Legislative Branch

Guide to House Records: Chapter 6

Chapter 6. Records of the Claims Committees

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Records of Committees Relating to Claims 1794-1946 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committees discussed in this chapter:

6.1 This chapter describes the records of the committees of the House of Representatives that have dealt primarily with private legislation concerning claims and pensions. The committees share the distinction of being created solely to process claims and report legislation to facilitate the process. 1 They are grouped together because of the similarity of the records they generated and of the research techniques and resources that are needed to access the records. More than any other set of Congressional records, these contain information relating to the private lives of individuals, and may be especially useful to genealogical researchers. 2

6.2 Legislation enacted by Congress can be divided into two classes: public and private. Public laws are universal in nature, applying to classes of persons or legal entities, rather than to a specified individual or entity. Private laws apply to specific persons or groups of persons; they grant pensions, authorize payment of claims, provide exemption from specific legislation such as immigration laws, or afford some other form of relief to a private individual or legal entity. The committees discussed in this chapter handled most of the private legislation that passed through Congress.

6.3 The power of Congress to provide for the payment of claims derives from the first clause of Article I, section 8 of the Constitution which provides that, "The Congress shall have Power . . . to pay the Debts . . . of the United States." Throughout American history, this provision has been construed to include not only legal but also moral obligations. This position is stated in the 1895 Supreme Court in U.S. v. Realty Company:

    The term `debts' includes those debts or claims which rest upon a merely equitable or honorary obligation, and which would not be recoverable in a court of law if existing against an individual. The nation, broadly speaking, owes a `debt' to an individual when his claim grows out of general principles of right and justice. 3

6.4 Individual claims for pensions comprise a special class of claim. Pensions usually refer to allowances of money paid in fixed amounts at certain intervals by a government to individuals who have rendered some valuable public service, or to dependent relatives of such persons. Pensions have been granted to disabled soldiers and sailors, to the widows and orphans of those who died in the service of their country, and for service during certain specified periods such as the War of 1812.

6.5 During its first 150 years, the House created a number of standing committees to report on the merits of petitions claiming the right to relief from the Federal Government. As the 19th century progressed, the number of claims increased tremendously and by mid-century there were five committees whose sole jurisdiction consisted of private claims: the committees on Claims, Invalid Pensions, Revolutionary Pensions, Revolutionary Claims, and Private Land Claims. Yet even with the proliferation of claims committees, some of them still handled a tremendous workload--Lauros McConachie notes that 40 percent of all the bills introduced in the House in 1888 were referred to the Committee on Invalid Pensions. 4

6.6 Although the Government has generally attempted to provide relief for claims that were deemed to have merit, the process of securing relief could be a long and frustrating experience. Many claims were submitted repeatedly to successive Congresses and the process often stretched on long after the life of the original claimant. The memorial of L. Madison Day (49A-H5.1) gives voice to the frustrations of recovering damages from the government:

    This claim has been before Congress for some time, and has been many times favorably reported upon, four times in the House and five times in the Senate, and was passed by the Senate during the forty-seventh Congress, but was not reached for consideration in the House.

6.7 The records described in this chapter abound in examples of petitioners and heirs whose pursuit of relief sometimes lasted decades. A tribute to American tenacity can be seen in the efforts of Richard W. Meade, his wife and his descendants, who labored for over 100 years to obtain satisfaction of his 1803 claim against Spain which had been assumed by the United States under a treaty. Members of the Meade family submitted claims in every Congress between the 16th and the 52d (1819-1893) except for the 17th, and 38th, and they continued to pursue settlement until at least 1911 (45A-H5.1, 61A-F5.2 and many others).

6.8 Increasing the number of claims committees was one way to expedite consideration of private claims before the House. Another means of facilitating the movement of private legislation through the House was the use of the Private Calendar. The practice of setting aside particular days for the consideration of private bills dates from as early as 1810. 5

6.9 The Court of Claims was created in 1855 (10 Stat. 612) to hear claims against the United States. It relieved the pressure on Congress by providing some claimants with an opportunity to litigate certain types of claims against the Government. Before the establishment of the court the only way to settle claims was to apply to the Treasury Department and if the claim was rejected, to petition Congress for relief. Passage of the Bowman Act of 1883 and the Tucker Act of 1887, increased the powers of the Court of Claims but it still was unable to relieve Congress of the task of examining large numbers of private bills.

6.10 During the frenzied activity of the World War II years legislators recognized the heavy demands private legislation made on their limited time. As part of the effort to streamline the post-war Congress and increase the efficiency of the institution, the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 revised the procedures for handling private claims. Title IV of the Reorganization act was known as the Federal Tort Claims Act 6 , and it provided for the settlement of certain claims by the executive departments and agencies. The 1946 Act set the maximum dollar amount of the agency-settled tort claims at $1,000, but this limit was raised to $25,000 by a 1966 Act. Since the passage of the 1946 act the Judiciary Committee has been the only House committee to handle private legislation.

