The Writings of Carl Schurz/The Pension Scandal

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Our pension system is like a biting satire on democratic government. Never has there been anything like it in point of extravagance and barefaced dishonesty. Everybody knows this; but the number of men in public life who have courage enough to admit that they know it is ludicrously small. Whenever the general assertion is put forth that, in view of the immense size of the pension roll and the notorious laxity that has long prevailed in the administration of the law, a large number of the pensions paid must be fraudulent, the answer is: “Vague assertions prove nothing. Give us specific cases.” The New York Times has done the American people an excellent service by furnishing the thing thus demanded. It has, indeed, not undertaken the gigantic task of overhauling the whole pension roll, but it has laid before the public a demonstration sufficiently conclusive. It has sent its reporters to several inland towns in this State to inquire into the cases of individual pensioners living there, and thus it has been able to spread before the public an array of evidence, the representative character of which no fairminded man will deny. Here we have lots of men drawing pensions for “disabilities incurred in the service and in the line of duty,” who have given no evidence of the existence of the disabilities alleged—men who were for twenty years after the war notably strong and able-bodied; men who draw increased pensions for increased disabilities, while they are no more disabled than before; men who draw the maximum pension for total disability preventing them from “earning a support at manual labor,” but who are earning a living by manual labor as well as they ever did before; men who have for years been drunken loafers indulging in all sorts of excesses, but are drawing pensions under a law which provides that no disability which is the result of his own vicious habits shall entitle a man to a pension; men who are rich, and should be ashamed to help in draining the Treasury; women drawing widows' pensions long after having forfeited their right to them; and so on. And the proportion of such cases to the total number of pensioners in those localities is more than sufficient fully to justify the saying that the pension roll is “honeycombed with fraud.”

The long series of reports and articles published by the Times has thus completely shut the mouths of those who asked for further proof of what to any fairminded man is already conclusively proven by the eloquent figures of our pension statistics. It may reasonably be assumed that ten years after the close of the war nearly all those really disabled by wounds or disease in the service had applied for pensions and had been provided for. The war closed in the spring of 1865. In 1876 the number of pensioners on the rolls was 232,137, and the amount paid to them $28,351,599.69. It might justly be assumed that in the ordinary course of things the number of pensioners and of soldiers widows and of dependent soldiers' parents would decrease by death, that the pensioned orphan children of soldiers would come of age and that therefore the amount to be paid out in pensions would steadily grow less. So it has been in all other countries and in all times. Instead of which we find that in 1893, nearly thirty years after the war, the pension roll had risen to 966,012 names, and the amount paid out to $156,740,467.14. This year it is still larger, and the number of new applications for pensions is incredible. In the seven months ending last October no less than 55,399 of them came into the Pension Office. There are, according to the last report of the commissioner, 711,150 claims, original and for increase in the office still to be acted upon. The number of names on the pension roll, not counting the applicants, is much larger than was the number of men in active service at any period of the war. We are paying more for pensions than all other nations together. Our pension expenditure is heavier than the expenditure of the largest military Power on earth for its military establishment.

In the face of these fabulous figures the assertion that our pension system is a worthy monument of the generous gratitude of the American people sounds like a fiendish mockery. We need only look at its history to conclude that it is rather a monument to the audacity and skill of our public plunderers, to the cowardice of our politicians and to an enduring patience of our general public, which has long ceased to be a virtue. No people have ever been more shamelessly victimized than the American people have been in this pension business. Our deserving soldiers and sailors had been abundantly provided for, with far greater generosity than any other country could boast of, by the pension legislation that was enacted during and immediately after the war. Everybody would have been satisfied had not pension attorneys hungry for fees, and politicians hungry for votes, kept telling the veterans that they ought to have more. Still, legislation kept within bounds, and the pension roll began actually to decrease, as in the natural course of things it was bound to do, until, twelve years after the war, the “arrears-of-pensions act” was passed. This act, putting comparatively large sums of money within the reach of pensioners, excited the greed of many veterans, and served to establish the procuring of pensions in great quantities as a regular industry and one of the most profitable in the country. With their headquarters in Washington and their agencies in every State, these pension-attorney firms flooded the land with their circulars, approaching every veteran personally to persuade him that he could have a pension, whether he had sustained any injury in the war or whether he was able to make a living or not, and that they would help him to it. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of pensioners may therefore truthfully say that while they did not think of applying for pensions, they were urged upon them by the attorneys. Thus torrents of applications poured in, for each of which an attorney had his fee.

As the pension attorneys got richer, they became greedier, more daring and more powerful. They organized a manufactory of public opinion. Through organizations of veterans, and through newspapers established by them for the purpose, they assumed to speak in the name of the soldiers, and to demand of Congress more and more extravagant pension legislation to open to them new fields for booty. In Congress they found little if any resistance. There is no more brilliant illustration of the politicians' abject cowardice than the succession of pension laws asked for by soldiers at the instigation of the attorneys, and obsequiously granted by our Congressmen.

Thus we arrived where we are, not admired by other nations for our generosity, but laughed at for our folly and recklessness. The American people have permitted this preposterous debauch to go on until it not only swallowed up our Treasury surplus, but, however rich this country may be, it actually forces us to borrow money to meet the current expenses of the government. More than that. If by some unhappy foreign complication we should be forced to assume a warlike attitude, it would become a matter of grave consideration how much of that sort of luxury the country could afford to indulge in. From 1861 to 1893 we paid out in pensions no less than $1,576,503,544.42, with probably as much again or more to come. In other words, the pensions, before we are through with them, will have cost us at least as much as the whole war debt amounted to, and perhaps a good deal more, for the pension sharks are by no means through yet with their demands. We shall therefore have to consider not only how much a war may cost us, but that a heavier expense, although spread over a longer time, will begin when the war is over. Thus it may be said without exaggeration that our way of showing our so-called gratitude for military services rendered in one great war, taken as a precedent, renders our financial capacity for carrying on another great war seriously questionable.

We have no space here to discuss at length the demoralization spread by our pension system among a large part of our population, by familiarizing it with a seductive sort of mendicancy in a guise of patriotism, and with the habit of looking to the government for a living. Suffice it to say that nothing is more apt to undermine that popular character which is necessary for the life of democratic institutions. It is the highest time to stop in this mad career. Much of the damage done cannot be repaired. But effectual efforts can at least be set on foot to eliminate the fraudulent cases from the pension roll. We suggested already a year ago that to this end the public display of a list of local pensioners, with a statement of the disabilities, in every post-office in the country would be a great help. The proposition of the Times that a commission composed of old soldiers be charged with conducting an examination of the whole pension roll seems to us commendable. Then a method should be devised to make the intervention of the pension attorney between the applicant and the Pension Office unnecessary, and thus to disarm the principal agency of mischief. All such plans will, of course, find the greed of the pension attorney and the cowardice of the politician in their way. But it may dawn at last upon the politician that his cowardice is stupid. For while an earnest effort to reform the abuses of the pension system may cost him, on the one hand, a few votes of interested persons, it will, on the other hand, win him the favor and support of a much greater number of thoughtful and patriotic men. The average American is certainly willing that every deserving soldier who suffered in the war shall have his full share of honor and of the Nation's bounty; but he is not willing that the people should be plundered by the fraudulent practices of greedy pretenders and speculators, and he will be grateful to the public man who aids in delivering the country of this pest.

  1. Editorial article in Harper's Weekly, May 5, 1894. Grateful acknowledgments are made to Harper & Brothers for generous permission to reprint this article.