14

—2. Utility. It is admitted, that if it can be proved that any great advantage would accrue to the state by the introduction of such a system, that would in some degree atone for its wrongfulness in theory; but it is submitted that that fact can not be proven, and the balance of evidence tends to prove the reverse.

III.280.15

—To put the question broadly, do public servants perform better work for the public if they have a pension in prospect? They ought not to; if a man undertakes to do work for so much, he should do his work honestly and completely, no doubt. It is therefore not the duty of government to try and get them to work harder by promise of a higher, even if it be a deferred, reward. But, as Gen. Washington said to a committee of Congress, Jan. 29, 1778, in urging the adoption of a half-pay system for the army, "A small knowledge of human nature will convince us that with far the greater part of mankind interest is the governing principle, and that almost every man is more or less under its influence. * * Few men are capable of making a continual sacrifice of all views of private interest or advantage to the common good. It is in vain to exclaim against the depravity of human nature on this account: the fact is so; the experience of every age and nation has proved it; and we must, in a great measure, change the constitution of man before we can make it otherwise. No institution not built on the presumptive truth of these maxims can succeed." Mr. Eaton has taken, as the motto for his book on civil service, already quoted from, a saying of John Locke's: "I think every one, according to the way Providence has placed him in, is bound to labor for the public good so far as he is able." We may notice the different ways of looking at a thing which a practical and a theoretical statesman have, and pass on to the point we wish to make, which is rather, can the public get better servants by giving so much annual salary and a pension at the end of a certain period, or by giving a higher annual salary and no pension? For no pension fund can be instituted on sound principles if the salaries are to be as high as if there were no pensions. In France, a few years since, the amount derived from the pension fund was only one-third of the amount of pensions to be paid, proving the existence of a vicious system.

III.280.16

—The advantages of the system are very well put by Mr. Worthington C. Ford: "In the administration of government, there is employed a large number of public servants, servants of many grades, who give their time and energies to the performance of their duties. As a rule, and the exceptions are to be found only in the higher positions, the salary these servants receive is their only resource. Let the government be overthrown, or let the offices be abolished, and these men are thrown upon the world to obtain their living in other occupations through what ever capacity they have developed in the public employ. Nor are these the only chances of hardship that they must fear. Sickness and infirmity may come upon them and render them incapable of performing any task whatever. They have the alternative then of becoming a burden on their relations or a charge upon the state or locality it which they reside. In order to prevent this, and in consideration of long and faithful service, most governments have instituted a system of pensions This is all the more necessary where the salary of public employés is somewhat lower than those that can be obtained in other walks of life. It might be added that this is rarely the case, and it is certainly not so in the United States, where, through a variety of causes, many of which were intended to have but a temporary effect, the salaries of public servants are very much higher than those obtained for the same kind of labor in trade and industry." "In theory nothing could be more just than such a system. As the right to a pension is generally guarded by some restrictions, such as age, time of service, position in the civil service, special disability, etc., it is practically a premium offered to such as will perform the necessary conditions, and so insures a better class of public officers. It encourages a strict performance of duty on the part of the employé, and inspires him to discharge the functions of his office to the best of his ability in order that he may in the end secure this reward. It holds out to him the promise of a competence in his old age or in the event of any infirmity that might make him unfit for labor, and gives him the encouragement that after his death his family will not be left wholly in want. He more cheerfully gives the best of his years to toil and fatigue when conscious that the benefits derived from his labor will not end with his death or incapacity. A pension is not, in such cases, a charitable donation, nor a gift bestowed without any return. It is, as I have said, rather an insurance fund; a gift, if you please, but one that is earned by honest toil and by a devotion to the employer's interest." But Mr. Ford adds: "The expediency or necessity of civil pensions has never been recognized in this country. The pay is good, and there is always an abundance of applications for positions. The introduction of civil service rules has made the occupants of positions more certain of retaining them during good behavior, and has thus given a reason even for reducing salaries. * * Whenever a special case of hardship occurs in the civil service it is usually treated by a special enactment of congress."*148 The three general objects which, we are told, are gained by a pension fund are therefore: 1, increased happiness on both sides; 2, economy—smaller wages are given, and the balance accumulated, but it is not every one who comes to get his pension, and therefore by the pensions of so many is the government a gainer; 3, permanency in office, by increasing the value of the salary and office as time goes on. All of these points are involved in the general question of utility.

III.280.17

—In reply to this argument let us quote Mr. Bentham, when discussing his proposition, that such pensions are needless, and therefore given in waste. In his "Constitutional Code," under the head Finance, he says: "Labor applied directly to a man's own use, or indirectly in exchange for an equivalent given by an individual in return for it, is one source of subsistence: labor employed for an equivalent in the service of government, that is, of the public at large, is another source. In the first case, generally speaking, no such allowance of reward, after service has ceased, has place. In the case of him whose subsistence is derived from dealings with the public at large, as in the case of a wholesale or a retail trader, a master manufacturer, an artisan, or a manufacturer, it is impossible. In the case of habitual service rendered by contract to an individual there is no custom for it. The case of incapacity produced by age or disease is a case equally open to expectancy in both instances. From the time of his embarking in his profit-seeking occupation a man makes for all such contingencies such provision as his means enable him, and his prudence disposes him, to make. For the securing to individuals any such extraordinary supply at the expense of the public there is, if there be any difference, less demand in the case of an occupation pursued by the rendering of service to the public for hire, than in the case of him whose subsistence as above is derived from commercial dealings with individuals. In the case of a public functionary a man's income is completely certain; certain as to its existence, certain as to its quantity. In the other case it is altogether uncertain in both respects."

