Popular Science Monthly/Volume 35/October 1889/Pensions for All




OCTOBER, 1889.


By General M. M. TRUMBULL.

IN the wondrous literature of the time there is hardly anything so glaring and sensational as the report of the Commissioner of Pensions explaining the work of his department for the year ending June 30, 1888. In that report he says: "The total amount expended for all purposes by the Bureau of Pensions was $82,038,386.59. The total expenditures of the Government for the fiscal year 1888 were $267,924,801.13. Thus it will be seen that the amount expended for and on account of pensions was nearly thirty-one per cent of the entire outlay of the Government."

In round numbers, one third of the public payments goes for pensions, and it is gravely proposed that the pensioners have the other two thirds also. A few days ago the Governor of Illinois, speaking to the Illinois department of the Grand Army, said, "If the Government paid $1,000,000 daily for pensions, the nation as a nation would be just as rich at the end of the year as it was before, as the money would still be in the hands of our own people."

To take a million dollars a day from industry and bestow it upon idleness is a patriotic form of dragoonade much recommended by politicians like the Governor of Illinois. The "nation as a nation" is not injured by it; the money is still in the hands of our own people. It is merely taken out of the hands that earned it and put into other hands to spend it.

In Whittier's delightful poetry we are cheered by the information that

"... Barbara Frietchie's work is o'er,
And the rebel rides on his raids no more,"

True, the rebel raiders have dismounted, but the "boys in blue" have sprung into the vacant saddles and the raids go on. The point of attack is the national treasury. The cry is, "On to Washington!" The new foray is not the sudden dash of a scouting party; it is literally the charge of an army. The brazen throats of the bugles and the buglers ring out the inspiring slogan, "Pensions for all!"

Is there no moral resistance in the people? Must the guardians of the public money throw up their hands, while the foragers carry off the national cash-box? Or must they buy off the raiders as once upon a time the Romans bribed the Gauls?

A comprehensive pension system corrodes the heart of government and beguiles a people into servitude. A caste composed of pensioners is always the defender of existing wrongs. It believes that all reforms are assaults upon its own privileges and that public honesty is dangerous. It can always be depended on to support the pensioning power. The history of England shows how worthless ministries have retained office for years by a judicious distribution of pensions. National alms-giving weakens public spirit as it conquers private virtue.

In the United States we have converted civil offices into gifts called patronage, and pensions will share the same fate. Where public offices are legal tender in payment for party services, pensions will become so too. To a dangerous extent they are used as political currency now. By a skillful use of pensions the party in power can bribe one portion of the people with the money of the other.

With the warnings of all history before us, we submit to the corruption of our politics by a pension system heavier than was ever laid upon any other people since governments began. No monarchy, no hierarchy, no oligarchy ever had the daring to put so many idlers under public pay as we have placed there by our pension laws. Some of us think that consequences do not follow causes in republics as in the "effete monarchies," and that we can dignify our people by an alms-tribute that would debase the people of those benighted lands across the sea. With much vehemence we exclaim: "Pensions are not a king's prerogative here; they are the free gifts of a free people. Pensions can not corrupt us. The Asiatic cholera is harmless here, because it is not an American disease."

It has never been suspected that the warriors who subdued the great rebellion, who marched and counter-marched over half a continent and fought a thousand battles, were a puny, sickly race of men. Yet this is the inference we must draw from the official testimony of the Commissioner of Pensions. In his report for 1888 he says, "It thus appears that in the aggregate 1,166,926 pension claims have been filed since 1861, and in the same period 737,200 claims have been allowed."

This includes, of course, the claims of widows and dependent relatives. Although many have been dropped from the rolls by reason of death and other causes, the actual number of old soldiers on the pension-list is 323,020, while there are thousands of claims on file not yet adjusted by the Pension Bureau.

It is pretended that, although the soldiers were sound and hearty when they went into the army, they were enfeebled by hardship and disease when they came out of it. Some of them were, but not many in proportion to the whole number in the ranks. The great parade at Washington in 1865 is a sufficient refutation of that claim. The athletic and boisterous armies which marched in review before the President of the United States at the close of the war were not composed of sickly and vitiated men. They were fairly rollicking with health, they were full of "lusty life." Yet we are told they carried millions of mortal microbes in their knapsacks and all manner of diseases latent in their blood—diseases which needed only pension laws to develop them into activity.

Colossal as are the figures presented by the Commissioner of Pensions, they are to be multiplied six times when Congress finally capitulates to the Grand Army. Even in their present rudimentary form they make the English pension-list cheap and tawdry by comparison. Last year the English pension-roll contained the names of 156,492 persons altogether, who drew from the treasury £7,815,575, of which amount the army pensioners (97,004) drew £3,789,282, and the navy pensioners (38,366) drew £2,040,659. The Financial Reform Association of England, commenting on this exhibit, says: "John Bull will do well to notice that in these last five years of bad trade he has had to pay an army list of over 100,000 pensioners (military, naval, and civil) for doing nothing; and that their drawings, amounting to nearly eight millions, swallowed up the whole of the income-tax laid on the national profits for last year."

