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MVB Senate speech on Revolutionary War veterans, 28 January 1828

Mr. VAN BUREN said he approached the discussion of the bill under consideration with a degree of solicitude he had seldom experienced. It arose from a deep consciousness of the importance and delicacy of the subject, and the difficulties which would attend a satisfactory determination. He freely confessed, that he did not remember a legislative question in which his feelings had been more deeply engaged. These feelings, sometimes too sanguine, and always ardent, might now deceive him; but he could not suppress the conviction, that, upon the doubtful issue of the present question, the character of our country was, in no inconsiderable degree, suspended. It would, indeed, have afforded him the highest gratification, could he anticipate with confidence a favorable result. But when he beheld the formidable concentration of talent and numbers arrayed against the petitioners and their advocates, he was but too conscious of the difficulties against which they had to contend. Undeterred, however, by these circumstances, he would proceed to discharge the duty which seemed to be required by his connexion with the committee by whom the bill had been reported.

His brethren of the committee, said. Mr. V. B., had pronounced a merited eulogium upon the character and services of the petitioners. Considerations which arose naturally from the subject, but upon which, although far from being exhausted, he would not attempt to dwell. Indeed, he was greatly deceived, if, on this point, there was any diversity of opinion. Whatever expressions might escape from gentlemen in the warmth of debate, he was sure that the transcendent merits of the petitioners, after having received the attestation of impartial history, were not now to be the subject of examination or of doubt. Sir, if, in the mysterious dispensations of an all-wise and over-ruling Providence, we, too, are doomed to experience the common calamities of nations, it may become our duty to receive these dispensations with meekness, and bear them with fortitude. But if there be a stain from which he would be most desirous of rescuing the American name, it would be the stain of ingratitude to the surviving officers of the Revolution. If there be a calamity which, more than any other, he would pray to have averted, it would be the calamity of witnessing, in an American Senate, a cold insensibility to the services of those whose devotion to their country in peace, and whose constancy in war, had extorted the applause of an admiring world.

If, sir, gallantry in the field, and devotion to country, ever deserved the meed of grateful remembrance, the encomiums bestowed by my colleagues upon the Revolutionary officers will find their approval in every patriot bosom. But their merits, great as they were, appear to be enhanced by the cause in which they were engaged. Revolutions in Government had been witnessed before, and they have been witnessed since. But if we consider the principles involved, the means employed, and the results produced, may I not be indulged in expressing the conviction that they dwindle into insignificance with this? The Revolution in which they embarked, was not only the most important, in civil government, that oppression has produced or patriotism accomplished, but must, in the nature of things, for ever remain so. The materials for another equally important, do not, I fear, exist; and, perhaps, the progressive character of man precludes a well-grounded hope that they will ever again arise. Why, sir, said he, do I allude to these high considerations? Not, I am sure, for the purpose of display; and as little with a view to indulge in self adulation. It is because the unparalleled blessings, which, as a people, we enjoy; the great and successful example that has been given to the world; and the perpetual influence which that example must exert on its future destinies—awaken in every mind the most intense anxiety, lest the closing scenes of that mighty conflict should be unworthy of its own great character—and that the page of history which embalms the virtues and heroic deeds of our fathers, may not at the same time record the too early degeneracy of their sons. The petitioners at your bar destined to be our witnesses with prosperity. It is in their persons that an opportunity is afforded, either to repel, or in some degree, confirm the imputation cast upon Republics by the enemies of freedom, that ingratitude is their inherent and inextinguishable vice: and it was earnestly to be hoped that our decision might be such as would be favorable to them, to ourselves, and to the cause of liberty.

But, sir, said Mr. V. B., instead of pursuing these general remarks, allow me to invite your attention to the question immediately under consideration. In doing so, my first attempt will be to separate that which is not a subject of disputation from that which is: for in this, as in other cases, time may be consumed, and arguments fruitlessly employed, in supporting positions which have never been questioned, or enforcing opinions in which all are agreed.

First, then, it will be admitted, on all sides, that the promise made by Congress of the Confederation of half pay for life to the Revolutionary officers serving to the end of the war, was made by competent authority: that the condition upon which the promise was founded has been fully performed: that the obligation thereby created rests upon the present Government in its original force: and that if it has not been fully, fairly, and justly performed, it ought now to be discharged. The critical condition of the country at the time the promise was made—the fact that this inducement to remain in service has been held up to the Army from the commencement of the war, by various resolves of Congress—that this alone prevented their abandonment of a service, in which they were not bound to remain by any of those considerations which operate on the generality of mankind-that to their continuance in the Army, more than to any other cause, under the blessings of Providence, the successful termination of the war was, in the opinion of Gen. Washington, mainly attributable, and that the sacrifices which they incurred, in consequence of their determination to remain, were almost unparalleled—are points upon which there can be no difference of opinion, and requiring, after the able comments of the Senators who had preceded him, no additional illustration.

If this, sir, said Mr. V. B. has been the unquestionable engagement of the Government, if the petitioners are thus entitled to its fulfilment by the performance of the sole condition on which it was made to depend-the question will be asked, has that engagement been satisfied? And if satisfied, how has it been done?

Those who maintain that the Government had fulfilled its engagement, rest their position on the ground of the commutation of the five years’ full pay, which has been given in lieu of the promised half-pay for life. Whatever might be the diversity of sentiment with respect to the legality or the fairness of that commutation-the means by which it was effected-and the manner of its execution-and on these points he acknowledged there was room for an honest difference of opinion: there was one position, he thought, sufficiently plain to challenge the acquiescence of every reflecting mind. It is, sir, that this commutation tendered by the Government as a complete fulfillment of its promise, has been any thing but a fair and just equivalent. To demonstrate this, a few observations only will be necessary.