III.280.18

—Another objection is, that there is a tendency, under a promise of pensions and rewards, in government servants to endeavor to secure the approbation of their immediate superiors in ways outside the duties of their office for a long enough time or in a sufficiently intense degree for them to obtain the reward. And vice versa in the case of the superiors toward their inferiors and superiors both. It is to their interest to remain together for the given time, and as long as they approve of each other reciprocally they are certain of their pension. This gives rise to a class and privileged feeling among the employés, which in turn causes an inattention to and carelessness of the interests of private individuals, more noticeable, and perhaps largely on this account, in the public offices in Great Britain than here, where the government servants have been, if anything, too independent of their official superiors and too dependent on extra-official protection. Mr. Eaton urges, as a reason in its favor in his book, that "the provision it makes for old age and misfortunes, besides promoting a better feeling in the service toward the state, and making effective discipline easier, actually enables the state to purchase the services of its officers at a less cost to the public treasury. The allowances for special merit and the deductions for bad conduct are based on records kept in the departments, and they are considered to have a salutary influence (analogous to promotions, prize money and brevet rank in the naval and military service) in stimulating honorable exertions in the public interest." This is our objection put in another way. It creates an esprit du corps among the young people in a circumlocution office like that in an army. The longer the clerks are there the more they become, superiors and inferiors, knit together in interests as against the outside world. An official class, or even aristocracy, is created.

III.280.19

—If a pension is to be obtained at the end of a term of years, the nearer that end comes the harder and more ungrateful it becomes for a superior to dismiss an inferior, often in disregard of the wishes of his own superiors, especially in countries where a free press and a popular assembly give the inferior opportunity for revenge and retaliation. In other words, it may tend to permanence in office, but the permanence is not of a healthy kind, and is not so dependent merely on good work as it would otherwise be.

III.280.20

—Again, it is to be remembered that the people filling the positions go into them at their own request and wish, and they give so much work for so much money. When they first enter, if they find themselves underpaid they may resign, and go into another business. In every country there are more applicants for government positions than there are positions for them to occupy. It is not necessary, therefore, that any more favorable pay should be given to such employés than to those in another occupation. Nor is there any reason on account of the nature of the work. And in this country, at any rate, the clerks in the public offices would strongly object to any pension fund being instituted if their salary should be lowered in consequence. Most American clerks are quite capable of investing their surplus income themselves, and they would say that they did not need to have the government, and the government had no right to, do it for them.

III.280.21

—Again, it causes poor work in a great many cases. Many men will cling on after their time for usefulness is entirely over, merely to get their pension, or a larger one than they would get if they were to then retire. This often happens in England, although the commissioners do their best to prevent it. We have in this country recently had an example in a very high place, where a justice of the United States supreme court, long past any ability to do any work, insisted on keeping his place until his pension should accrue, and so doing a great injury to the business interests of the country.

III.280.22

—In this country it is very doubtful whether any salaries could be lowered for such a purpose, and so there would be very little economy. The salaries of the United States judges were not lowered when pensions were extended to them. Besides, if our other suggestions are true, if the service became less effective on account of such a system, it would be poor economy to introduce it just to gain a few lapsed pensions. The making money out of its employés in such a way by the government in this country would only create disgust and disaffection on the part of the employés; and, through them, of the public.

III.280.23

—Again, there are computed to be over one hundred thousand civil servants in the employ of the national government in this country, besides the ordinary employés, messengers and lower servants employed about a government office and building, numbering perhaps as many more. This fact alone ought to be enough to deter any one from making any attempt to introduce such a system here.

III.280.24

—The principle suggested by its advocates is to institute a pension fund, like any insurance fund. "The average life of the persons who are to share in the benefits of the fund should be accurately determined, in order to learn how large a proportion of the total number will be able to perform all the requirements, and be able in the end to obtain their portion. This involves a determination of the death rate, the probability of life. From these data may be found the actual sum that must be set aside each year in order that the pensions falling due may be met. If, to take a simple example, it is found that the average number of persons entitled to a pension of say $500 each year is three, at least $1,500 must annually be obtained from the pension fund. If such a system were instituted here it would probably be carried on much as the naval pension fund is. The secretary of the navy, as trustee, invests so much of the fund then in the United States treasury as may not be required for the payment of the naval pensions for the then current fiscal year, together with the interest of the preceding year, and he gets 3 per cent. on it. Under section 4759 the privateersman fund is maintained. Two per cent. on the net amount after deducting all charges and expenditures of the prize money arising from captured vessels and cargoes, and on the net amount of the salvage of vessels and cargoes recaptured by the private armed vessels of the United States, shall be secured and paid to the collector or chief officer of the customs at the port where such vessel comes, or with the United States consul or agent, if out of the United States. And the moneys arising thereupon are pledged by the government of the United States as a fund for the support and maintenance of the widows and orphans of such persons as may be slain or wounded, etc., on board of the private armed vessels of the United States, in any engagement with the enemy. The secretary of the navy is trustee to assign and distribute this fund according to law. (Rev. Stat., secs. 4753, 4754.)