The complaint is valuable as a caution to "Brother Jonathan." He has had to pay three or four army corps, each as large as the one criticised by the Financial Reform Association of England, and it is proposed that they shall be recruited to their full capacity by adding to their numbers twice six hundred thousand more.

The pension-roll of England is very much larger than it was a hundred years ago when John Philpot Curran poured upon it the following sarcasm: "This polyglot of wealth, this museum of curiosities, the pension-list, embraces every link in the human chain from the exalted excellence of a Hawke or a Rodney to the debased situation of the lady who humbleth herself that she may be exalted; but the lesson it inculcates forms its greatest perfection. It teaches that sloth and vice may eat the bread which virtue and honesty may starve for after they have earned it; it teaches the idle and the dissolute to look up for that support which they are too proud to stoop and earn; it directs the minds of men to an entire reliance on the ruling powers of the state."

This condemnation will apply in general terms to every pension system. It is impossible to limit pensions to rewards for sacrifice and service. Favoritism and fraud will crowd the pension ranks with pretenders. Every crippled soldier who has really been disabled by battle-wounds must share his earned reward with men who never did a dollar's worth of service. He must drag along with him to the pension-office a dozen "comrades" who never saw a battle and who never received the slightest injury to body, health, or limb.

"Veteran diseases" are those miraculous ailments which rage unsuspected in the bodies of old soldiers until seductive pension laws bring them to the notice of the sufferers. The Arrears of Pensions Bill is responsible for over a hundred thousand veteran diseases. This law was in existence about two years, and expired by limitation July 1, 1880. In 1878, the year before the law went into operation, the pension applications numbered 18,812. In 1879, under the stimulus of the act, they rose to 36,835. In 1880 they reached the shameful dimensions of 110,673. In 1881, the law having expired, the number of applications fell to 18,455. The Arrears of Pensions law invited the Grand Army to loot the treasury, and 110,673 veterans accepted the invitation. The number of applications filed the year before the law and the year after it, prove that the 110,673 extra diseases were made not by the war, but by the Arrears of Pensions Bill. The bribe offered by Congress put a hundred and ten thousand additional names on the sick report for 1879 and 1880.

The crippled and wounded soldiers, whose battle-scars were vouchers to their honesty and sacrifice, did not receive any benefit from the Arrears of Pensions law. They were already on the pension-rolls. All the booty was divided among the men who suddenly discovered that they were suffering from diseases of which they had been ignorant for fifteen years. The moral enormity of this proceeding is revealed in the fact that every one of those claims was attested by the solemn oath of the claimant.

The law of compensation pervades all things, and it applies here. If pension laws are potent in the making of diseases, pensions themselves have the opposite effect—they cure them. There is nothing that promotes longevity like a pension. It is now seventy-seven years since the War of 1812 began and seventy-four years since it ended. Yet there are nearly a thousand men on the pension-rolls who claim that they were soldiers in that war.

There is a deliglitful contrast between the rugged and healthy-state of the old veteran after his pension has been allowed and his decrepit condition before the allowance. I know a man who was simply a harbor of refuge for diseases until he obtained his pension, and then they disappeared. Having drawn his "arrears," he prudently took out a life-insurance policy. The affidavit on which he obtained his insurance curiously contradicted the affidavit on which he got his pension, proving that the pension had restored him to health and made him a "good risk" for the insurance company. The department was greatly shocked on learning the facts, and revoked the pension; but, on discovering that the delinquent was a good caucus warrior and a hustler at the polls, the department became shocked at its own imprudence and restored him to the "nation's roll of honor."

It is not irony or sarcasm to say that the insurance companies can afford to give lower rates to old pensioners than to other people, because the pensioners' chances of long life are greater than the chances of other men. The commissioner's figures prove this. He reports that the number of the pensioners of 1861 to 1865 who died in 1888 was only two per cent of the three hundred thousand pensioners on the rolls, most of whom must be between forty-five and sixty-five years of age, and all of whom are legally and officially suffering from wounds and diseases contracted in the army. Three hundred thousand healthy citizens of the like age will show a larger mortality than those diseased pensioners can show. This proves that a large proportion of those "veteran diseases" are fictitious.

