Primary tabs


Pictures and Illustrations.

John P. Altgeld.


Pensions for Soldiers.

(Published in the "Comrade," Chicago.)


Editor of the "Comrade":

Sir: Your note asking, "What does the government owe its soldiers of the late war and have they any claims that should be settled in dollars and cents? If so, how?" is at hand. As you wish me to give reasons for any opinion I may express, I submit the following as the result of such reflection as I have been able, amid the press of other business, to give the subject.

In considering this question we must regard the government as being the American people, so that the question is: "What do the American people owe the Union soldiers of the late war, and have the soldiers a claim against the people that can or should be settled in dollars and cents?" And it is only the latter half of this question, viz.,


whether there is a claim that should be settled in dollars and cents — about which there can be any controversy or great difference of opinion. All admit that the brave men who imperiled (if they did not all actually sacrifice) their lives to save our institutions are entitled to the affectionate regard and the everlasting gratitude and homage of a free people. But can the people discharge the whole claim merely with gratitude and homage? Or has this claim a dual character, being in part for the debt due to lofty patriotism and heroic devotion — a debt which is above money, and cannot be estimated in dollars — and being in part for actual loss of money and material sacrifices made which can be estimated and liquidated in dollars and cents?

One of the bravest and most patriotic men who fought through the late war, in speaking on this subject, said: "We stand on higher ground. There are debts that cannot be settled across the counter. The most sacred obligations are those that can never be paid, and the only partial compensation possible is a return in kind. Of this nature is the debt which a saved nation owes to its defenders." I have no doubt that these views are held by many of the soldiers, and, so far as it relates to compensation or pay for lofty patriotism, devotion to country, or sturdy discharge of duty, they are clearly right. Money cannot pay for those. And it may be added that the willingness to leave family and friends and rush to the defense of your country when danger threatens, without waiting to see whether there can ever be any compensation; the readiness to imperil and even sacrifice your life for a cause; the unflinching discharge of duty however hard — all come within the list of deeds that are above money. And it is upon these that the safety and perpetuity of a nation depend. Whenever these virtues have to be purchased in advance with money, then the end is near.

To quote again from the soldier referred to: "If future citizens of this republic will not come freely to their country's defense in the hour of need except for such (moneyed) inducements, then efface from your banners the honored colors and emblems and let the dollar of your daddies on a golden ground be their flag to lead them to battle and to deserved defeat. Then will this republic go the way of all republics, and fall, from sheer inability to stand up longer in its own rottenness."

This is strong language, and every syllable of it is true when applied to the purchase of patriotism. But it does not cover the whole case. A patriot may make material sacrifices which can be, should be and are paid for in dollars and cents. If the government takes a man's property, nobody questions for a moment his right to compensation,


Cannot a man's time be placed on the same footing with property? Some rely on property for their support, others rely on their time; if, then, the latter is taken, why should there not be compensation? Suppose the man enters the army and serves through the war without receiving any compensation, would he not be entitled to pay in dollars and cents for his time? And if the government paid him for this, could it be claimed that it was paying him for his patriotism? Clearly not. It would only be settling the money part of the claim. The debt properly chargeable to patriotism would remain unpaid. So if he had been paid half what his time was reasonably worth, there could be no question but in equity he should be paid the other half, and if he were, it would not be paying for patriotism.

Therefore it seems to me that the question is: Has the soldier made any material sacrifices of time, property, or health, for which he has not been compensated, and if he has, does common justice require that he should be compensated?

Before considering this in detail, I will simply notice:

Public Policy. — It is claimed, and with reason, that in a country like ours, wherein no standing army is maintained, and no burden imposed for a permanent military establishment, and where the government has to rely absolutely on the patriotism of its citizens to repel foreign invasions or suppress domestic insurrections, public policy alone would require a very liberal and comprehensive spirit in dealing with the soldier. That if the government were even to be lavish, and go beyond the strict requirements of justice, it would be, from a political standpoint, a good investment, because it would tend to insure a ready response to any call the government may make when in distress hereafter, and would tend to stimulate the men while serving. It would be a sort of premium paid to insure the safety of our homes and our institutions in the future. So that it would be in accord with a wise public policy with the government not only to do simple jusice to the soldier — that is, to pay him what it morally owes him — but to go beyond this, and even do more than it is in strict justice bound to do.