III.280.25

—The history of pension legislation in the United States forms a most interesting and curious chapter, and in no other nation has the principle of rewarding military and naval service been carried to such a limit as by congress. Early in the revolution it was seen that the discipline of the troops depended much upon the characters of the officers placed over them; so congress recommended to the several states that they should use their utmost endeavors to appoint in the service men of honor and of known abilities. On Oct. 7, 1776, as an encouragement for men of that class to enlist as commissioned officers, their monthly pay was increased, and somewhat later it was resolved that those who should continue in the service till the end of the war should receive half pay for seven years from the establishment of peace. This applied only to military service, and was more in the nature of a bounty than a pension, still it contained the germs of a pension system. Meantime, however, owing to the difficulties which arose from the inability of congress to fulfill its obligations save in a greatly depreciated paper currency, it became evident that few officers could remain, even if willing, in active service till the end of the war, without making great personal sacrifices. And, although Washington prepared a scheme of half pay and pensionary establishments, and strongly urged upon congress the necessity of making some provisions, the matter dragged, opposed by some as tending to create a standing army, and by others, because they thought the states should be first consulted. The result was a compromise measure. All military officers, commissioned by congress, who should continue in the service during the war, and not holding any office of profit in the states, should be entitled to receive half pay for seven years after the war, provided that this gratuity should extend to no officer who should not take an oath of allegiance to the United States, and actually reside within the same. The provisions of this act were in 1780 made to apply to the widows and orphans of such officers as had died in service. Non-commissioned officers were to receive a specific reward of $80 at the end of the war. This measure, however, did not allay the discontent of the officers, and in 1780 an act was passed granting half pay for life to officers who served till the close of the war. It is curious to find a law passed three years later commuting this half pay for life into full pay for five years, and reciting, that "as the officers of the several lines under the immediate command of his excellency General Washington, did, by their late memorial, transmitted by their committee, represent to congress, that the half pay granted by sundry resolutions, was regarded in an unfavorable light by the citizens of some of these states," etc. In 1780 some of the states had already made provisions for their officers. For example, Pennsylvania granted half pay for life, and the result was that the troops from this state were in excellent condition, few resignations being made, while in the quotas of other states resignations were frequent.

III.280.26

—But it would be a mistake to imagine that the results of these laws were at all in proportion to the promises they contain. When in 1783 half pay for life was commuted into full pay for five years, certificates bearing 6 per cent. annual interest were issued, and because of the refusal of the states to fulfill the requisitions of congress, the value of these certificates became greatly depreciated, falling until they could command but one-eighth of their nominal value. The army was disbanded, and the officers were compelled by their necessities to part with their certificates for whatever they could obtain. At the end of eight years the principal and interest were funded at 3 per cent., but the paper was now chiefly in the hands of speculators, and it was not until nearly forty years had elapsed that congress undertook to do justice to the revolutionary officers. When the matter came up for settlement in 1826, out of 2,480 commissioned officers (exclusive of foreigners) who came out of the war, only 230 were alive. In all that time there existed a deeply rooted opposition to pensions, as a system of favoritism by which those in power made provision, at the public expense, for their friends and followers.

III.280.27

—Up to this point, however, we have been concerned only with the officers of the army. In 1785 congress recommended to the states the propriety of making adequate provision for invalids. In 1788 it was further resolved that "each state shall have credit in its general account with the United States, for such sums as may become due to invalids." Subsequent laws, both of a public and a private character, were passed applying to invalids, and in the organization of the army a like provision was incorporated. By 1806 a general system of pensions had been framed, and in 1808 the United States assumed the state pension obligations. From that time until 1818 the principle was settled that all persons disabled in the course of military or naval service should be provided for at the public expense, whether they had served in the land or sea service of the forces of the United States, or any particular state in the regular corps, or the militia, or as volunteers. The law, however, was surrounded by many safeguards against fraud, and a pension was to be allowed only for disabilities incurred in the service. So limited and confined was it that the abuse arising under it was comparatively unimportant. Abuse, however, there was, and in 1804 it called out the saying that "the revolutionary claimant never dies; he is immortal."

III.280.28

—In 1818 the first departure from this conservative policy was made, and was followed by others in 1820 and 1823. On March 18, 1818, an act was passed granting pensions to all who had served in the army of the revolution "for a period of nine months or longer at any period of the war"; and "who, by reason of reduced circumstances, shall stand in need of assistance from their country for support." Here the principle which limited the granting of pensions to such as were disabled in actual service was abandoned, and the length of service and the poverty of the pensioner are made the conditions on which pensions were hereafter to depend. It was doubtless the intention of the framers of the bill to have its provisions apply only to those who had during the revolution given up their private pursuits and devoted themselves exclusively to military service, and not to men who had rendered casual service; and in support of this view it may be said, that, as originally introduced, the bill would cover the demands of those who had served for three years, and who stood in need of assistance from the government for their support. During the passage of the bill the three years' requirement was displaced by one of nine months, and in that form the measure became a law. It was estimated that the annual charge upon the treasury would amount to about $160,000, but the results proved that this estimate was far from correct, and that the door had been opened to frauds so extensive that they became unimportant only in the light of subsequent pension legislation. 27,948 persons applied for the benefit of the act of 1818—a number greater than that of Washington's army at any period of the war, and exceeding the whole number of soldiers that could by the established rate of mortality be supposed to be alive in 1818. The claims of upward of 18,000 were admitted, and it was afterward discovered that fully one-third of this number had no legal claim to government bounty. The money required to pay these claims was between two and three millions annually; the appropriations for this branch of expenditure being in the first year under the act, $1,847,900, and in the next, $2,766,440. Then congress interfered, as the country was becoming alarmed. Men who had never served at all, or for very short periods, men who had given away their property to their children, or conveyed it in trust for their benefit; in short, every one who was old enough to have served in the revolution found little difficulty in getting himself placed on the pensions list. To correct this open scandal a law was passed May 1, 1820, which retained the "nine months" and "indigent circumstances" requirements, but provided greater safeguards against fraud by requiring every applicant to submit a schedule of his property and to take the necessary oaths. This caused 6,000 names to be stricken from the list. In 1829 an attempt to pass what was known as the "mammoth pension bill" called out a vigorous protest from Mr. Hayne. Its effects, he said, would be to open the door of the treasury to "mere sunshine and holiday soldiers, the hangers-on of the camp, men of straw, substitutes who never enlisted until after the preliminaries of peace were signed."