Still more miraculous is the power of pension laws to bring dead men back to life. Year after year the "Mexican War Pension Bill" was rejected by Congress. At last the claim agents proved by the tables of mortality that the Mexican War soldiers were nearly all dead. That war, they said, was an insignificant affair; our army in Mexico was small, and the surviving members of it could not be numerous after the lapse of forty years. Besides, it was invidious to be generous to the soldiers of the late war and niggardly to the soldiers of Mexico. This plea carried the bill through. It was passed on the 29th of January, 1887, and before the 1st of March, 1889, 21,296 surviving soldiers of Mexico, and 7,742 widows, had filed their claims for pensions under the law. On the very face of the returns it is evident that most of those claims are without any of that merit or grace whereby pensions are justified, namely, service in battle, or at least on the genuine theatre of war during the time of active hostilities.

How happens it that so many Mexican War veterans spring up out of the ground, like Roderick Dhu's freebooters, at the clarion call "to pensions"? Not one tenth of those claimants ever saw a battle. Here is the explanation of the miracle. Taylor's last fight was at Buena Vista, where he had less than five thousand men. Many of these had also fought at Palo Alto, Resaca de la Palma, and Monterey. It is liberal to say that all the battle-soldiers of Taylor did not exceed ten thousand. Scott's last fight was at the city of Mexico, where he had about eleven thousand men. Many of these were the same soldiers who had fought at Cerro Gordo, Contreras, Churubusco, Chapultepec, and Molino del Rey. Scott's real battle-soldiers could all be included within a total of twenty thousand men. Allowing for losses of all kinds, it is not likely that more than twenty thousand battle-soldiers of the American army in Mexico were alive at the close of the war in 1848. It is not likely that two thousand of them are living now. Every one of these is compelled to lead nine comrades under the flag of booty to the gory field of pensions. Where does he get the nine? He gets them from the army of redundance, thus:

Although the fighting ended in September, 1847, when Scott captured the city of Mexico, peace was not declared until June, 1848. This nine months' interval was passed in "negotiations." This valuable time was wisely employed by our Government in re-enforcing the American armies in Mexico, so that our invincible numbers might act as a moral pressure upon the Mexicans, convincing them how hopeless was their cause. This policy was successful. The Mexican Government, deeming further resistance useless, ratified the Treaty of Querétaro.

From September, 1847, until June, 1848, new regiments, companies, and detachments were poured into Mexico to re-enforce the divisions already there, so that only a small fraction of the army that marched home did any fighting in the Mexican War. Shiploads of soldiers arrived at Vera Cruz in June, before the ratification of the treaty of peace was known at Washington. They were ordered back without being permitted to disembark, because, peace having been declared while they were on the way, there was no necessity that they should land. It is this overflow army that now swoops down upon the Capitol, augmented by the home troops, who did garrison duty at the various posts in the United States during the war, and now march into the treasury by file left, under the pretense that they also are soldiers of Mexico. They can as truthfully claim to be soldiers of Austerlitz.[1]

Pensions pauperize the character and abase the souls of men, especially those men who have no scars to show. They poison honest pride and make nobility itself ignoble. They paralyze conscience and weaken self-respect. To obtain and retain pensions men will scruple not at perjury. Men of the highest rank will stoop to mendicancy for a pension they do not need. Pope asks:

"What can ennoble sots or slaves or cowards?
Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards."

And yet a pension can un-noble the chief of all the Howards, and reduce him to ignominious pauperism. The Duke of Norfolk, with an income of two millions of dollars a year, is on the pension-list of England for sixty pounds a year. This pension was granted to his ancestor by the gentle Richard III. Nobody knows why. It may have been for smothering the princes in the Tower. It could not have been for anything very good, because Richard was not in the habit of rewarding virtue; yet for more than four hundred years the Dukes of Norfolk, chiefs of all the Howards, have asked for and received this degrading outdoor relief. We, too, can fall to the same base level by the same process of gravitation, as the following testimony shows:

When the Mexican War Pensions Bill passed, the "honor" of being the first man to claim his dole and get it was given to a prominent and wealthy citizen of Kentucky, who did not need the alms any more than the Duke of Norfolk needed the charity of sixty pounds a year. Yet he took it, and was applauded for his promptness by the press as if he had done a patriotic deed. Such demoralizing power has a pension.

It is true that we have no hereditary pensions yet extending beyond the third and fourth generation, but we have made a fair beginning, and may hope to enjoy that high-caste luxury in gorgeous blossom after it shall be withered and dead in England. The "royal prerogative" is now exercised by Congress, with a profuse liberality exceeding that of kings. Our senators and representatives are creating a pensioned aristocracy out of the consanguineous relics of naval and military officers, official dignitaries, and successful politicians, many of whom had no claim to recognition except that their public lives were laboriously spent in the private service of themselves.

