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The Civil War Pension System and the Nineteenth-Century American State

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Bates, Robin 


The Civil War pension system was the most comprehensive social policy in the nineteenth-century United States, and one of the most ambitious in the industrializing world. By the time the Civil War closed in April 1865, the U.S. Army had mustered more than two million men. Nearly four hundred thousand of them perished, and those who survived raised new questions about the state’s obligations to its veterans. During the following half century, the federal government developed an enormous system of military benefits for these men and their families, one that eventually developed into a general disability and old-age pension programme of proportions unprecedented in the nation’s history. Between 1880 and 1910, the federal government devoted more than a quarter of its entire expenditure to this enormous military benefits system; by 1917, the United States had spent more than five billion dollars in the form of pensions to veterans and the survivors of the war dead. Scholars have come to see this massive system of military benefits as a counterpoint to conventional arguments about the underdevelopment of the American welfare state. The United States, Theda Skocpol has argued, was not the welfare state laggard that scholars once assumed; rather, it was a “precocious social spending state.” This thesis advances a new interpretation. The Civil War pension system, it shows, was less impressive in practice than it seems in prospect, less the precursor to an incipient welfare state than the product of an ad hoc and improvisational pattern of late-nineteenth-century politics. By highlighting the ideological and political impediments to the development of the pension system, by illuminating the implementation of pension policy and its deeply embedded administrative pathologies, and by exploring the persistence of pension fraud – both real and imagined – as a major political issue, this thesis shows that the pension system was less the symbol of an ambitious and effective state than a symptom of its halting and uneven development. The failure of major reform proposals, the participation of private interests in public policy, and the recurrent conflict between local and national forms of authority, it shows, contributed to the declining legitimacy of the pension system over the course of the late nineteenth century. The Civil War pension system was, in short, less the symbol of an ambitious and assertive national state than a symptom of its peculiar pattern of political development.





Gerstle, Gary


American Civil War, military pensions, politics, state-building


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
AHRC (1953416)
Arts and Humanities Research Council (1953416)