III.280.29

—An act of June 7, 1832, was followed by more extensive frauds, and this was adverted to in the president's message for 1834. The provisions of the pension laws had by this time been extended so as to apply to wars other than the revolution, and in subsequent years they were made to include all military service wherever rendered. A list of the wars will be found at the end of this article. The results of legislation are shown in the following brief statement contained in a report to congress made in 1834: "There are supposed to be now living about 42,600 persons who receive pensions or gratuities from the government under different laws. Of these about 3,900 are invalid pensions, 10,500 come under the act of 1818, 700 under that of 1828, and 27,500 under the law of June 7, 1832. The amount expended in the previous year reached three millions of dollars."

III.280.30

—It would be unprofitable even to attempt to trace minutely the effects of the many laws relating to pensions passed between 1832 and 1860. Enough has been said to show that the tendency of such legislation was to pass from a strictly defined and on the whole well-guarded system, to one which allowed extensive frauds, and in reality gave the government's bounty to the undeserving. As the laws were more generally applied, and included a greater and greater number of subjects, the opportunity for fraud was ever present, and was not allowed to pass unnoticed.

III.280.31

—The rebellion, however, gave rise to some pension legislation which deserves more than a cursory notice, because it gives ample proof of the tendency of such laws to run into wasteful expenditure, and also to become a political engine, a device for gaining the votes of the "soldier" population. It may be premised that pensions were offered early in the war to secure volunteers; and further, as every such volunteer was subjected to a medical examination, and was—at least theoretically—allowed to serve only when sound in body, it followed, that, if he were not sound at the end of the war, he must have been disabled or become diseased while in service. This fact becomes important in the light of legislation after the close of the war.

III.280.32

—Since the rebellion the following are the more important laws relating to the granting of pensions to soldiers and their families: July 14, 1862; July 4, 1864; March 3, 1865; June 6, 1866; July 25, 1866; July 27, 1866; July 7, 1870; July 8, 1870; June 6, 1874; June 18, 1874; June 20, 1874; June 22, 1874 (consolidation act); Aug. 15, 1876; Feb. 27, 1877; Feb. 28, 1877; March 3, 1877; March 8, 1878; March 9, 1878; June 17, 1878; June 18, 1878; June 20, 1878; Jan. 25, 1879 (arrears of pensions act); March 1, 1879; June 9, 1880; June 16, 1880; Feb. 26, 1881; Aug. 7, 1882; and in addition to these, countless bills of a public or private nature became laws or were rejected. Under these laws the most liberal provisions were made for those who had suffered, directly or indirectly, while in the army during the rebellion. It is doubtful whether any other nation has provided so liberally for its disabled soldiers and seamen, or for the dependent relatives of the fallen. "If any person, whether officer or soldier, belonging to the militia of any state, and called out into the service of the United States, be wounded or disabled while in actual service, he shall be taken care of and provided for at the public expense." (Revised Statutes, §1639.) This principle has governed the pension legislation of the country almost from the beginning (1792). The government undertook to make good, as far as possible, the loss of health or members, when such loss was incurred strictly in its military or naval service, and to furnish regular pecuniary aid to the families of those whose lives or health were thus sacrificed. From a very simple impulse of justice has sprung an entire system of rewards, or rather of recompense, which has grown to proportions little anticipated by those who framed the first laws. In place of laws for particular emergencies, cautiously limited to retrospective action, we now have statutes which regard on an equal plane all branches of the service, regulars, volunteers and militia, and further providing for the future as well as for the past. The few simple and efficacious safeguards which were imposed upon the earlier laws have been abolished, or so modified as to be, to all intents and purposes null and void, and step by step, as the system was expanded, its benefits have largely fallen to the undeserving, to professional schemers for public plunder. And of this the arrears of pensions act is a notorious example, the history of which throws a strong light upon the methods of shrewd lobbyists who thrive upon the necessities of others. Briefly stated, that history is as follows: The laws then in force, it was claimed, were faulty, and it was expedient to abolish certain inequalities which the pension system was believed to contain. Under the existing acts certain restrictions or limitations were imposed upon the time within which application for a pension should be made. If a man was unable to secure the necessary papers and proofs required by the practice of the bureau within the appointed time, his pension could not be granted until the defects were remedied and the proper documents filed in the department. It thus happened, that, while many obtained pensions beginning from the date of discharge or disability, a large number of others, who were equally deserving, had their claims for many years delayed, and when allowed drew their bounty from the date of the issue of the proper documents, and not from the date of discharge or disability. The law prevented any dating back, and it was claimed that as a simple act of justice this defect should be remedied and the operation of the system made more equal. "By the act of July 14, 1862, the first on the subject of pensions growing out of the war of the rebellion, it was provided that if the soldier made application within one year after his discharge, his pension should commence with the date of such discharge, but if he failed to make his application until after the expiration of the year, then his pension, when granted, should commence with the date of such application. This was a statute of limitations of one year, and deprived the crippled soldier of one year's pension money or more, if, for any reason, he was not prompt in presenting his claim within the time prescribed. It was a vicious principle with which to begin our pension system. No government can afford to higgle with its preservers over the price of their blood, nor is it a becoming thing to thrust a contemptible statute of limitations, the last resort of a dishonest debtor, into the faces of the maimed who are living, or of the widows and orphans of the dead, in full payment of the most sacred obligations ever incurred by a nation in the history of the world. By subsequent acts amendatory of the act of 1862, the statute of limitation, or the time within which to file an application so as to carry a pension from the date of discharge or death, was extended first to three and then to five years, and it stood at this latter period in January, 1879. The arrears act was designed to eliminate from the then existing law that meanest form of defense to a debt ever interposed by an individual or a government, the defense of the statute of limitations. It destroyed the detestable argument so often heard, that the lapse of time can pay an honest debt; that if you can successfully evade the payment of a claim for a certain number of years, either through your own ingenuity or the ignorance and helplessness of your impoverished creditor, the claim becomes an old claim; then, in the pompous and stupid parlance of the day, a stale claim, and that at this point it is to be considered paid and wiped out."

