Physical disability, disabled veterans and the American Revolution
Renton, Amy Jane Victoria
University of Cambridge
Faculty of History
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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Renton, A. J. V. (2013). Physical disability, disabled veterans and the American Revolution (Doctoral thesis). https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.11788
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Using a combination of public institutional records and private personal records, this thesis explores how a newly emerging America constructed its ideas of physical disability in the era of the War for Independence. In the colonies, physical disability never stood alone as an independent category of difference, but was anchored in discourses of poverty and morality. However, the tumultuous events that occurred during the period 177 5 to 1818 forced this developing nation to confront physical disability to an extent that had not previously been required. The result was a conceptual and legislative shift, which caused the understanding of physical disability to be fundamentally redefined and become something identifiable in its own right. To analyse how, and why, this happened, this thesis looks at the public, cultural discourse of disability through this period, and examines the legal developments and the lived experiences that were occurring alongside it. By considering how disability was used in public commentaries to allegorise the split with Britain, it highlights the complicated environment and conceptual tumult which faced disabled Revolutionary War veterans on their return. Analysis of the trajectory of disability pension legislation suggests an infant nation testing the waters with early welfare programmes, often with limited success. However, these early initiatives were the progenitors of the first. national pension program. These developments created a distinct legal construction of disability that was seemingly at odds with the negative representation of disability in the public arena and, through medical and legal classifications, created a more formal platform for the conceptualisation of disability to emerge. To complement the institutional perspective, this thesis explores the lives of 523 disabled Revolutionary War veterans, using information they gave in their applications for a disability pension. This experiential approach expounds the ways in which disability was managed, how it shaped - and was shaped by - pre-existing expectations of gender roles, and how these experiences were often determined by class. Pertinent topics include family life, work life, and the ways in which veterans understood and employed their identities as disabled pensioners. Unlike the post-Civil War period a Revolutionary War disability never became the symbol of patriotism and bravery that the empty sleeve of the Civil War amputee did. Using the experiences of disabled former Revolutionary servicemen and contrasting this with the public discourse and national memory of the war, this thesis presents the reasons why this was the case.
This record's DOI: https://doi.org/10.17863/CAM.11788