The intelligent Chairman of the Committee, who reported the bill, whose ability in the exhibition of the claims of the petitioners would entitle him to more than the humble tribute of respect, which it was in his power to render, had submitted to the Senate statements and calculations establishing the following results:

1. That, according to authentic tables for the computation of annuities, the five years’ half-pay, ought to have been seven, at the time it was given, in order to make it a fair equivalent, and that the reduction of this just allowance was attributable to the necessities of the Government, and not to a disposition to elude the claims of the petitions.

2. That, owing to the failure of the States to supply the funds necessary to the payment of the interest, and ultimate redemption of the principal, of the “commutation certificates;” these commutation certificates for five years’ full pay, given as an equivalent for half-pay for life, rapidly depreciated. So that, when compelled by necessity to dispose of them, they in fact produced to the officers less than one year’s pay.

3. That when these commutation certificates were funded in 1791, a deduction was made equal to one third of their amount, by deferring the interest for ten years, upon one-third of the principal, and allowing only three per cent. on the interest which had accrued since 1783.

That this deduction was made by the Government, on the ground (and could be justified on no other,) that these certificates were in the hands of speculators, who had availed themselves of the necessities of the officers, brought upon them by their stipulated continuance in service, and thus were enabled to obtain them at a reduced and almost nominal price.

Mr. V. B. said he would refrain from attempting to enforce the views, upon this branch of the subject, presented by the Senators who had preceded him. It would be time enough to do so, should these views be ever contested. He candidly acknowledged, however, that they did not constitute the material arguments upon which he relied, for the purpose of showing the gross inadequacy of the commutation awarded to the petitioners; and he would therefore proceed to state the grounds upon which he predicated his proposition, with all the brevity and perspicuity in his power.

The certificates for commutation of half pay, were issued under the resolution of March, 1783, and delivered in November, 1783. They admitted upon their face, that five years’ full pay was due to their holders, to be paid with interest, at the rate of six per centum per annum. These certificates were redeemed by the operation of the funding act in 1791. They were, of course, for different amounts, according to the respective ranks of the officers. The average pay of the officers was $30 per month, and the amount which would have been due to each officer for half pay, allowing interest after the same was acknowledged to be due, would have amounted in 1791, when the redemption took place, to $1,742 40. The average amount of five years’ full pay for each officer, amounted with interest, in 1791, to $2.664 00; from this amount one third was deducted in the redemption, as he had before stated. The average amount therefore received by each officer in 1791, for his five years’ full pay, assuming that these certificates had been retained, would have been $1,776 00.

From this simple statement it results that, in consequence of the delay in discharging the commutation, and the deduction which was forcibly made in doing so, the Government paid no more than would have been due to the officers for their half pay alone, up to the period when the commutation was actually made. To that period, therefore, the officers gained nothing by that measure. Since that time years have rolled away, during which they would have received the promised half pay, had it not been for the commutation. The sum which would have been payable to the officers since that period, is the sum precisely which the officers have lost, and the Government has gained, by this variation by the Government from its original contract.

This subject, said Mr. V. B. is simple, founded upon data which cannot deceive by their plausibility, and is liable to no mistake, except the mere errors of calculation. Those he had endeavored to avoid. The average half pay of each of the petitioners from the year 1791 to 1828, would have amounted to $13,177 83. This sum, multiplied by 230, the number of Revolutionary officers supposed to be yet in existence, would amount to $3,030,710. The effect of the commutation upon the Treasury, and upon the interests of deceased officers, could not be, said he, distinctly stated without a particular knowledge of the time of their respective deaths. But from what we know upon that subject, there was a moral certainty that the gains of the Treasury from that source had not been diminished, but on the contrary greatly increased.

It is then, said he, an ascertained and incontestible fact, that, in addition to all the injuries sustained by depreciation, the officers have lost by the course of events, and the Government has gained a sum not less than $3,030,710, in consequence of that commutation which is now set up to bar the claims of the petitioners-claims predicated upon a promise of the Government, held out to the officers as an inducement to remain, and constituting the chief reward for the most signal services ever performed by men in the cause of freedom and their country.

Upon these facts, said Mr. V. B., a question arises for our decision, no less important to the Government than to the petitioners; because, involving the character of the one, and the interests of the other. What is it? Is it confined to the legal rights and obligations of the parties? No, sir, I shall never, said he, bring my mind to consider the question of strict legal right, when I look at the parties. Who are they? On the one hand, the Government of the United States, not liable to be impleaded, and incapable of being coerced against its will by any power superior to its own-rich in resources, and overflowing with redundance: on the other a remnant of the officers of the Revolutionary army, borne down by the infirmities incident to age-with one foot in the grave, and the other upon the threshold of your door, supplicating the fulfilment of that promise which was made them, in the vigor of their days. If even they have legal rights, where is their remedy to enforce them? They cannot in the nature of things have any. But candor constrained him to acknowledge, that in strictness, they have not now, whatever they may once have had, any rights, except such as are founded upon the immutable principles of justice. As early as the year 1785, the Government found it necessary to protect itself against dormant and unfounded claims, arising from the Revolutionary contest, by a statute of limitations. Various acts and resolutions were passed upon the subject before the year 1793, more or less comprehensive in their terms: and in that year an act was passed so comprehensive in its provisions, as to embrace the claims of the petitioners, and barring them, unless presented by the 1st day of May, 1794. The officers did not present this claim until 1810, and are therefore precluded from urging their vested legal rights. Being thus furnished with a general answer to all claims which do not address both or consciences and judgments, Congress have nevertheless relaxed, from time to time, the rigor of their own act, when considering claims founded on justice, and not opposed by policy. But as none of these suspensions have embraced the case of the petitioners, we have it in our power, if we can have the heart to present this statute of limitations to the petitioners, and under its mantle, resist the cry for justice, if not for bread. The question, then, is not what we are bound to do by law, but what we should do. What conduct on our part will bear the scrutiny and the judgments of impartial men, when the opportunity to remedy the consequences of our decision shall have passed away?