III.280.33

—It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that the law arose from such philanthropic motives as the sentences just quoted from a speech in defense of it would indicate. In fact, it was nothing more than a piece of selfish and interested legislation, originated by a ring of pension claim agents who made a living by trading upon the necessities of deserving pensioners, and it was by their efforts more than by any other influence, that the arrears act was hurried through congress. In 1871 the total number of applications filed was 43,969; in 1872, 26,396; in 1873, 18,303; in 1874, 16,734; and in 1875, 18,704. The claim agents saw that their business was falling off, and took measures for increasing it. In 1875 and 1876 they had begun their peculiar methods, and were flooding the country with blank petitions. The commissioner of pensions said, in his report for 1878: "A comparatively small number of professional claim agents and claim firms at Washington and some other points of the country, through the intervention of sub-agents, and by extensive advertising, employing for that purpose in some instances sheets issued in the form of periodical newspapers purporting to be published in the interest of the soldiers, the columns of which contained matter in which apparent anxiety for the soldiers' welfare and appeals to their love of gain were cunningly intermingled, always representing the advertisers as in the enjoyment of special and peculiar facilities for the successful prosecution of claims, and usually adding the suggestion that no charge would be made unless a pension should be obtained." The result of this activity was to bring before congress a host of petitions praying for further legislation. Already a measure providing for arrears of pensions had been introduced into the 44th congress, but it was killed in committee, and in the next congress a like measure promised to experience the same fate, when it was unexpectedly taken up and passed under a suspension of the rules without debate, and apparently without having been considered by the proper committee. The bill was rushed through the senate in the same unceremonious manner, and in the short debate there is an absence of any effort to discover what would be the effects of the bill should it become a law. Making an estimate based upon a communication from the commissioner of pensions prepared three years previously, it was stated that the arrears might amount to nineteen or twenty millions annually. The secretary of the interior thought that $41,000,000 would be all that was needed to meet the provisions of the new law, and accepting this estimate, the secretary of the treasury asked for authority to issue bonds to that amount. This estimate was prepared, however, after the measure was passed and has received the signature of the president. The pension bureau never made an estimate of the cost of the arrears bill until after it had become a law. Such was the loose manner of framing and discussing an important law.

III.280.34

—The truth, however, was soon seen. The practical operation of the law was to offer a bonus of $1,000 down, in addition to subsequent periodical payments, to all persons who might thereafter file and prosecute to a successful issue, pension claims against the government. Even while the bill was in the hands of the president, its real results were beginning to be foreshadowed. Secretary Sherman told his associates in the cabinet that it would require an expenditure of $150,000,000. On Jan. 25, Secretary Schurz read in a cabinet meeting a letter from the commissioner of pensions, saying that the bill would require an immediate expenditure of $36,000,000, and largely increased annual requisitions. In spite of these damaging statements the president, Mr. Hayes, signed the bill. In February, 1879, Secretary Schurz addressed a letter to congress calling attention to the vast sum probably involved by the arrears act, and urging upon that body, in the most emphatic terms, the necessity of adopting legislation to protect the government against the frauds which the new measure would be sure to encourage. At once the flood gates were opened. In his report for the year ending June 30, 1879, a date less than six months after the passage of the act, the commissioner said that the new claims of invalids, widows, minor children and dependent relatives, had come in at "an unprecedented rate." The claims of invalids, he said, were more than double in number those of any previous year, except 1866 (just at the close of the war), and nearly double that year, while other claims were large in an almost equal proportion. Furthermore, at the time the arrears act was passed there were about 100,000 unsettled claims which were regarded as alive and pending; besides these, there were not less than 80,000 on the files which had been rejected for one reason or another. Among these claims, which were on the files and had not been admitted, were about 45,000 which were counted as dead claims, the claimants having abandoned their prosecution, or died leaving them unsettled. The arrears act not only brought in new original claims at the rate of 10,290 per month for the whole period of seventeen months from February, 1879, to June 30, 1880—while the average from July 1, 1878, to Feb 1, 1879, was only 1,597 per month—but it revived from thirty thousand to forty thousand old cases which were on the rejected files. The drain on the treasury was greatly increased. The largest annual disbursement previous to the passage of this act was in 1871, and amounted to about thirty-three millions. In 1878 it was $26,844,415; in 1879, $33,780,526, in 1880, $57,240,540; and in 1881, $50,620,538; In this last year the commissioner estimated that the act would consume, sooner or later, more than $510,000,000. This piece of legislation, which is little else than a gigantic swindle, has remained unchanged in spite of efforts to overturn it. It was conceived for private advantage, and carried through without consideration or debate, and by means of political pressure. It is the old story of the prætorian guards repeated; the soldiers' votes formed the main object to be secured by its passage.

