“I Still Have an Independent Spirit”: UA Historian Researches Disability among Veterans of the Revolutionary War

On the Fourth of July, 1822, Lewis Spencer, an aging veteran of the Revolutionary War, commemorated independence by doing something that he had long hesitated to do: He drafted a petition to the Virginia legislature asking for a pension.

“Your petitioner,” Spencer wrote, “lost his eyes, in defence of his Country; whose happiness he is unable to behold; whose prosperity he cannot participate; whose blessings he cannot share; but whose independence, glory, and transcendent fame, he is left to admire in poverty and utter darkness.”

Ben Irvin, an associate professor in the University of Arizona Department of History, is currently working on a book that will explore the lives of Revolutionary War veterans with disabilities. Tentatively titled “‘I Still Have an Independent Spirit’: Veterans’ Disability after the Revolutionary War,” the book will not only examine the social construction of disability in the founding era of the United States, it will delve into issues of masculinity, class and government bureaucracy.

The title of the book is inspired by Moses Rollins, a Revolutionary War veteran who bound himself into three years of indentured servitude to pay for his medical care and later was able to have his leg amputated because a “good many” of his neighbors “throw’d in” to pay for the operation. When Rollins finally applied for a disability pension in 1812, he explained his previous reluctance: “I have both fought and bled for the Independence of our Country, and I still have an independent spirit.”

Irvin began his research for the book in 2009 when he discovered a large number of online pension files underutilized by historians. At the same time, he forged a friendship with Michael Rembis, a former graduate student who helped create the Disability Studies Initiative at the UA. Rembis, who is currently an associate professor of history at the University of Buffalo and president of the Society for Disability Studies, introduced Irvin to the Social Model of Disability—the idea that disability does not arise from the physical condition but from the way we accommodate it—which would serve as an important framework for Irvin’s research.

Irvin said historians have tended to focus on federal pension records, most of which were created in the 1820s when the government began awarding poverty pensions.

However, Irvin wanted to examine not only soldiers such as Spencer and Rollins who delayed applying for a pension, but also soldiers who were badly impaired and required financial assistance right away. To do that, Irvin needed to delve into the state pension records of the 1770s and 1780s.

With funds from the Magellan Circle—the College of SBS’s donor society—Ben hired two undergraduate students to help him wade through the online records.

As his project advanced, Irvin realized he would need to do field research. Last year, with the help of research fellowships, including the Emilia Galli Struppa Fellowship at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Irvin traveled to Charlottesville, Chicago and Boston to review pension records, receiving a crash course in 18th century field medicine from the Harvard medical library along the way.

In his book, Irvin will argue that the earliest U.S. pension administration shaped veterans’ disability in a number of ways.

A pension applicant had to testify under oath that he could no longer earn a living, which, according to the gender norms of the day, was the most fundamental obligation of manhood.

“By predicating aid on lost breadwinning capacity, Revolutionary pension legislation challenged the veteran’s sense of masculine attainment,” said Irvin. “As a result, many veterans, like Moses Rollins, faced the prospect of a pension with shame.”

Irvin also argues that the way the government determined the pension amount accentuated class distinctions among impaired veterans. Benefits were computed not only by the extent of the injury but also by salary and rank, which was really a reflection of social stature. Irvin points out that by contrast, in 1793, France’s National Convention ensured that enlisted men earned pensions at the same rate as high-ranking officers.

“The U.S. government grafted the individual’s class onto his very limbs and organs,” said Irvin. “For example, Colonel John Greene, who lost the use of his right arm, earned a pension of 100 pounds. Meanwhile, Private John Morris, who lost the use of that same limb, earned a mere 18 pounds.” (Some states paid pensions in pounds, where one pound translated into $3.33 dollars. Veterans were expected to pay for their medical expenses out of their annual pensions.) 

Irvin’s book will also explore the way conflict between state and federal statutes wreaked havoc upon veterans’ pension allocations and impacted how veterans experienced disability.

In 1776, the Continental Congress urged the states to create disability pensions for soldiers injured in the war. But because at that time Congress had no power to tax, it asked the states to pay for and administer the pensions.

Thirteen states meant thirteen different pension systems. States broke down partial disability in different increments and had inconsistent application procedures. For example, in Virginia, veterans had to be examined by a doctor; whereas, in Massachusetts, veterans applied to the Commissioner of Pensions, a political post held by John Lucas, who earned his living as a “master baker.” In Massachusetts, veterans were also granted pensions for diseases that stemmed from battle, such as rheumatism, a benefit that the federal government would restrict.

To promote a uniform entitlement for veterans, the Confederation Congress established a new schedule of monetary awards in 1785, resulting in a drastic redistribution of funds. For example, Private James Davenport, who had a musket ball lodged in his left ankle, formerly received a pension of 24 pounds, but after the reform of 1785, his pension was slashed to six pounds, reducing him “to the mortifying and disgraceful situation of begging.”

“Slowly government centralized and standardized the pension system, but every time the new federal government took a misstep, the veterans felt it,” said Irvin. In another example, in 1792 the federal government created the Invalid Pensions Act, which was then repealed due to a tussle over the separation of legislative and judicial powers. “In the meantime, a bunch of veterans were thrust into limbo.”

Irvin hopes his book will provide historical context for present-day veterans’ healthcare administration as well as illustrate how pension bureaucracies at times obstruct relief.

“This project also dispels romantic myths about the American Revolution,” said Irvin. “By recovering the bodily histories of ordinary young men who enlisted in the Continental Army, it demonstrates that the Revolutionary War was, like all wars, a devastating event.”

Irvin will write “‘I Still Have an Independent Spirit’: Veterans’ Disability after the Revolutionary War,” during the 2015-2016 academic year when he takes residence at Washington College as the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow.

Published Date: 

07/01/2015 - 9:25am