Let us look, for a moment, said Mr. V. B. at the arguments advanced by the opponents of the bill. The meritorious services of the petitioners, the signal advantages that have resulted from these services to us, and to posterity; the losses sustained by the petitioners, and the consequent advantages derived by the government from the act of commutation, are unequivocally admitted. But, it is contended, we have made a compromise, legally binding on the parties, and exonerating the government, from further liability, that in an evil and unguarded hour, they have given us a release and we stand upon our bond. Now the question which he wished to address to the conscience, and the judgments of this honorable body, was this-not whether this issue was well taken in point of law-not whether we might not hope for a safe deliverance under it-but whether the issue ought to be taken at all-whether it comports with the honor of the Government to plead a legal exemption against the claims of gratitude-whether, in other words, the government be bound at all times to insist upon its strict legal rights. Has this been the practice of the Government on all former occasions? Or, is this the only question on which this principle should operate? Nothing, said Mr. V. B., can be easier than to show that the uniform practice of the Government has been at war with the principle which is now opposed to the claim of the petitioners. Not a session had occurred since the commencement of this Government, in which Congress had not relieved the citizens from hardship resulting from unforeseen contingencies-and forborne an enforcement of law, when its enforcement would work great and undeserved injury. He might, if excusable on an occasion like this, turn over the statute book, page by page, and give repeated proofs of this assertion. But it is unnecessary. He would content himself with a reference to one or at most two measures of the character described. In the year 1812, between the months of June and September, goods to an immense amount were shipped from England to the United States, by American merchants, in open violation of the acts prohibiting their importation. They alleged in justification, either their anticipated repeal of these acts, in consequence of the measures of one of the belligerents; or their apprehension that in the event of a declaration of war by the United States, their property would be seized and condemned in the British ports. The declaration, in fact, took place; but the importers were not the less liable to the fines and penalties imposed by a violated law, and merchandise to the value of more than twenty millions of dollars was forfeited to the United States. Upon the arrival of the goods, the owners were permitted to retain and use them, upon giving bonds to abide the decision of the Government. Application was made to Congress for relief: and although it was well known that immense profits were made upon their importation, and not a doubt existed of their liability to forfeiture, Congress, by an act which fills but a single page upon that statute book, cancelled the bonds and relinquished merchandise, which, if retained, would have been equal in value to one-fourth of the whole expenses of the war, and which would doubtless have been retained had the Government insisted upon its legal rights, and acted on the principle now contended for.

The system which has been pursued in relation to the purchasers of public lands, is not a less memorable example of a departure from that rigorous policy now recommended to our imitation.

By the act of 10th May, 1800, the minimum price of the public lands was fixed at $2 the acre; one-twentieth of the purchase money was required to be paid at the time of the purchase, one-fourth in 40 days; the balance, with interest, was payable by instalments of 2, 3, and 4 years; and the forfeiture of the land was the declared penalty of non-payment.

By the act of the 26th March, 1804, no interest was to be charged upon instalments for future purchases, if punctually paid, and this provision, in favor of the purchaser, was extended to these whose instalments should become due before the following October.

Under this liberal system, yielding to the government but little more than the necessary expenses of surveying the lands, supporting the various land offices, and providing for the holder a secure landed title, a debt accumulated prior to the year 1820, from the purchasers to the United States, amounting to twenty-two millions of dollars.

Before that time repeated indulgencies had been granted, extending the times of payment, preventing the forfeitures which would have accrued, and, in numerous instances, allowing a re-entry, or a new purchase of lands, improved, and forfeited to the Government upon the terms of the original purchase. No less than six acts were passed from the year 1813 to 1820, to suspend the forfeiture and sale of the lands thus purchased. The evil, however, had swelled beyond the reach of palliatives. A debt of 22 million of dollars exceeded the ability, blighted the prospects, and deadened the energies of the States by whom it was due. Had the law been enforced and payment inflexibly exacted, nearly the whole of the lands thus purchased and improved, would have been forfeited to the Union, and many an honest yeoman would have been compelled to relinquish to more fortunate strangers those woods and laws which he vainly hoped would be the solace of his declining years. To prevent this calamity, the Government interposed, and by an act of liberality having few parallels in history, arrested the forfeitures; authorized the relinquishment of lands for which the purchasers were unable to pay; and the application of whatever sums had been paid to the payment of so much only as they thought proper to retain; cancelled the accumulated interest; extended the terms of credit for that portion of the lands retained; and by a subsequent act passed in 1824, consented to receive as a full payment for these lands, less than two-thirds of the amount actually due. Nor was this all: by the act of 1821, the price of the lands was reduced from two dollars to one dollar and twenty-five cents; and he who had surrendered lands purchased at the highest sum was enabled to re-enter the same lands, if not sold at public sale, at the reduced price. Sir, said Mr. V. B., by the best estimate that I am able to make on referring to the only documents within my reach, this donation to the purchasers of public lands could not have been less than seven millions and a half and probably has not been short of ten millions of dollars. But the exact amount is not material to the elucidation of the principle from which it flowed; and in considering its value, who, that can cast his eyes upon those extensive regions, where tranquility has succeeded to disquietude, and prosperity to ruin, will attempt to estimate it by the scale of dollars and cents?