III.280.35

—One more point deserves attention, as showing the great stimulus exerted by pension legislation. When the bill granting pensions to all the survivors of the war of 1812, and to the soldiers' widows, was before congress, it was generally asserted and believed that the number of persons entitled to such pensions, about seventy years after the war, must necessarily be small. The armies of the United States in 1812-14 had not been large, and the number of people who attain the age of eighty or ninety years can never be very large. Yet in the table we give, we find more than 7,000 survivors and more than 24,000 widows drawing pensions! "Either the war of 1812 must have had a mysteriously vitalizing effect upon those in any way engaged in it, or the passage of the pension bill must have resuscitated a large number of those who, in the ordinary course of nature, had died years ago." And in his report for 1882 the commissioner of pensions makes some interesting speculations regarding the pension population of the country. "The proposition is as follows: How many persons are there now living who served in the army during the late rebellion, or who bore a pensionable relation to those who served, who have not yet applied for a pension? The adjutant general of the United States reports the following aggregate of enlistment for the different periods of service:

60 days... 2,045
3 months... 108,416
100 days... 85 807
4 months... 42
6 months... 26,118
8 months... 373
9 months... 89,899
1 year... 393,706
2 years... 44,400
3 years... 2,028,630
4 years... 1,042
Aggregate... 2,780,178

III.280.36

Taking this as a basis of my calculation, I have endeavored to ascertain the number of individual enlistments; that is, excluding second, third, fourth, and subsequent enlistments of the same person. The result of my investigation and estimate upon this point shows an aggregate of 2,049,969 different individuals who enlisted for greater or less periods during the war. To this number should be added the number of persons serving in the regular army and navy at the commencement of the war, viz., 16,422. So that the grand total of individual persons who entered the service during the war may be approximately stated to be 2,063,391. Up to July 1, 1882, there have been filed by army invalids, 450,890 applications for pensions. Up to the same date there have been filed 294,277 applications on behalf of the service of deceased soldiers. There have been filed by navy invalids 7,633, and by those representing deceased sailors, 3,294. This makes an aggregate of those who have applied for pension of 756,119 out of the whole number who enlisted, as before stated. As near as I can ascertain, there are about 86,800 representatives of deceased soldiers who have not yet applied for pension, and 1,000,469 survivors of the war who have not yet applied for pension, and 220,000 who died during and since the war, who left no pensionable relatives surviving them. * * The general proposition, however, is presented, with the best available information at hand, that there is a surviving soldier population of a little over ten hundred thousand, out of which claims for pension in the future may be made by those who incurred pensionable disabilities."

III.280.37

—In the United States special acts have, as we have said, with great frequency been passed for pensioning any person not falling within the provisions of the law in force at any given time. For instance, cap. 43, approved June 17, 1844: "Be it enacted, etc., that the secretary of war be and he is hereby authorized and directed to pay to Milly, an Indian woman of the Creek nation, and a daughter of the prophet Francis, a pension at the rate of $96 per annum, payable semiannually, during her natural life, as a testimonial of the gratitude and bounty of the United States, for the humanity displayed by her in the war of 1817 and 1818 in saving the life of an American citizen who was a prisoner in the hands of her people, and about to be put to death by them," etc. In another case Baron de Steuben was granted a pension of $2,500 a year during life, "which said annuity shall be considered in full discharge of all claims and demands whatever of the said Frederick William de Steuben against the United States." Many of these private acts granted pensions to private individuals who had, like Milly, the Creek woman, performed some act of heroism. They did not fall within the provisions of the pension laws, and form the first exceptions to the rule that in the United States there are no civil pensions. Up to 1869, so far as the writer is aware, such form the only exception. In that year (Statutes at Large, vol. xvi., p. 45), a bill was passed to increase the United States judges, and it provided, among other things, that "any judge of the United States, who, having held his commission as such at least ten years, shall, after having attained the age of seventy years, resign his office, shall thereafter, during the residue of his natural life, receive the same salary which was by law payable to him at the time of his resignation."

III.280.38

—Since then, a new precedent has been created as to ex-presidents' widows. First, Mrs. Lincoln was given one, then Mrs. Garfield, then Mrs. Polk and Mrs. Tyler. The life-saving department has had a pension arrangement made by law for a certain definite period. The internal revenue servants and the railway mail servants also have had endeavors for a pension system made in congress in their behalf. Employés in the quartermaster's and paymaster's departments have received them. Also nurses, and in one case the widow of a professor in the naval academy. The New York municipal police have also had a pension system introduced for their benefit, recently. Many bills have been introduced for such purposes, the most sweeping being Senator Edmunds', in the 47th congress. Its object was to allow all officers who may retire or be retired, one year's pay; after fifteen years of service, two years' full pay; after twenty years, a pension of half pay; after twenty-five years, two-thirds pay; after thirty years, three-fourths pay; after thirty-five years, four-fifths pay; and after forty years, full pay.