6.11 Research involving private claims against the Government can be a complicated and time consuming procedure. In order to conduct a thorough search for records relating to the claims of an individual, it is often necessary to examine the indexes and records of both houses of Congress. Claims were brought before the House of Representatives by means of a petition or memorial from the claimant, or as a bill or resolution passed by the Senate. Petitions submitted by a claimant over many years may be found in the records of the House, the records of the Senate, or in the records of both houses of Congress. It is not unusual to find that documentation relating to a claim had been charged out of the records of one Congress to be used as supporting materials for a claim submitted by the same claimant at a later Congress. By the same token, claims petitions or other documentation that were submitted to a claims committee of the House have, on occasion, been located among the records of a Senate claims committee--evidence that records l oaned between the chambers were not always returned.

6.12 A number of published sources exist, that facilitate research in the private claims submitted to Congress. Listed below are indexes to the claims presented to both the House and Senate:

House Claims Indexes

1st-31st Congresses (1789-1851)H. Misc. Doc. (unnumbered) 32d Cong., 1st sess. (serial vols. 653-655) 3 vols.
32d-41st Congresses (1851-71)H. Misc. Doc. 109, 42d Congress, 3d sess. (serial vol. 1574) 526 pp.
42d-46th Congresses (1871-81)H. Misc. Doc. 53., 47th Cong., 1st sess. (serial vol. 2036) 744 pp.
47th-51st Congresses (1881-91)H. Misc. Doc. 213, 53d Cong., 2d sess.; (serial vol. 3268) 749 pp.
Southern Claims Commission, 1871-80Consolidated Index of Claims reported by the Commissioners of Claims to the House of Representatives from 1871 to 1880. Compiled under the supervision of J.B. Holloway and Walter H. French (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1892) 262 pp.

Senate Claims Indexes

14th-46th Congresses (1815-81)S. Misc. Doc. 14, 46th Cong., 3d sess.; 2 vols. (serial vols. 1945, 1946)
47th-51st Congresses (1881-91)S. Misc. Doc. 266, 53d Cong., 2d sess.; 3 vols. (serial vol. 3175)
52d-55th Congresses (1891-99)S. Doc. 449, 56th Cong., 1st sess.; 2 vols. (serial vol. 3881)
56th-57th Congresses (1899-1903)S. Doc. 221, 57th Cong., 2d sess.; (serial vol. 4433), 197 pp.
58th Congress (1903-5)S. Doc. 3, 59th Congress, 1st sess.; (serial vol. 4917) 709 pp.
59th-61st Congresses (1905-09)S. Doc. 646, 62d Congress, 2d sess.; (serial vol. 6165) 865 pp.


6.13 The indexes shown above were published as part of the Congressional Serial Set, and list the claims that were introduced on the floor of the House and Senate. They generally provide the name of the claimant, the nature of the claim, committee of referral, Congress and session, number and nature of report, number of bill, disposition in the other House, and date of the act or other remarks. There are no comparable indexes for 20th century claims. Several sources exist that may be helpful in locating 20th-century claims but none of them have the scope and completeness of the serial set indexes.

6.14 One of the modern sources is the CIS U.S. Serial Set Index, 1789-1969, (Bethesda, MD: Congressional Information Service, Inc., 1975). In compiling the index, the Congressional Information Service (CIS) divided the period 1789-1969 into 12 chronological segments. Each segment is indexed by two volumes arranged alphabetically by subject, subtitled "Subject Lists" and by one volume subtitled "Numerical Lists and Schedule of Volumes." The volumes of "Numerical Lists" contain a section called "Private Relief and Related Actions, Index to Names of Individuals and Organizations," that provides citations to published reports and documents. It should be emphasized that the citations are to congressional documents published in the Congressional Serial Set and not to the original petitions or claims documents found among the records of the claims committees. Many claims documents in the records were not published. Also useful to researchers are the published committee calendars of the claims committees (until the committees were abolished in 1946) and the Judiciary Committee. The House Judiciary Committee calendars list all claims legislation referred to the committee separately from other types of bills and resolutions.


1 Many of the committees discussed in other chapters have reported claims and other types of private legislation relating to the subjects that are under their jurisdictions. The committees on Immigration and Naturalization, Patents, Judiciary, Military Affairs, Naval Affairs, Indian Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Post Office and Post Roads, each disposed of large numbers of claims. But the settlement of claims was not the principle subject of the jurisdiction of those committees.  [Back to text]

2 For other genealogical records at the National Archives see Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives, (Washington: National Archives Trust Fund Board, 1983). [Back to text]

3 Congressional Quarterly's Guide to Congress, 2d ed. (Washington: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1976) p. 302. [Back to text]

4 McConachie, Lauros G., Congressional Committees: A Study of the Origins and Development of Our National and Local Legislative Methods. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., 1898). Reprinted. (New York: Burt Franklin Reprints, 1973) p. 73.  [Back to text]

5 McConachie, ibid., p. 76f. In 1810 Fridays were set aside for legislation introduced by petition. By the second session of the 19th Congress (1826-27) House Rule 19 specified that "Friday and Saturday in every week shall be set apart for the consideration of private bills and private business."  [Back to text]

6 This was replaced by the Tort Claims Act of June 25, 1948 (62 Stat. 1008) as amended.  [Back to text]

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-245). By Charles E. Schamel, Mary Rephlo, Rodney Ross, David Kepley, Robert W. Coren, and James Gregory Bradsher. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.