It appears, then, said Mr. V. B., that it has not been the practice of the Government to act the part of Shylock with its citizens; and God forbid that it should make its debut, on the present occasion, not so much in the character of a merciless creditor, as a reluctant, though wealthy, debtor; withholding the merited pittance from those to whose noble daring and unrivalled fortitude, we are indebted for the privilege of sitting in judgment on their claims; and manifesting more sensibility for the purchasers of our lands than for those by whose bravery they were won; and, but for whose achievements, these very purchasers, instead of being the proprietors of their soil, and the citizens of free and sovereign States, might now be the miserable vassels of some worthless favorite of arbitrary power.

If disposed to be less liberal to the Revolutionary officers than to other classes of the community, let us at least testify our gratitude by relieving their sufferings, and returning a portion of those immense gains which have been the glorious units of their toil, and of their blood.

Such, said Mr. V. B. would, in his judgment be a correct view of the subject, had the government relieved itself from all further liability by the most ample and unexceptionable performance of its stipulations. How much stronger, then, will be their appeal to your justice, if it can be shown that you have no right to urge this act of communication as a complete fulfilment of your promise? The act of commutation is impeached by the petitioners-first, on account of the means by which it was effected; and, secondly, because the stipulations of that act have never been fulfilled.

The petitioners with reason complained that without ever having consented to be bound by the acts of their brother officers, their personal rights were made to depend upon the decision of the lines, and not upon their own individual assent. This is admitted to have been the fact. Two months were allowed to the officers of the lines, under the immediate command of Gen. Washington; and six months to those of the Southern army, to give their assent to the compromise. It does not appear that the lines of the Southern army ever gave their assent. Indeed it is stated by a distinguished Revolutionary officer on this floor, (Gen. S. Smith,) that they never did. It does not appear that there ever was a meeting of the officers of the Northern army, for the purpose of deciding upon the question: and it is affirmed that there was none. To assume, then, that the assent of each individual was given under circumstances like these, appears to my mind harsh and unjust. But it is alleged, in extenuation, that the compromise was made upon the petition of the officers themselves. Let this be admitted: did the application for a just equivalent for the promised half pay for life, confer on Congress the right to prescribe the terms? Will it justify the allowance of less than that to which they were entitled? Will not the circumstances, under which this application was made, present a still stronger appeal to your liberality, if not your gratitude? Look, said Mr. V. B. at the acts of these brave and high-minded men, in whatever light you please, examine their conduct by the strictest scrutiny, and you will always find them exhibiting the purest principles and the most elevated patriotism. The half pay establishment for life, was, at that time, considered by the ardent advocates for liberty, as leading to the formation of an aristocratic body, and therefore, subversive of the principles of the revolution. An intimation like this, in the infancy of our institutions, however groundless in itself, was sufficient to excite alarm. The dangers of the past were overlooked in the apprehension for the future; the measure was reprobated, and these meritorious officers became the objects of unfounded jealousy. To quiet these unreasonable fears, the petitioners expressed their willingness to waive the literal fulfillment of the promise which had been given: to remove the cause which could have a tendency to deprive them of the confidence of their fellow- citizens: to surrender the boon they had so dearly purchased; and, in addition to all that they had done, and to all that they had suffered, to offer up their future prospects upon the altar of their country. And could any thing be more preposterous than to attempt to found upon an act, originating in motives like these, the right to prescribe the terms of commutation? But it is alleged that the officers received the commutation certificates, and, by doing so, must be presumed to have assented to their being considered a full satisfaction of their demands. The inference was, in his opinion, removed by the peculiar circumstances under which the certificates were given. These circumstances said Mr. V. B. are not unworthy of the deliberate attention of the Senate. Previous to October, 1783, and subsequent to the time when the signature of the preliminary articles of peace was known to the army, frequent applications had been made, in their behalf, to Congress, for an adjustment of accounts, and payment of the large arrearages which were due. These applications were fruitless. The failure of the States to comply with the requisitions of Congress, deprived that body of the means of discharging their engagement: and with a full sense of the services and privations of the army, and of the injustice they were about to commit, Congress were on the point of disbanding them, unpaid and unrequited, and sending them pennyless and almost naked to their homes. The effect of this anticipated measure upon minds sensibly alive to indignity and injury may be easily imagined:-At the moment when passion might have triumphed over reason, the army was addressed by an anonymous writer, on the subject of their wrongs, with a degree of eloquence calculated to redeem, if any thing could redeem, the vicious tendency of his principles. He admonished them of the futility of their complaints, and urged them, by every motive that could be addressed to their hopes and to their fears, to change the supplicatory style of a memorial to language more becoming those who had the means of redress within their hands. At that perilous moment, on the events of which were suspended the honor of the army and the future welfare of the country, their commander-in-chief appeared amongst them. He conjured them to give one more distinguished proof of unexampled patriotism, patience and virtue; to rise superior to the most complicated sufferings, and by the dignity of their conduct, give posterity occasion to say, when speaking of their glorious example-“Had this day been wanting, the world had never seen the last stage of perfection, which human nature is capable of attaining.”