Other Governments. — It is urged by some that our government has already dealt more liberally with its soldiers than any other government on earth, and therefore nothing further should be asked. Now, it is not necessary to inquire whether this is true or not, for it makes no difference what other governments have done. Most of the governments of the world are founded on despotic principles, and treat both the lives and the property of the common people as if they existed


only to serve the pleasure or the ambition of the rulers. And the soldiers are treated as so many fighting cattle, that are left by the roadside or in a poor-house to die when they are no longer of use. But that is not the case here. Our government is said to be of the people, for them, and by them; and all the people are supposed to have an equal interest in maintaining it, and when it is threatened with danger it is the common duty of all to march to its defense. The burden rests on all, and when, therefore, some go and some do not, some make sacrifices and some do not, common justice requires that those that make the sacrifice, and thus save the government, should be in some way recompensed or made whole for what they have done over and above what their neighbors did, for inasmuch as the duty rested equally on all, the burden should be borne equally by all.

To illustrate: It is admitted that when our institutions are threatened it is the duty of all to assist in protecting them; that all should pay taxes in proportion to the property they own, and all should give their time and personal services to the common cause. The man with property having a double interest in preserving the government — i. e., to protect his property and also his person and family — must therefore both pay taxes and give, his time and personal service to the government, while the man without property, being interested only in the protection of himself and family, must give his time and personal service only. Now, if all citizens had an equal amount of property and all entered the service of the government, and after a victorious war all were fortunate enough to return alive and in good health, it is clear none would in common justice be entitled to a pension or extra pay, because all had contributed equally and all had derived an equal benefit from the result. But if in the case just stated one tenth are slain or die from exposure, and one tenth more are maimed or rendered unable to make a living or carry on their business as before, then inequalities arise; the dead and also the maimed have given more than their neighbors to the common cause. The family of the dead have given up their support. Whether that support consisted of brains and muscle or of a farm can make no difference in the scale of justice. It has been given to save the country, and they have, therefore, given more than their neighbors, and justice demands that they be compensated for the excess they have given. Likewise the maimed or disabled. They have been deprived of their ability to carry on business or use their limbs as before, and to this extent have given more than their neighbors, and justice requires that they should be compensated,


The government could in each of the cases given above institute an inquiry as it does when it seeks to take a farm — ascertain the amount of damage the individual has sustained in excess of his neighbors, and pay this in a lump, or it can provide for paying it in installments during the life of the party injured, and call it a pension. But in either case it will be simply making compensation; it will not be giving away anything; it will be simply doing justice — for let it be clearly understood that a pension is not a charity; it is a payment made in consideration of services which the government acknowledges having received.

Let us now go farther. If, instead of every man entering the service, as we have supposed above, only a part go (as is always the case), then if they all return in as good condition as they went, and if while away they were paid wages equal to what they could have earned in their respective callings had they remained at home, and they do not have to commence anew when they come back, then they have contributed no more than their neighbors, and are not entitled to any compensation except perhaps for the exposure and hardships endured. On the other hand if the wages paid them are not equal to what they could have earned in their respective callings had they remained at home — if they had to give up business, and when they returned had to commence anew; in short, if they are in any way worse off after returning than they would have been had they remained, or if they endured inconveniences which their neighbors did not, then they have given just that much in what has money value over and above what their neighbors who did not go have given, and common justice demands that to that extent they should receive compensation; and when they do, it is not payment for their patriotic deeds, but simply compensation for what can and should be adjusted in money.

What are the Facts? — It is true that all men of the North did not go into the army — some did stay at home. Therefore, if those that did go earned less money while away than they would have earned had they remained at home, or endured hardships which they otherwise would not have endured, or if after their return they were in any way worse off than they would have been had they remained at home, then, to say nothing about patriotism in so promptly responding to their country's call, to that extent they have contributed more than their neighbors, and in justice and in good conscience are entitled to compensation.

I think it will have to be admitted in all quarters that those that entered the army (I speak of the privates) were not paid, as a rule, what they could have earned at home; that they endured hardships which they would not have had at home; and that they returned far


worse off than they would have been had they remained at home. I am speaking now only from a financial standpoint, assuming that they all returned healthy and sound.

