History Tidbit – America’s First Veterans Benefit

Two hundred and forty years ago on August 26, 1776, roughly eight weeks after American colonists announced their “Declaration of Independence” and made known their intentions to be set free from British rule, the Second Continental Congress approved the first Veterans benefit that was national in scope—pensions for those disabled in military service.

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress was a transitional government with no recognized powers or treasury, but they faced a full-blown war with England and pensions were offered as inducements for those willing to fight for freedom.  Payment of Veterans’ pensions fell “to the assemblies or legislatures of the several states. . .on account of the United States.” In 1781 the Articles of Confederation established a weak central government with the majority of power resting with a loose confederation of sovereign states.

Disability pensions were the first Veterans benefits established in the New World by colonists of the British Empire. Since the first successful permanent colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607, individual colonies increasingly created their own laws and public benefits.

The Colony of New Plymouth, founded by Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower in December 1620, composed the first legal code in North America in 1636, which included a rudimentary “bill of rights” and the earliest known pension law in America for “souldiers” injured while defending that particular colony:

“That in case necessity require to send [forces] abroade [and] there be not volunteers [sufficient] offered for the service then it be lawfull for the [governor] [and] Assistants to presse in his Maties name by their warrant directed to the Constables.

Prouided if any that shall goe returne maymed [and] hurt he shalbe mayntayned competently by the Colony duringe his life.

And also that if there shalbe neede of horses for the Countreys service it shalbe lawfull for the [Governor] [and]

[Assistants] likewise to presse horses for such service by the {unintelligble} paying them for them or taking order for their payment.” Source: http://www.histarch.illinois.edu/plymouth/laws1.html.

After the Treaty of Paris was signed on September 3, 1783, the United States became a recognized nation. On March 4, 1789 the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation and six months later, during the first-ever session of the U.S. Congress, the first official U.S. pension law was enacted on September 29, 1789. Veterans pensions were initially administered by a small office within the War Department but were transferred to the Department of the Interior in 1849.In 1930 responsibility for veterans pensions was transferred to the Veterans Administration, which became the Department of Veterans Affairs in 1988.


Photo: Second Continental Congress voting for independence, 1776 c. painting by Robert Pine and Edward Savage, NARA


Story: VA Historian


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