They listened to the voice of their beloved commander, followed his advice, surrendered their arms-and sunk, pennyless, into the ranks of private life. In the succeeding month, the certificates of commutation were tendered, by the Pay-Master General, who requested only an acknowledgment of their receipt, while in relation to the final settlement certificates for their pay, he required a full discharge of their demands. The certificates thus tendered, were accepted, and in almost every case, immediately sold, for the purpose of satisfying the most urgent necessities of nature. He asked the Senate whether it would comport with the dignity and honor of a great and magnanimous people, to avail themselves of an acceptance extorted by circumstances like these; and to urge it as sufficient to bar the claims of justice, and divest their protectors in the hour of danger, of their stipulated reward?

But it has been said, that this commutation excited no dissatisfaction at the time; that the complaints upon the subject, are of recent date, and now, for the first time, thought of as a plausible support to an unfounded claim. The Senator from S. C. (Mr. Smith,) who has been impelled, by a sense of duty, to assume the unpleasant task of zealously opposing the bill upon your table, has enquired, with much apparent triumph, whether a single individual could be pointed out who has refused the commutation? He assured the worthy Senator that he had adopted an erroneous impression. When tendered, it was received with universal discontent, and by the junior officers, who were most likely to be injured, with decided reprobation. Had an opportunity for inquiry been allowed, he had no doubt of being able to designate many who had refused. At the moment he could refer the senator to Major Gadsden, of his own State, whose petition on the subject had been presented to the Senate; and if respect for the feelings of an honorable member before him, did not render it improper to drag the name of his venerable father into the debate, he could name another veteran soldier of the Revolution,* the confident of Washington and the companion of Lafayette, who had served his country bravely and efficiently throughout the war, and who refused to receive the commutation, because violating, in his opinion, the leading principles of the Revolution, by subjecting his property to the decision of men whom he had never authorised to act in his name or stead. But, Sir, said Mr. V. B., what effect did the supposed injustice of his country have on this veteran solider? Did it in the least damp his ardor in her cause? By no means. He belonged to a different school, and he gave the most palpable proof of the enduring quality of the principle of that school during the late war. On learning the approach of danger he repaired to this City. On the disastrous day of Bladensburgh, he was found, at the advanced age of seventy, on horseback in the field, stimulating to exertions, by his example and exhortation. When the danger pressed the hardest he waited on the military commander of the day, and solicited the responsibility for the safety of the City, by being intrusted with the possession of this capitol, with a reasonable force of its defence. Denied in his application, mortified and humiliated by the results of the day, he found his way back to his home and the home of his family, where he still lives, blessed with the esteem of his friends, and the respect of all who know him.

His assuming, said Mr. V. B., that the act of commutation was just, in its inception, was it just in its execution? On this point, he thought there was no room for contrariety of opinion. An essential difference, he observed, existed between the claims for pay and subsistence of the army, and those arising from the stipulation of half pay for life. The former being payable during the war, when it was known that the finances were embarrassed, were properly subject to the depreciation of that period. But the promised half pay for life was expected to survive the period of embarrassment, and therefore to be payable in the sound currency of the country. Some of the reasons which inclined the officers to accept a commutation have already been noticed. The necessity of obtaining pecuniary means to enable them to embark in other pursuits, formed a no less prevalent inducement. To effect this object, it was obviously necessary that the equivalent to be received should be promptly paid or adequately secured. The act of commutation did neither. It is surely not enough to say that the resolution of Congress prescribed that the commutation of five years full pay should be paid in securities, unless it can be shown that paper, absolutely worthless, was the security intended. Can it for a moment be supposed, that Congress meant to deceive their brave defenders, by holding out a “promise to the ear,” only “to break it to their hopes?” No, Sir, they meant what they expressed, that the securities should be real, and not nominal; their repeated and earnest requisitions upon the States prove their intention; and nothing but the inherent weakness of the government, and the failure of the States to comply with the requisitions of Congress-an excuse fortunately not in our power to plead-prevented that venerated body from redeeming their engagements. But though the depreciation which followed was not attributable to Congress, its effect upon the officers was not the less fatal. Necessity, that waits not for times or seasons, compelled too many to carry their certificates into market, and the amount which they produced served but to realize the destruction of all their hopes. The few who retained them until 1791, experienced a loss not less severe than unexpected. It has already been stated that, by the operations of the funding system, one-third of the amount which the commutation certificates declared to be due was deducted by the government. The reason alleged for a measure apparently so destructive of public confidence and individual rights, was the well known fact, that by far the greater part were held by speculators who had purchased them at an inconsiderable price. Mr. Madison, it is true, endeavored to exempt the certificates in the hands of the officers from this deduction; but having failed in his attempt, the least necessitous of the officers were doomed to experience a diminution of their already insufficient commutation.

This act of commutation, therefore, is clearly liable to the objection:

1st. Of not being a just equivalent for the promised half-pay for life.

2dly. Of having been effected under circumstances, and by the operation of motives, which deprive it of all obligatory force, and entitle the officers to liberality instead of rigour.

3dly. Of partial and defective execution.