Thirteen and sixteen dollars per month and finding were the wages paid to the privates in the late war. This was, if anything, less than was paid to common farm-hands at the same time, so that those that could perform only the commonest kind of labor could earn more by staying at home than by serving their country, to say nothing of the privations and hardships which the soldiers had to endure. Even if the wages paid had been equal to that paid for common labor at the time, then, to the extent that the soldier suffered privations and endured hardships, has he contributed more to his country's defense than the man who stayed at home? If this is true of the common laborer who served, it follows that every mechanic or skilled man of any kind who entered the army as a private could have earned from two to four times as much by staying at home, and the difference between what he was actually paid and what he would have earned had he stayed — added to the privations, exposure, and hardships of a soldier's life — constitute what he has contributed of that which can be estimated in money to defend the country over and above what those gave that stayed at home. So the man who gave up a business or the opportunity of making money and served in the army has — if the business or the opportunity was worth more than the wages actually paid him — contributed the difference to save his country. That is, he has contributed that much more, from a money standpoint, than the man who stayed at home.

Taxes paid. — It is no answer to say that the man who stayed at home paid taxes, because the soldier, if he had any property, had to pay taxes just the same. Besides, as heretofore stated, the man with property had a double interest in saving the country — one on account of himself and family, and the other to save the value of his property. In fact, the latter may in some cases have been the greater, because, while the destruction of the government might not affect him personally, it might destroy the value of his property.

Therefore, taxes paid by those not entering the army must be considered as being simply the contributions which property makes to save the government, and thus to save itself. As long as taxes are paid only on property, they are in no sense a substitute for personal service in the army, and their payment cannot in any way discharge the obligation that the man who pays them is under to serve personally in the army the same as every other citizen.

It may be said that it was necessary that some should stay at home


and carry on the industries of the country, and that when doing so they were serving their country just as effectually as if they were in the field. This is only in part true. True if he who stayed at home could make no more at home than in the field; and if the danger and hardship were equal in both cases, then it is clear that the man who served in the field contributed no more to save the country than the man who stayed at home. If, on the other hand, by staying at home he can make more money than by taking the field — if, in fact, he sells his products, whatever they are, to the very government which is in danger at the highest price he can possibly obtain, so that in fact he gives the government nothing directly; and if the danger and the hardship at home are not equal to those in the field, then it is clear that the man in the field contributes more than the man at home, and it is equally clear that whatever the excess may be, common justice requires that he should be compensated for it.

The question is not whether it is necessary that some shall remain at home. The question is, Has one contributed more to save the country than the other? and if yea, then, inasmuch as it is admitted that all should contribute equally, does justice demand that compensation be made to him who contributed the excess — that is, the excess of what can be estimated in money? Patriotism, courage, devotion to duty, prompt response to the call of one's country, and the willingness to take the risk of losing life should be regarded as being above money value, and to be compensated for only by the gratitude of one's country.

Health. — I have thus far assumed that all that returned from the war were as sound physically as they would have been had they stayed at home, and we have found that even if this were so the soldier contributed more than the man who did not go into the army, and that this excess had an actual moneyed value. But it is a well-established fact that comparatively few returned from the army sound men. In most cases where they were apparently well, exposure had sown the seeds of disease which sometimes did not develop for years, but which did finally develop, and not only cause them suffering, but also greatly cripple their ability to do business or make a living, and consequently they have to be regarded very much as if they had actually been maimed on the field. Yet they cannot now furnish sufficient evidence to get a pension under our laws. So that no matter from what standpoint the subject is considered, it soon becomes apparent that the soldier contributed more to save the country than the citizen, and is entitled to compensation. How, then, shall this be paid? In a lump or in installments by way of pensions? Here practical difficulties arise.


To determine the exact amount due each soldier is impracticable; even if it were not, the total would be so large that the treasury could not meet it, so that whatever is paid must be paid in installments in the shape of pensions. But how? On what basis? These are difficult questions. No plan that will do exact justice can be devised. All that is possible is to approximate. Several systems are advocated which I will consider.

