In the Spring of 1775, battles with the British at Lexington and Concord marked the start of the Revolutionary War, and the Second Continental Congress soon convened in preparation for independence. Notably, veterans benefits were as much a topic of conversation for the Founders as the creation of the new government itself. Members of the Continental Congress saw fit to create the first committee on veterans benefits even before the Declaration of Independence. Later that summer, one of the first laws of the new nation was the creation of a veterans benefits system.
NATHANAEL GREENE envisioned a federal Veterans Benefits system
Revolutionary War General Nathanael Greene wrote to future War Secretary and President John Adams on multiple occasions urging him to incorporate a veterans benefits system into the new government.
The peculiar situation of American affairs renders it necessary to adopt every measure that will engage people in the service. The danger and hardships that those are subject to who engage in the service, more than those who do not, is obvious to everybody which has the least Acquaintance with service, tis that which makes it so difficult to recruit. The large force that is coming against America will make it necessary to Augment our forces. If I am to form a Judgment of the success of Recruiting from what is past, … to engage people in the service there must be some new motives.
From the Approaching danger recruiting will grow more and more difficult. If the Congress was to fix a certain support upon every Officer and Soldier that got maim’d in the service or upon the families of those that were kild it would have as happy an influence towards engageing people in the service and inspire those engagd with as much courage as any measure that can be fixt upon. I think it is nothing more than common Justice neither. It puts those in and out of Army upon a more equal footing than at present. I have not time to add any thing more. Major Frazier now waiting—for this. The desperate game you have got to play and the uncertainty of War may render every measure that will increase the Force and strength of the American Army worthy consideration. When I have more leisure I will presume so much upon your good nature as to write you upon some other matters. Believe me to be with great respect yours.
Greene, Nathanael. The Adams Papers, Papers of John Adams, vol. 4, Feb–Aug 1776, ed. Robert J. Taylor. (pp. 213–214) Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979. “To John Adams from Nathanael Greene, 26 May 1776.” NARA Founders Online, founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/06-04-02-0092.
1st National Veterans Committee - June 20, 1776
On Thursday, June 20, 1776, the Continental Congress established the first national committee for veterans benefits “to consider what provision ought to be made for such as are wounded or disabled in the land or sea service.”
Resolved, That a committee of five appointed to consider what provision ought to be made for such as are wounded or disabled in the land or sea service, and report a plan for that purpose.”
Library of Congress. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. V. (p. 469) Washington: Govt. Printing Office, 1906, bit.ly/cc-v-469.
1st National Veterans Benefits Law - August 26, 1776
After proper debate, on Monday, August 26, 1776, the Continental Congress created the first national pension system for injured and disabled veterans.
“Resolved, That every commissioned officer, non-commissioned officer, and private soldier, who shall lose a limb in any engagement, or be so disabled in the service of the United States of America as to render him incapable afterwards of getting a livelihood, shall receive, during his life, of the continuance of such disability, the one half monthly pay from and after the time that his pay as an officer or soldier ceases…”
Library of Congress. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Vol. V. (pp. 702-705) Washington: Govt. Printing Office, 1906, bit.ly/cc-v-702.
Death Benefits for Widows - August 24, 1780
In August 1780, the Continental Congress extended pensions to surviving spouses of officers (not enlisted soldiers) killed in the line of duty. The pensions, first granted for seven years, were later granted for life for officers and widows.
That the resolution of the 15 day of May, 1778, granting half-pay for seven years to the officers of the army who should continue in the service to the end of the war, be extended to the widows of those officers who have died, or shall hereinafter die in the service; to commence from the time of such officer’s death, and continue for the term of seven years.
Officers Granted 1/2 Pay Pensions for Life - October 21, 1780
Life for soldiers during the Revolution was extremely difficult, especially during the frigid Winter of 1777-1778 when Washington and his men were encamped in miserable conditions at Valley Forge. For many months, the Framers had debated the idea of providing pensions for officers along with the federal veterans disability system. The Congress first settled on a seven-year pension, but in 1780 agreed to 1/2 pay pensions for life for all officers who continued in the fight until the war was over. Notably, in 1783, when the promised pensions still had not been paid, George Washington was barely able to ward off a full blown mutiny by men who had grown disillusioned with the war effort. At Newburgh, Washington rallied his men, and appealed to their sense of patriotism in fulfilling their service obligations.
Troops “will not be persuaded to sacrifice all views of present interest, and encounter the numerous vicissitudes of War, in the defence of their Country, unless she will be generous enough on her part, to make a decent provision for their future support.”