If, said, Mr. V. B., no other obstacle were interposed to the claims of the petitioners than those which he had alluded, fortified as they are, by facts not susceptible of misconstruction, and resting upon the plain and immutable principles of justice, no doubt could be entertained of your favorable decision. But he was apprehensive that other considerations would have their influence: that the claims of the petitioners would be clouded by dangers in prospective; and, that the fear of establishing a precedent by which the door of your Treasury would be unlocked to a crowd of applicants pleading their poverty, and urging their misfortunes, may induce you, in this case, to resist the strongest impulses of your hearts, if not the dictates of your judgments. Among the different grounds upon which this apprehension is founded, a leading one, he said, is, “That the bill did not embrace the cases of private soldiers, who might also have sustained injustice, and whose services were not less meritorious than those of the officers themselves.”

Before I proceed, said Mr. V. B., to consider this objection, allow me to call your attention to one or two incidental remarks. A variety of persons, officers of the Army, who had not served to the end of the war–private soldiers, militia officers, and citizens who had borne the privations of that period, had been successively brought in review before the Senate; and their losses and sufferings, after having been forcibly depicted, were urged as a reason for the rejection of the claim of the petitioners.

If, said Mr. V. B., any thing could aggravate the injustice already inflicted upon the petitioners, it would be an objection like this. Had the claims of the persons alluded to been similar to those of the petitioners, the argument derived from an equality of right would be entitled to attention; but if dissimilar, let them be disjoined. The allowance of the one can constitute no ground for the admission of the other; and by uniting them together, you throw upon the petitioners the misfortunes of others, (misfortunes for which they are in no sense responsible,) in addition to their own.

Now, Sir, said Mr. V. B., it is easy to demonstrate that no similarity exists. What is the object of this bill? To repair a wrong is not having given a just equivalent is satisfaction of a promise of half pay for life. Do the claims of any others rest upon a basis like this? Is it alleged that any such or similar engagement was made with the soldier? Most assuredly not. If, then, no similarity exist, an attempt to connect them would be plainly unjust.

I am aware, said Mr. V. B. of the imposing character of the argument that has been urged in favor on the claims of the common soldier. In a Government like ours, appeals in their favor cannot be made without effect. They derive their force from that all pervading jealousy of power, which is generally supposed to be the concomitant of official station and accidental elevation. Although not insensible to its influence, he was not disposed to complain of its effect; and when properly directed or controlled, he considered it necessary to the successful operation of our political system.

But, sir, said Mr. V. B., instead of yielding our judgments to favor on the one hand, or improper prejudice on the other; it became our duty as public men, to know no distinctions but those of merit, and no rule but that of justice. Was it true, then, he asked, that the partiality of the Government had inclined to the officer, in preference to the soldier? Is it not evident, on the contrary, that in every case the former has been treated with distrust, and the latter with indulgence. Upon what can the soldiers predicate a claim for additional compensation? Upon the ground of the depreciation, and no other. The losses of the officers, on this account, were as much greater than those of the soldier, as the relative difference of their pay; and yet this bill contains no provision in their favor upon that subject. This, then, can form no objection to the proposed allowance. But, sir, in relation to the relative condition of the officer and soldier when they entered the service, General Washington informs us in his letters to the States, contained in the book which I hold in my hand, that the private soldiers had this signal advantage over the officers. They received at the time of enlistment, from the States, by which they were raised, a bounty of from two or three hundred dollars, in good money, or provision for their families. No such advances were received by the officers. What, Sir, said Mr. V. B., has been the subsequent conduct of the Government? The average pay of the officers calculating from a colonel downwards, was forty dollars per month. That of the soldier was six dollars and a quarter.

Now, by the pension act of 1818, the allowance to officers and soldiers, reduced to poverty, was, for the officers, twenty dollars per month, and for the soldiers eight dollars per month. Giving to the officer less than half-pay, and to the soldier, more than full pay. So, said he, would it ever be. Whatever might be the declamatory appeals upon this subject, there was no danger that the partiality of Congress would ever be manifested for the officer, to the exclusion of the fair claims of the soldier. To prevent misapprehension, said Mr. V. B., I will proceed further. I have said, that I am not insensible to the feeling which had been so strongly pressed into the argument. As an evidence of the sincerity with which he spoke, he expressed his willingness to adopt any measure in favor of the soldier, that the gentleman opposed to him, could reasonably desire. Most of the soldiers, said Mr. V. B., had been placed upon the pension list. The limited number who had not, must average seventy years of age. Let, said he, a section be prepared, placing all who had enlisted for the war, upon the pension list, at eight dollars per month, without requiring evidence of poverty. For a measure like this, he would readily vote; if even more were proposed, it should receive his deliberate attention, and if possible, his concurrence. Frauds might be practiced; but they would, of necessity, be of short duration. Even now, the expense would not be felt; in a few years it would cease to be remembered; while the fame that would attend it, would constitute one of the most valuable legacies to posterity that can be left behind us.

Instead, then, of opposing the bill because it contains no provision for the soldier, might he not with some propriety ask of gentlemen to propose a remedy for this defect, and not condemn for omission—whilst making no effort to have that omission supplied?