Service Pensions. — By this term I understand to be meant a pension for service rendered, as distinguished from simple enlistment, the idea being to pay for services performed or sacrifices made, and to pay nothing where no service was rendered or no sacrifice made.

Of course there will be difficulty in drawing the line, but this has nothing to do with the principle involved. Bear in mind that a pension is not a charity nor a gift; it is simply a payment in discharge of a debt which, instead of being paid in a lump, is paid in installments. And the principle involved here is simply one of making compensation.

We have seen that in common justice the soldier is entitled to compensation for what he contributed over and above what his neighbor contributed. Now, how shall this be ascertained and paid? If it had been practicable to do so, and if it had been insisted on, justice might have required the government to institute a separate inquiry in each case, and if anything was found to be equitably due, to pay it. But owing to the great number this was not practicable. Whatever the cause, it has not been insisted on. Now, one way of adjusting a claim is to confer with the claimant, and if possible, arrive at an agreement. The claimants in this case are the men who served in the war, and if they are willing to accept compensation in installments instead of in a lump, and the government recognizes the justice of their claims, that is certainly the easiest way of arranging it. But a pension made uniform for a certain length of service would not do justice, because it would hardly ever be the case that any two men had made precisely equal sacrifices in order to serve in the army. To meet this objection the advocates of a service pension propose a graduated scale, giving to the man who served only three months a small sum, to the man who served a year a larger amount, and to the man who served three years or more a still larger sum — payment to begin when the soldier reaches the age of say fifty-five years. This plan, it is claimed, would lighten the burden on the treasury, as only about one fourth of the living soldiers would begin to draw pensions at once, and then these would begin to die off as new ones are added. This plan recognizes the impossibility of devising any way to do exact justice; it does not even try to approximate it but seems primarily to aim at making


provisions for the old age of the soldier, and in this view strikes me favorably. It is free from the objection urged against indigent pensions, for to obtain the latter the soldier must almost proclaim himself a pauper, and, as the brave are usually sensitive, they should not be subjected to this humiliation. Upon the whole, this plan, as thus limited, seems reasonable and moderate, and if the soldiers are satisfied therewith, the government should be. The government has at different times placed all the survivors of former wars on the pension list; it is true it usually waited until they were nearly all dead. But still it recognized the principle that the government should care for the old soldiers, and, if the principle is right, then I say the government should not wait until most are dead, but should extend its hand the moment they arrive at a specified age.

Objections. — It is objected in some quarters that to allow a service pension would make enormous demands on the treasury, and to that extent would increase the burdens of the people. But this has nothing to do with the question. If these men have just claims against the government, and that government is able to pay them, then justice demands that they be paid, whether it take a large or a small sum out of the treasury.

Who are the Objectors? — It is a curious fact that this objection is urged most strongly by men many of whom have made fortunes out of the government. It is urged by what are commonly called "Wall Street influences" — by men who, when the government was in the greatest distress, would not enter the service themselves, or render patriotic assistance, but bought the government bonds at sixty cents on the dollar and then were paid interest on the full face of the bonds, and at their maturity insisted on having the face of the bonds paid in gold, which at that time was worth a premium, so that they were paid nearly two dollars (besides interest) for every dollar they advanced the government. They gave their country very much the same kind of assistance that a pawnbroker gives a poor man that has met with an accident — cautiously makes some advances, takes the best security he can get, and then tries to get two dollars for every one he advanced.

One might suppose that after having reaped their harvest they would be satisfied. But not so. For now, when it is proposed that the government shall do simple justice to those that left their business and their homes, and risked their lives to save the government, and prevent even the very bonds of which we have spoken from becoming worthless, these Wall Street influences are exerted against the ex-soldiers.

There are people who imagine that brains and muscle and human life should at least be placed on as high a plane as money; that if the


man who loaned the government money to carry on the war is paid nearly two dollars for every dollar loaned, then the man who gives up his business and his home, and risks his life and endures the hardships of war, should be recompensed in the same liberal manner for the sacrifices he has made.

But the ex-soldiers do not go this far in their demands. They do not ask for double compensation; they only ask that the government which was saved through their efforts and which is now great and powerful, shall make them whole — simply recompense them for the sacrifice they have made — and will feel grateful if they are but made whole.

