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  • Reclaiming a Revolutionary PastWar Veterans, Pensions, and the Struggle for Recognition
  • Michael A. McDonnell (bio) and Briony Neilson (bio)

In March 1818, Congress passed into law a bill that seemed to mark a watershed moment in the contest over public memory of the Revolutionary War. The Pension Act finally recognized and rewarded the services of rank-and-file war veterans from the conflict that gave birth to the new nation. Introduced by President James Monroe—a former Continental Army officer himself—the Pension Act was hailed as "an auspicious circumstance," by one Congressional Representative. It was "gratifying evidence of the re-connexion of public feeling with the principles of the Revolution."1

Historians have generally seen the Pension Act of 1818 as a marker of a transformation in public sentiment over the memory of the Revolutionary War. In this telling, for many years after the conflict a mythic view of the conflict as a "people's war" had sidelined the achievements of those [End Page 467] who had served in the Continental Army in favor of the vigilant patriotism of the people and the near-universal contributions of the militia toward the war. Yet over time, as John P. Resch argued, the image of the suffering soldier "transformed perceptions of the Continental Army." Accelerated by the War of 1812, Americans came to lay aside a view of the Army as filled by the dregs of society and something to be feared and despised, and instead to see it as composed of brave, heroic, and patriotic citizens who came from all ranks of society. Ultimately, Congress ratified this new view of the Revolutionary War as the legislation "codified the image of the suffering soldier and the public's sentiment of gratitude to honor, reward, and aid Revolutionary War veterans." According to this view, the 1818 Pension Act, then, signified a shift toward a more inclusive understanding of military service in the conflict.2

While the legislation no doubt reflected a shift in sentiment, especially toward the "suffering soldiers" of the Continental Army, the inclusiveness of the legislation has been overstated. While the 1818 Act did extend benefits to an important group of soldiers, it nonetheless continued to exclude tens of thousands of veterans of the Revolutionary War who did not meet the requirements of the legislation. It excluded, for example, anyone who had not served in the Continental Army. It also targeted a particular type of veteran—one who had served at least nine months in the Army. Finally, recipients of a pension had to show they were in "reduced circumstances." To be sure, some congressmen argued for a more expansive pension system that would include all veterans, no matter how long they served and whether they were in the Continental Army, state troops, or militia. But their calls were undermined by concerns about the possible expense of such a plan. Congress had to make a decision about who was worthy of a pension. And in 1818, Representatives decided that only deserving professional soldiers should be rewarded. As Maryland Senator Robert Goldsborough put it, if anyone should receive a pension, it ought to be the "Half starved, half naked" soldiers who had suffered most during the Revolutionary War. Those [End Page 468] "most worthy of our gratitude," he argued, "are officers and soldiers of the Revolutionary Army." Wartime suffering, in other words, was explicitly understood to be an experience unique to the semi-professional troops who ended up serving for long periods in the Continental Army.3

We would argue, then, that while the Pension Act of 1818 was an important achievement, the final provisions of the Act still reflected a limited view and understanding of the Revolutionary War on the part of lawmakers. As Sarah Purcell, Alfred F. Young, Robert E. Cray, and others have argued, images of heroic wartime leaders—most often officers in the Continental Army—dominated the iconography and public memory of the Revolutionary War for most of the period up until 1818. That view had originated with the efforts of George Washington and his fellow Continental Army officers during the war, when they disparaged the efforts of the militia during the conflict in order to...


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