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  • Revolutionary War Invalid Pensions and the Bureaucratic Language of Disability in the Early Republic
  • Laurel Daen (bio)

In 1792, Thaddeus Beebe, a private in the First Regiment of Connecticut Continental Troops, applied to the District Court of Connecticut for an invalid pension. In 1776, just over one month after the ratification of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress had passed an act entitling soldiers who were disabled in the line of duty to half pay for the duration of their disability (Ford 5: 702–05). Hoping to take advantage of recent legislation that had renewed this act (An Act to Provide for the Settlement), Beebe presented his case before the court. Richard Douglass, the second lieutenant in Beebe’s regiment, testified that “in the year 1777 Beebe was Agreeably to an Order of Congress Inoculated for the Small Pox by which he lost the Sight of his Right Eye & was Otherwise so Debilitated” (Record Book). Joshua Raymond, a tax collector in Beebe’s hometown of New London, added that “his Constitution [was] so broken down in my opinion that he has never recovered it since” (Record Book). After hearing Beebe’s case, presiding judges James Iredell and Richard Law assessed him as one-quarter disabled, according to the legal stipulation that veterans who could perform some economically productive labor qualified for pensions that corresponded with their “degree” of disability, as compared to veterans “wholly” disabled (Ford 28: 436). Beebe received a monthly allotment of $1.66 (Record Book).

This was not the first time that Beebe appealed for an invalid pension nor would it be the last. In fact, he petitioned for relief four times, each time unsuccessfully, before his death in 1799. Beebe is one of thousands of veterans who applied for a federal invalid pension in the decades after the American Revolution; however, few of their requests for assistance are extant.1 Beebe’s application survives as part of a unique group of sixty-seven invalid pension claims from Connecticut.2 His case is especially noteworthy [End Page 141] because of the existence of additional documents: certificates from his first invalid pension application in 1780, reports by the secretary of war on his petition to Congress in 1790, and correspondence between him, the District Court of Connecticut, and the War Department throughout the 1790s. As such a case, Beebe offers an exceptional vantage point from which to explore not only the lives and community relations of wounded Revolutionary War veterans but also the contested construction of a rhetorically specific category of disability in the federal government.

When read alongside bureaucratic reports, correspondence, and proceedings, Beebe’s experiences reveal that Revolutionary War invalid pension legislation sparked heated controversies between federal officials, district judges, veterans, and the family members and friends of veterans who testified on their behalf about the meaning of disability and the qualifications for a pension. These controversies, in turn, incited federal regulatory efforts to standardize the definition of disability; this new rhetoric then shaped the distribution of invalid pensions. Most prominently, politicians used the emerging and seemingly impartial language of medicine to authenticate their constructions of disability by mandating that physicians serve as expert witnesses in invalid pension cases. Despite continued negotiations from veterans and their allies as well as physicians who struggled to comply with federal directives, these developments gave rise to a new bureaucratic category of disability, distinct from sickness and anchored in the expert discourse of medicine. Chronicling the efforts of Beebe and other claimants to navigate this changing rhetorical and administrative landscape demonstrates the centrality of Revolutionary War invalid pensions to the federal regulation and medicalization of disability in the early United States. The experiences of Beebe and other servicemen further suggest that the management and negotiation of federal invalid pensions contributed to the construction of bureaucratic networks, policies, and procedures, thus aiding the emergence of the United States as a nation-state.

Federal invalid pension legislation initially and primarily defined disability as the incapacity to financially support oneself through labor. The first act to establish invalid pensions in 1776 compensated veterans who were “so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render [them] incapable afterwards...