Frauds. — No doubt it is true that great frauds have been perpetrated on the pension department, and that many are getting pensions that should not; but will anybody claim that therefore those that in justice are entitled to a pension should be kept out of it?

Private Pensions. — I must admit that I favor general rather than special or private pensions; I believe in putting all belonging to the same class on an equal footing. Private pensions are invidious and undemocratic. They are only for a fortunate or a favored few. Only those that have influence with some Congressman or "have a friend at court" can hope to get a private pension, and these are not always the most worthy. A very large number of special or private pension acts has been passed at every session of Congress for a great many years on the ground that the general laws were so framed and construed that many worthy and invalid soldiers who deserved a pension could not prove their claims under them so as to have a pension allowed. Now this should be otherwise. The pension laws should be so framed, construed, and executed that every soldier who has any just claim to a pension can readily get it under a general law, and not be required to secure a special act of Congress before he can get what he is justly entitled to.

Gen. Oliver Edwards, of Warsaw, Ill., hit the mark when he said:

"I believe private pension bills, as a rule, are an injustice to most of us, on the ground that very few old soldiers have sufficient political influence to secure a private pension."

Indigent Soldier's Pension. — Careful inquiry has recently brought out the fact that there are at present upward of ten thousand ex-Union soldiers in the various alms or poor-houses of the United States; at times their number has reached nearly twenty thousand. How many soldiers have already died there and been buried in the potter's field is not known, but as the average death-rate in alms-houses is from ten to fifteen per cent. a year, it is safe to say that every year for a number


of years over one thousand of the old Union soldiers have died amid the squalor of the poor-house, away from friend and family, and been buried in the field set apart for strangers. But the ten thousand represent but a small portion of the indigents, because only a small portion of the poor of any class actually enter the alms-house. Usually friends intervene and support them. So that it is, perhaps, within bounds to say that for every soldier in the poor-house there are at least five who are being supported as objects of charity by friends. If this is correct, then we have the humiliating spectacle of the most powerful, most wealthy, and most enlightened government on earth, after a victorious war, in which its very existence was at stake, allowing upward of fifty thousand of the men who rescued it from destruction to be supported by private charity; upward of ten thousand, besides many thousands soldiers' orphans, to be confined in the public poor-houses of the land, and over one thousand to be buried every year as paupers. There may be people who can view this spectacle with composure, but there are those who feel that it is a shame and a disgrace.

It matters not whether they are in the poor-house because the pension actually paid is so small that it will not half support them, which is the case with some, or whether they have not been able, under existing laws, to secure any pension, which is true of most of them. In either case the great patriotic masses of the American people do not want to see the soldiers who fought to save the Union, thus, as it were, left by the roadside to die.

We have seen that those who actually served in the army have a just claim against the government which has not yet been paid. Then there are thousands of men who left the army apparently well, but in whose systems exposure had planted the seeds of disease, which afterward slowly developed, so that they could not make a living, and yet, under the strict proof required by our existing laws, which practically require the applicant to prove his claim beyond a doubt, they are unable to satisfy the pension office, and so get nothing. In fact, so eager do some pension officials seem to be to defeat a pension when they can, that in cases where the proof satisfied the law and showed the applicant to be entitled to a pension, they have written to some postmaster in the locality where the applicant resided, to see if they could not get some information that would defeat the pension.

We can form some idea of the large number of men who in justice are entitled to pensions, and who have been unable to secure one, by considering the number of private pension bills annually passed by Congress, bearing in mind that there is not one private soldier in a


hundred who has sufficient influence to get Congress to pass a special bill in his favor. And yet, during the first two years of Cleveland's administration, not only did Congress pass, but President Cleveland actually approved, eight hundred and sixty-three bills. In addition to these there were a number passed by Congress which were vetoed by the President.

That these eight hundred and sixty-three bills were founded on justice is shown by the fact that they received the approval of the President, who is not charged with being partial to private bills.

If we consider how much time and effort it requires to get any measure passed by Congress — how very few of the bills introduced ever are passed and that not one private soldier in a hundred has sufficient influence to enable him to get Congress to pass any measure, and then reflect that during two years Congress actually passed and the President approved eight hundred and sixty-three private pension bills, we can see that there are many thousands of poor soldiers who in justice are entitled to a pension, but are unable to get it, and who, if they have no other means of support, must depend on private charity or else make their bed in the poor-house.