Another cause of apprehension from this bill, as a precedent, arises from the supposition that if it be intended to provide for losses incurred by the depreciation of commutation certificates, the Government will be bound to compensate for similar losses, whether incurred by the Army or the public creditors. These fears, said Mr. V. B. I consider visionary. The bill does not propose a compensation on account of depreciation. This would be impracticable, because no data could be obtained by which an estimate could be formed to justify a legislative act. The depreciation of the commutation certificates has been referred to solely for the purpose of enforcing the equity of a claim originating in a contract, never satisfied by the act of commutation, but from which you are legally absolved by the acts of limitation. Until the soldiers can plead a similar contract, and the equitable considerations which the officers have urged, they can have no right to place their claims on an equal footing. Still less, Sir, said Mr. V. B. can it be said that this bill will afford a pretext for reviving the dormant claims of the public creditors. Their case is widely different from that of either the officers or the soldiers. While the pay of the Army was fixed and stationary, its actual value was reduced by the depreciation of currency, which they were compelled to receive at par. But the suppliers of the Army the great mass of public creditors, regulated their contracts by the fluctuations in which they expected to be paid, and the prices demanded bore an exact proportion to its depreciation in market.

It has been urged, too, as an objection, that provision had not been made for the officers who did not serve to the close of the war, and for the militia. It was sufficient to say that with them the government had entered into no such engagement. The surviving officers of the revolution, who had been called from service before the end of the war, generally by public considerations, would not, he was persuaded, repine at the success of their brethren in arms, or make it the basis of unfounded complaint. It has been stated by the venerable and worthy Senator before me, (Gen. S. Smith,) that this bill will not embrace his case, for the reasons he has given. Who would have more cause to complain than he, if, indeed, any cause could be found in the measure proposed? Of his conduct and services in two wars, it would be superfluous to speak. They are familiar to us all; and he wished he could add, had been as well appreciated by the Union as by the State whose interests he had promoted in peace, and whose safety he had defended in war. The solicitude which he had manifested for the friends of his youth, and his companions in danger, must have awakened the sensibilities of those who witnessed it; while his zealous, though disinterested support of the bill upon your table, constituted a convincing proof that it would be viewed by others, who might be excluded from its provisions, with equal satisfaction.

The last, and, to his mind, the strongest objection against the passage of this bill, was its making no provision for the widows and children of deceased officers, who were entitled to half-pay. By whom, Sir, said Mr. V. B. has this objection been adduced? By the parties themselves? No, Sir; by those who have had no conference with the parties. Do they advocate the claims of the heirs and widows because they have heretofore been importunate for relief? No, Sir; from the first agitation of this question, in 1810, to the present moment, he was authorized, he believed, to say, that not a single petition had been presented in their behalf. Sir, said Mr. V. B., we resist the claims of the living by exorcising the spirits of the dead. The gentleman from Georgia declares that he will not vote for the bill, because the heirs and widows are not included, and that he would not vote for it, if they were. It has been asked by the Senator from South Carolina, whether a positive debt, a vested interest, does not descend to the heir, and whether a government, any more than an individual, is discharged by the death of its creditor? The objection thus presented is plausible in appearance, but he was persuaded, easily surmounted. He had already, in his opinion, given a satisfactory answer. Whatever might have been the original character of the claim, it could no longer be regarded as legally binding on the government. It was barred by the statute of limitations–a measure sometimes harsh, but not the less founded in policy and justice. This shield, interposed by the government for justifiable ends, might be removed, at the option of the government, only in the cases which policy and justice might demand. It has a perfect right to permit it to operate upon the officers, their widows, or their heirs–and neither might, in strictness, have a legal ground of complaint. I have endeavored, said Mr. V. B. to show that equity requires, and policy does not forbid the allowance proposed for the surviving officers. The claims of the widows, stood, in his opinion, on a different foundation. But he should not be willing, for one, to oppose them. Their number must be small; not half as great, in all probability, as that of surviving officers; say one hundred at the outside. Give them a gratuity of one or two thousand dollars each; and if necessary, deduct it from the sum you would otherwise give to the surviving officers. They, he was well assured, would not utter a complaint. On the contrary, the value of what they received, would be doubly enhanced by the cause of the deduction. The supposed claims of the heirs could not be presented to your attention with equal force. Of the two thousand four hundred and eighty officers of the revolution, two thousand two hundred and fifty are no more. Their temporal interests, whatever they were, have been distributed, in some cases, among successive generations. To ascertain and distribute the respective shares, to which the heirs would be entitled, of the small amount now proposed to be given, if not wholly impracticable, would involve an expense that would consume the means of your bounty; and without being productive of substantial benefit, your resources would be exhausted. But, said he, these are considerations of an inferior character, founded on expediency only. Your refusal to grant to the heirs, may be placed on the highest ground of principle. Whatever you now do in favor of the officer, must be voluntary, proceeding from your liberality and gratitude. All other obligations have been cut off by time. All your endowments springing from such motives, being for the reward of personal services, may with propriety be confined to those by whom those services were rendered. This, said he, is not a new principle in your legislation. It lies at the foundation of the act of 1818, providing, not for the heirs, but certain portions of the revolutionary officers and soldiers, by the operation of which, millions have in his opinion been beneficially applied. It was called indeed a pension act, but with no more propriety, according to the established principles of the Government, than the bill upon your table.

What, according to these principles, are the grounds upon which pensions have been granted? They were, exclusively, disability produced by known wounds received in the public service, and half pay for a limited time, to the widow and infant children of those who had fallen in action. Since the date of our independence, these only have been the legal and appropriate causes for being placed on the list of pensioners. The annual allowance to a limited number of the officers and soldiers of the revolutionary army, by the act of 1818, was founded on no such consideration, otherwise the widows and orphans of the deceased officers and soldiers would have been as much entitled to your bounty as they can be now. They did not receive it; and the only justifiable reason which could then have been given, was the one which may now be assigned. You had a right to make your donation personal. You had a right to enlarge or contract the circle of your beneficence, according to your own views of the state of your treasury, the exigencies of society, and the claims of humanity. Among the most powerful motives for its adoption, was a desire to rescue the country from the reproach of seeing those to whom it was indebted for its liberties, thrown, in the evening of their days, amidst the prosperity they had been instrumental in producing, upon the cold charities of an unfeeling world. It was to prevent the vivid and heartrending picture of Roman ingratitude, which, though the invention of modern days, has so long interested the world, from being only descriptive of real life in the streets of this proud capital.