III.280.39

—The subject of civil pensions has already been discussed. It is not contended that so far any but very excusable departures from the rules thus far in force in this country have been made, but every new departure from the same should very closely examined and criticised as long as the rule remains in force. If, after a full discussion, it shall be decided to put in force a system of civil pensioning, it will be an interesting, but at the same time a dangerous, experiment.

III.280.40

—The existing provisions of the pension laws are too numerous to be given in this article, and the reader must be referred to the manuals prepared under the authority of the bureau. A word, however, as to the practice of the department. The applicant for a pension first sends a declaration, of which he can get a blank form from the office, giving the necessary dates and figures and circumstances, in detail. His identity must be shown by the testimony of two credible witnesses, who must appear before the officer. Then, on receiving this, the interior department makes application to the adjutant general and surgeon general or to the navy department, as the case may be, for the applicant's record and evidence as to the disability. If there be none, the applicant must obtain the affidavit of a commissioned officer who had personal knowledge of the facts. If there is no record even that there was a disability, the applicant must obtain the evidence of the surgeon by whom he was treated, and must prove that his own habits had no agency in the production of such disability. If the disability arises from disease, he must, in addition, get evidence from his physician setting forth the history of his disease and disability since its first appearance. The administrator or executor of a soldier is not entitled to arrears if the deceased had filed no application. If claimant died pending application, the pension, when granted, does not belong to the estate, but to the widow or children. If there are none, then the pension lapses, except that the expenses of the claimant's last sickness may be paid. Death is to be presumed in cases where more than two years elapse since the date of the soldier's supposed death in action. No pension in hand or to come, or in whosever hands it is, is liable to attachment, levy or seizure by or under any legal or equitable process whatever. No pensioner may have more than one pension at a time. Helplessness means (act of 1876) dependence on another, and also inability to gain a subsistence by one's own exertions. The abandonment of her minor child by the widow forfeits her title to a pension. Any pledge, mortgage, sale, assignment or transfer of any right, claim or interest in any pension, which has been or may hereafter be granted, shall be void and of no effect. No pension money will be paid to any agent or attorney of the pensioner, and no agent is to recognize any warrant or power of attorney, except in the case of insane or Indian pensioners or those under disabilities. (Act of Aug. 7, 1882.) All pensioners must have been loyal during the war of the rebellion. At the outbreak all the pensioned in other wars who were in the insurgent states were cut off, and also those in the northern states known to be disloyal. In 1867, widows who could prove their loyalty during the war were restored. A pardon by the president does not restore the right to the former or any pension. As to what constitutes disloyalty, it has been held that compulsory service with the rebels does not. Making clothes and tents for them, does. Applying to the confederate congress for a federal pension does not.

III.280.41

—On the next page we give a table of the pension claims filed and allowed since 1861.

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.

III.280.42

—There are fifty-eight agencies in the United States. Payments are made quarterly, and there is a biennial examination of the pensioners. New York contains the most pensioners, then Pennsylvania, then Ohio; the commissioners have said that there is not a single county or parish in the United States without its pensioner. The average age of our soldiers in 1863 was only twenty-six, and so this state of affairs is likely to continue for some time. Formerly the Washington office kept an alphabetical list of the rejected and admitted pensioners and of the claims filed, but this was found very cumbersome, and now all names are indexed according to their companies and military organizations. In the course of making the change (November, 1880) more than 3,000 duplicate claims for pensions were found, and fifty-three cases in which two pensions had been granted the same person. These new records consist of 176 volumes, of 250 pages each, and have claims for pensions on account of service in 2,268 regiments, 194 battalions, 706 independent companies, 208 batteries, and 46 staff corps. Besides this, the old three-fold invalid, widows and bounty lands divisions were abolished, and everything was arranged by states. The commissioners have therefore evolved a method by which the government may be better protected from fraud, and this they submit every year to congress, which, with equal regularity, pigeon-holes it. This is to have a number of pension commissions all over the country, consisting each of one surgeon and one pension clerk, appointed from Washington, whose duty it shall be in each case to go to any place in their district from which a claim has been forwarded, and there to summon the claimant and his witnesses, and such other witnesses as they themselves may wish or as may volunteer their testimony, and to examine such evidence thus furnished, and report thereon to Washington. The advantages of this system are, that: 1. "The testimony and proceedings will be public and reliable, facilitating prompt and liberal decisions, and the treasury will be protected from fraud." The claimants' expenses will be rather diminished. 2. "The medical examination will be made by an unprejudiced government surgeon. No one will be made a victim of the ignorance, prejudice or carelessness of a neighborhood surgeon." 3. There need be no more special agents' investigations. "The publicity of the proceedings will operate to restrain fraudulent claims, and give the government a guarantee against their success." The neighbors of any claimant are likely to come forward to expose any fraud in such a matter. Now, the honest claimants who are not able to fill a want in their evidence get injured, while the dishonest ones who fill such a gap by fraud succeed. There will therefore be less perjury, forgery and false personation under such a scheme. The old, and present, scheme "provides for the settlement of claims on ex parte testimony exclusively, given by witnesses who are entirely unknown to the office, and whose affidavits are almost universally prepared by claim agents, who can receive no compensation for their services unless the claim is allowed." The examining surgeon is usually the neighborhood practitioner, whose professional interest it is to please the claimant at the expense of the government. (Commissioner's Report, 1877.)

III.280.43

—The following table shows the annual expenditure of the government of the United States on account of pensions, from March 4, 1789, to June 30, 1883 (by calendar years to 1843, and by fiscal years, ended June 30, from that time):

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.

III.280.44

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III.280.45

Table.  Click to enlarge in new window.