But if this were not so — if the men who served in the army had no just claim to compensation, and the indigent soldier of whom we have been speaking had no just claim to a pension — would not an enlightened and a wise public policy require that the government see to it that those that imperiled their lives in order to save it from destruction should not, in their old age, have to eat the bread of charity, draw their last breath in an alms-house, or be buried in a pauper's graveyard?

On March 18, 1818, just thirty-five years after the close of the Revolutionary War, and only four years after the close of a second exhaustive war with Great Britain, at a time when the country was poor and had not yet fully recovered from the effects of the last war, Congress passed a law granting pensions to all that had served in the army of the Revolution "for a period of nine months or longer at any period of the war, and who, by reason of reduced circumstances, shall stand in need of assistance from their country for support."

Here the principle that the government should assist those that imperiled their lives for its preservation, and that are in need of assistance for support, is distinctly recognized and acted on. Can any good reason be given why the powerful government of 1887 should pursue a less liberal policy toward the soldiers than the exhausted government of 1818?

Invalid and Disabled. — I have thus far noticed only those that do


not receive any pension, and will add a few words in regard to those to whom pensions have been granted. According to the reports of the pension office, the whole number of people in the United States in 1886 drawing pensions was 265,855; since that time the number has been slightly increased.

The following table shows the sums paid per month for the different kinds of injury:

Total Deafness $13 00
Inability to perform manual labor $30 00
Loss of a hand or foot $30 00
Total disability in one hand and one foot $30 00
Loss of one hand and one foot $36 00
Amputation at or above elbow or knee $40 00
Amputation at hip or shoulder joint $45 00
Loss of both hands $72 00
Loss of both feet $72 00
Loss of both eyes $72 00
Need of regular aid and attendance $72 00
Widow and dependent relatives $12 00
Child $2 00
Anchylosis of elbow or knee-joint $10 00
Anchylosis of ankle or wrist $8 00
Loss of the sight of one eye $8 00
Total deafness of one ear $2 00
Slight deafness in both ears $4 00
Severe deafness in both ears $8 00
Loss of hand except thumb $17 00
Loss of thumb $8 00
Loss of index finger $4 00
Loss of any other finger, without complication $2 00
Loss of all the toes of one foot $10 00
Etc., the table being long.  

The following table shows the number drawing the different sums:

29,247 $1 00 to $2 00 per month.
66,421 2 00 to 4 00 month.
39,578 4 00 to 6 00 month.
51,722 6 00 to 8 00 month.
12,992 8 00 to 10 00 month.
19,383 10 00 to 12 00 month.
4,804 12 00 to 14 00 month.
8,878 14 00 to 16 00 month.
3,557 16 00 to 18 00 month.
1,626 18 00 to 20 00 month.
15,963 20 00 to 24 00 month.
9,007 24 00 to 30 00 month.
647 30 00 to 40 00 month.
1,046 40 00 to 50 00 month.
983 59 00 to 75 00 month.
1   100 00 month.


By glancing at these tables it will be seen that the amount paid each pensioner is very small. Over one third of all get from one to four dollars per month. Comparatively few get as high as twelve dollars per month.

Any one can see that the pensions paid to disabled soldiers are in most cases not only inadequate to their support, but inadequate to make compensation for the sacrifice they made over and above that made by their neighbors to save the government. Take the man who through exposure has become totally deaf. Will anybody claim that to pay him thirteen dollars per month will be a just compensation?

Take the man who, when he entered the service, was robust. He was then able not only to make a living and support a family, but get something ahead; now he is totally unable to perform manual labor. Can it be claimed that thirty dollars a month is a just compensation to him? So of many of the other sums, without reviewing them in detail. They are inadequate to make compensation, and inadequate in many cases to support the pensioner or his children, so that it is no wonder our poor-houses are filling up with the old soldiers and their children. As already pointed out, it makes no difference what other governments do. We must proceed on a different principle. With us all should contribute equally to the protection and support of our institutions, and when some have to give more than others they are justly entitled to compensation for the excess.


Chicago, January 3, 1888.