Mr. V. B. said he would say nothing as to the amount. Full justice had already been done to that subject. The general object was to make up, in part, the loss sustained by the officers, out of the profits made by the government, by the successful result of its compromise with them. Let us, therefore, said he, pass the bill upon your table. Let this body have the credit of originating it. Let no narrow or weak views impede our course. No matter where those honorable and patriotic men are from; whether from the North or the South, the East or the West; whether from the old States or the new. In every state where the blessings of a free government are enjoyed, there they had a name, if not a local habitation, that could not fail to work its way to the hearts of their fellow citizens. It was true, he said, that by the list submitted, it did not appear that any of the officers resided in seven of the new States, and he was not sorry for it. If he were not deceived in the character as well of the people of those States, as of their representatives on that floor, they would rejoice that an opportunity was thus presented to evince their devotion to the cause of the revolution, and their gratitude for the services of those who fought our battles in that day, without even a suspicion of a selfish or local object. This will be the more gratifying to them, because it was not their good fortune, as States, to be in a situation to take part in that great struggle, out of which grew this mighty empire, and all the blessings of civil and religious liberty, that we now so preeminently enjoy. He had not a doubt that all that remained for them to do, they would do well. If evidence of the fact were wanting, he had only to allude to the small but patriotic State of Illinois, which alone had instructed her representatives on that floor, upon the subject under consideration, in a spirit reflecting upon herself the highest credit, and affording the most flattering presage of her future greatness.

Mr. V. B. said, that he was distressed by the consciousness that he had already trespassed too much upon the kind indulgence of the Senate. In any other case he would have considered it reprehensible to have done so. He would therefore (although there were yet many considerations which he intended to have urged,) draw his observations to a close. There was, however, one point upon which he felt too much solicitude to suffer it to pass unnoticed. If by any one he had been understood as casting aught of censure or reproach upon the old Congress, he desired to correct so erroneous an impression. He could not indeed have done so consistently with his own long cherished opinions. On the contrary, he did not believe that the world ever witnessed, or ever again will witness a body of men more patriotic or enlightened. He would not believe that it was in their nature to be indifferent to the just claims of the revolutionary army. The question with them was not what they would, but what they could do. The embarrassments under which they labored from want of power, and the backwardness of the States, who themselves were struggling against the exhausting effects of a cruel, bloody and protracted war, were known to all. As little did he wish to cast reproach upon the counsels of the nation. Every thing could not be done at once. Much had been done under the present Constitution, to satisfy the claims of justice, and vindicate the character of the republic. It is our good fortune that something still remains for us to do. Fear not, that in doing it, you will go beyond the wishes of your constituents–your feelings lag behind them. Speaking for his immediate constituents–and he had not the presumption to suppose that they were more just or public spirited than their neighbors–for them he could say, with confidence, that, having some share in the national funds, and contributing no inconsiderable part of their amount, they would willingly pour them out, like water, in a cause so righteous. With them, a million more or less of public debt, compared with the preservation of the public faith, would be as nothing. He gloried in the consciousness that he was a representative of a people influenced by such elevated sentiments. Every day, said he, makes the remnant of this band of worthies more dear to the American people. When that period arrives–which a majority of the Senate may expect to see–when the last of the officers of the revolutionary army shall be called from time to eternity, it will be the cause of keen regret, and self reproach, if, upon a review of the past, it shall appear that any thing was omitted that ought to have been done, to smooth their passage to the tomb.

One word more, and he had done. The Senior from Maine, (Mr. Chandler,) who, although he had lost his father in the struggle, had felt it to be his duty (and there was no man, he believed, who more implicitly followed his sense of duty,) to oppose the bill, had, with his characteristic shrewdness and pertinency, asked–did General Washington, whilst at the head of Government, ever recommend this subject to the notice of Congress? The worthy Senator well knew what the answer must be, and the train of reflections it would give rise to. General Washington did not–but why? Before and after the war, he spared no pains to make the States sensible of what was due to the officers on this very point. His letters have been read. He urged them by all the considerations that belonged to the subject, to act efficiently for their relief. He failed. After he came into the government, the officers themselves evinced no disposition to revive their claims, and it certainly would not have become him to be the first to bring them forward. It is not difficult to conceive why the officers were, at that day, willing to avoid all applications for pecuniary aid. New prospects opened–they were probably not exempt from those feelings of ambition and hope of preferment, which actuate mankind. They have out-lived them, and they humbly ask for justice. But, Sir, what was the language of the Father of his Country, when the subject was an open one? In this circular of June, 1783, to the Governors of the States, he said :-“The provision of half pay for life, as promised by the resolution of Congress, was a reasonable compensation offered at a time when Congress had nothing else to give to the officers for services then to be performed; it was the price of their blood and your independence, and as a debt of honor, it can never be cancelled until it be fairly discharged.

One question, said Mr. V. B., and I have done. Has it been fairly discharged?


*Col. McLane, of Delaware. 

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Source: <em>Register of Debates</em>
Collection: N/A
Series: Series 5 (1 January 1825-3 March 1829)