The Writings of Carl Schurz/To E. L. Godkin, December 7th, 1879


Department of the Interior
, Dec. 7, 1879.

Your letter of November 27th has remained unanswered longer than I desired, owing to the rush of current business connected with the opening of the session of Congress.

I have gone over the points made by your correspondent as carefully as possible and find his complaints to be: (1) that pension claims are not disposed of as rapidly as they should be; (2) that many mistakes are made in the adjudication of them, and (3) that the hunting after fraudulent claims causes delay in the disposition of the just ones, while the number of claims discovered to be fraudulent is comparatively small.

The first complaint is in so far well founded, as the Pension Office with its present force is unable to keep up with the current business, especially since, after the passage of the arrears act, the number of original applications has grown to be nearly three times as large as it was before. I have satisfied myself that the present force is doing its work as rapidly as possible, and that, if it consisted entirely of experienced lawyers, which is unattainable, it could scarcely dispose of a larger number of claims. An increase of the force has therefore been asked for. As to the character of the force I have this to say: Original appointments to “clerkships” have been made, since I came into office, after competitive examination, and these examinations have, for a considerable time, been so arranged that persons conversant with the rules of evidence have a decided advantage. Moreover I have introduced the following practice: Every three months the Commissioner of Pensions presents to me the “efficiency record” of all the employés of his Office. We can ascertain with almost mathematical certainty the proportion of work done by each clerk in the Pension Office in point of quantity as well as quality, the number of claims disposed of and the accuracy of the work, as it passes through the hands of the “reviewers.” When the efficiency record is before me, those who have done the most and the best work are promoted, and those who have fallen behind are reduced. This system has proved to be a powerful stimulus, and the result is that almost every one in the Pension Office does his utmost. I do not believe there is an office in any of the Departments where there is so large a proportion of work done by the employés. With an increase of force I hope the Office will be able to grapple with the flood of work which is pouring upon it.

2. As to the mistakes made in the adjudication of pension claims I think I have better opportunities of judging than your correspondent, for the reason that rejected pension claims are carried up to the Department on appeal whenever there appears to be any chance for upsetting the decision of the Pension Office. These appealed cases are carefully examined by competent persons in the “pension division” of the “Secretary's office” and then submitted to me, and I find that the number of cases in which the decision of the pension officials has to be reversed, is very small, smaller indeed than might be expected considering the constant pressure under which the work in the Pension Office has to be done. A larger number of mistakes is probably made in allowing claims which should not be allowed, owing to the circumstance that under the present system pension claims are adjudicated on mere ex-parte testimony. But this your correspondent does not find fault with, as he thinks that it is better to give pensions to ten persons whose claims are fraudulent, than to withhold from one whose claim is just.

3. As to the hunting after fraudulent claims your correspondent is mistaken. The discoveries of fraud have in most cases been accidental as under the present system they necessarily must be. The present system does not give the Pension Office the means to detect fraud unless it betrays itself, which it sometimes does. And for this reason the number of detections has been comparatively small, while the number of fraudulent cases is undoubtedly much larger and will no doubt increase after the passage of the arrears bill which has already proved a tremendous stimulus. The very fact that now, fourteen years after the close of the war, an average of 5760 original invalid claims and 1433 original widows claims come in every month, while the average per month for the twelve months preceding the passage of the arrears act was only 1478 and 519, respectively, would seem to indicate that a great many persons are now trying their chance of obtaining a pension who never thought of it before and that it is high time to look for some system facilitating the detection of fraud. The Pension Office is indeed the distributor of the charities of the Government, but it is, in my opinion, an important part of its duty to see to it that the charitable fund be not robbed by persons who have no just claim upon it.

The paper of your correspondent makes upon me the impression that, in some things at least, he strives more to appear right than to be just. I do not think it quite just, for instance, that after, by implication, publicly charging the Commissioner of Pensions with something like favoritism in the payment of arrears, he should deem it sufficient to withdraw that charge in private. Neither would he, in criticising the practice of withholding record information from the claimant to test the truth of his evidence, have stated, as a great hardship, that “a man who has nearly completed his case and then lost the number of it, should be unable to obtain that number from the Office,”—had he taken the trouble to inform himself instead of crediting unfounded complaint; for the number of a claim is never withheld from the claimant but always furnished him by the Office on demand; neither is the claimant called upon to prove by parole the facts which are of record in his case, unless he be informed that the record itself is unsatisfactory and he must support it by parole evidence.

However, it is not necessary to go into further detail. Your correspondent seems to have an idea of the duties of the Pension Office somewhat different from that entertained by officers who feel themselves responsible for the protection of the public interest. We cannot act upon the principle that in the distribution of public charity it is of no consequence whether the Government be defrauded or not. If we admitted such a principle, the Pension Office would soon be a mass of corruption, especially at a time when such legislation as the arrears act stimulates the greed of every unscrupulous person that has ever served in the Army.

I am very far from justifying the language used by Mr. Bentley in his letter to you, although I understand the feelings of a public officer who does his best to perform his duty and then finds himself assailed from a quarter from which he had expected support.

It is of course useless to pursue this matter further before the public. I can only assure you that here every possible effort is made to perform the duties imposed upon the Department satisfactorily and to render the service as efficient as may be to that end. I wish you could look into this matter personally, but I know how impossible that is.