The "retired system" is a high-toned pension scheme, available only to those who have taken the superior degrees in the order. This is borrowed from the "half-pay" and "retiring" system of England, where it had a logical and consistent reason for existence, under the social law which decreed that no man should earn an honest living by his own exertions after he had once held the "king's commission." No such law prevails in this country, and the practice founded on it is an exotic ill adapted to the climate of a republic. We have now on the "retired list" of the army one general, four major-generals, twenty-six brigadier-generals, eighty-five colonels, and three hundred and fifty-nine officers of lower grade. The navy can make a like showing, and the civil service is rapidly growing to the same proportions. Many of those "retired" officers have been placed on the list by the arbitrary favoritism of Congress, and some of them never held the rank in the army which they hold on the retired list. In fact, one of the chief abuses of political power is the reckless and irresponsible usurpation by which members of Congress confederate and combine to place their friends on the retired list, and their constituents on the pension-roll.

One of the amiabilities of the practice is its freedom from partisan bigotry. It is notorious that on a recent occasion the widow of an eminent Republican politician was rewarded with a pension of two thousand dollars a year, on condition that the widow of an eminent Democratic politician should be included in the bill and rewarded with a pension of the same amount. This having been done, the Republicans voted for the Democratic pension and the Democrats for the Republican pension. In this way the benevolence was lifted up out of the impure air of partisan politics into the ethereal atmosphere of good feeling and high life.

In one of Irwin Russell's negro hymns, the jingle sounds like this:

"Close up—saints in de center;
Fall in—sinnahs on de flanks;
An' all 'll get a pension an' a honorable mention
What stand up stiddy in de ranks."

We extend the principle far beyond those boundaries and give pensions to claimants, whether they stood up steady in the ranks or not. If the pension list could be analyzed it would be found that, after taking out the wounded men, fifty per cent of the others did not stand up steady in the ranks nor do any valuable service. It would be found that their diseases are pension pretexts only, and, where they really exist, that they were not contracted in the army.

In addition to pensions for all, we have supplemented claims for "equalization of bounties," and schemes of that kind. A Congressman from Iowa introduced a bill to give the soldiers the difference between the value of the greenbacks in which they were paid and gold at the time of payment. The statesman who introduced this bill is not at all troubled about where the money is to come from to effect its purpose. He is a descendant of Marryat's old sea-captain, who bequeathed princely sums to his friends, together with gold snuff-boxes and diamond-hilted swords which had been presented to him by various emperors and kings. As he did not own a dollar in the world, and the swords and snuff-boxes had no existence, the good-natured impostor showed his liberality without subjecting his will to the dangers of a contest. The sum of money necessary to pay that difference would be the measure of a conquest, the ransom of an empire. It would far exceed the fine imposed by Germany on France in 1871.

It is time that the soldiers themselves repudiate the demagogues and vindicate their own patriotism. The glory of the Union army is tarnished, by the mercenary clamor for pensions. If the soldier is to be a chronic menace to industry, he will forfeit his claim to honor, and cancel the obligation due him for service in the war. As it stands now, every Union soldier is "a suspect" in the eyes of his countrymen. He is regarded as a pension-grabber, and as a patriot who desires to commute his military glory for a stipulated sum in cash. The suspicion is unjust. There are thousands of Union soldiers who, having served the country in war, refuse to forage on it now.

It may be said. Why do they not protest against the pension scheme? Why do they remain silent while the forays are being organized? The answer is easy. In the first place it is not a pleasant thing for any old soldier to criticise the plans and purposes of his comrades. It is an unthankful duty, even if it is a duty at all. It can only make him unpopular among those whose approbation he would like to have. Secondly, he thinks that a general pension law is the only plan by which the worthy soldiers can be placed on a level of reward with the unworthy claimants who never did any good service, but who have no delicacy and no scruples about getting on the pension-rolls. He says: "There are many brave, needy, and deserving soldiers who will never make application for a pension, therefore let the Government offer it." And, thirdly, whatever his own opinions may be as to the morality or policy of pensions, he does not care to be officious in opposition to the general sentiment on that subject, nor does he wish to stand as an obstacle in the pension path of others.

During the latter part of the war there may have been some Union soldiers who were tempted into the army by large bounties, but they were a very small proportion of the whole. Excepting these, it may be truly said that the men who saved the Union neither knew nor cared when they enlisted what were the rates of pay, or the measure of allowances for service. They were moved by patriotism and not by promises of pay. The charge that they were a "mercenary soldiery" was false in the days of Abraham Lincoln, although it was freely made by the envious and disloyal. Let it not become true now. Let not the "pension temptation" change the character or diminish the fame of the Grand Army.

  1. The benefits of the act are limited to men, over sixty-two years of age, so that the soldiers of Mexico who were under twenty-one at the close of the war are yet to hear from.