III.280.46

—AUTHORITIES. Army and Navy Pension Laws to 1861, Robert Mayo, M. D., 4th ed.; Mayo & Moulton's Treatise on the Pension Laws, Washington, 1861; A Manual of the Pension Laws of the U. S., Henry C. Harmon, Washington, 1867; A Manual of Pensions, Bounty and Pay, George W. Raff, Cincinnati, 1864; The War Claimants' Guide, George W. Raff, Cincinnati, 1866; Practice under the Pension, Bounty and Prize Laws of the U. S., Robert Sewell, New York, 1864; A Digest of the Laws of the U. S. governing the granting of Army and Navy Pensions, etc., compiled by order of the Commissioner of Pensions, Calvin B. Walker, deputy commissioner, Washington, 1881; Civil Service in Great Britain, Dorman B. Eaton, New York, 1880; The Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Pensions and the Secretary of the Interior; The Congressional Record; Dumont on Pensions, Bentham's translation.

DAVID A. WELLS, and EUSTACE CONWAY.


Notes for this chapter


In justice to Mr. Ford it should be added, that he draws a distinction between pensions granted to civil servants of the government and those granted to military and naval servants, and this distinction is manifestly a just one to make. While the dangers of corruption attending the liberal use of civil pensions are many, and in fact might be said to be inseparable from the system, there exist strong reasons for granting allowances for military and naval service when there exist also the proper safeguards against abuse. If there be any principle recognized and established in this country it is that pensions must be confined to those who were separated by the nature of their service from the great mass of the community, and who devoted themselves exclusively to military duties; who laid aside the character of a citizen, and became a soldier; who, in abandoning the pursuits, extinguished also the habits, of private life. But, in bestowing military pensions, it should be recognized that provision should be made only for those who, being unable to support themselves, are necessarily thrown upon public or private charity. "It would not, I think," wrote Attorney General Rush in 1815, "be going too far to say that in every case where an officer or private loses his health while in service, to such a degree as to be disabled from performing his duty any more, he is contemplated, prima facie, as an object of this charitable relief from the legislature." And more recently the expediency of military and naval pensions was defended in congress as follows: "The service which the soldier renders may be voluntary, but it is not a service which he may give or withhold at pleasure, but one which, if not offered, may be compelled by the strong arm of the government. The recognition by the state of the distinguished military services of its citizens in its support and defense in the form of a pension, though sometimes granted as a charity, or as an act of grace, is generally given in fulfillment of some promise made by the government, or inducement held out to the soldier either at the time or after his enlistment. It is not given to every man who performs military service, however distinguished and meritorious that service may be, but to those only who receive wounds or contract disease while in the line of duty. The purpose and design of the government is to make the soldier good, as far as money can do it, for the injuries he received, or in other words, to make up to him as much as he could have earned at his trade or vocation if he had not been wounded or had not contracted the disease. Under this rule—and in my judgment it is both just and magnanimous—no man is entitled to a pension for military service except those who have received disabling wounds or injuries during the war, and the widows, minor children and dependent relatives of those who were killed or who have since died from the effects of such service. This is the humane policy recognized and acted upon by every civilized country on the globe. It has been truly said that every pensioner is, in one sense, a burden upon his fellow-citizens, either directly or indirectly; and no reason can exist for imposing such a burden on behalf of men who did only their plain, simple duty as citizens, and received no material injury in its performance. A disabled soldier is not a pauper for taking a pension. A well man would be nothing else if he were to accept one. For this reason I do not deem it right or expedient to select out any particular class of soldiers, or men who rendered any particular service, or suffered any peculiar hardships and privations, and pension them, regardless of whether they can show any pensionable disability or not. Under the lenient rules adopted by the present commissioner of pensions, every soldier who was wounded or contracted disease while on active duty in the field, or during confinement in rebel prisons, can, if not already pensioned, apply for and receive one now under the general law. It is impossible for congress to grade and adjust pensions to the different degrees of suffering and hardship endured in the service. All that we can do is to grant them in cases where the evidence shows there is a pensionable disability: but it we should go beyond this rule we should be simply pensioning a large number of men, who, while they endured great suffering and privations, received no material injury, and are now able to earn their living. In this connection I desire also to say that I would not create a civil pension list by granting pensions to men who are injured in the civil service of the government. They go into that service voluntarily, and can not be compelled to enter it against their will, and can leave when they please. When they assume the duties they take all the risks, and are paid for doing so. I believe pensions should only be granted to men who have been injured in the military or naval service of the country; and, without stopping here to elaborate the point, I will simply say that in my judgment we are not called upon in granting pensions to break down the barriers set up by our fathers between the military and civil service, and launch out into a sea which I fear would prove shoreless and bottomless." Nor is it any condemnation of such pensions to point out the great frauds that have arisen under various systems. That is the fault of the laws. "The state has in time of war a fundamental right to the money, the services, and, if need be, the life of every citizen, without other compensation than the security and protection it affords him at all times. The pension laws are not passed to secure to the maimed survivor of the war, or to the helpless dependents on those who lost their lives in the struggle, a right existent independently and in the nature of things, but as a voluntary and fitting assumption of care over those who, in the service of the nation, have lost the ability to care for themselves. It is doubly demoralizing and doubly shameful that beneficent laws like these should be made the cover of fraud and robbery—it not only despoils the public treasury and unjustly burdens the shoulders of the tax-paying masses, but it delays and often fatally prejudices the cause of really deserving applicants."

Footnotes for UNITED STATES SURPLUS MONEY

End of Notes


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