Legislative Branch

Guide to Senate Records: Chapter 9 Pensions

Table of Contents

Chapter 9. Records of the Committee on Finance and Related Records, 1816-1988

Records of the Committee on Finance and Related Records, 1816-1988 from Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States

Committee records discussed in this chapter:

Committee on Pensions, 1816-1946

Motion for the appointment of standing committees, 12/05/1816
Motion for the appointment of standing committees, December 5, 1816 (SEN14A-B6) from NARA's National Archives Catalog.  

9.35 The Committee on Pensions was established December 10, 1816, by the Senate under the authority of the same resolution that established the Committee on Finance and the other major standing committees. Two types of bills were referred to the committee: Those that established general pension rights for veterans of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 and their widows and orphans; and those that proposed new pensions, payment of pension arrearages, or increases in pension rates for individuals whose applications had been denied by executive branch authorities or who were otherwise ineligible but who believed they were deserving, due to special circumstances, of having a private act passed on their behalf. By the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the Committee on Pensions was abolished and legislative matters relating to pensions were thereafter referred to the Committee on Finance.

9.36 Entitlement to pensions based on service-connected disabilities for Revolutionary War veterans and for widows and orphans of officers killed during that war had been established by the Continental Congress and continued by the first Federal Congress. However, Congress had not done anything for surviving enlisted men, who had been poorly compensated both during the war and also upon being mustered out. Beginning in 1816, an increase in tariff rates produced a large surplus in the Federal Treasury and in December 1817 President James Monroe proposed in a message to Congress that surviving Revolutionary War soldiers be provided for out of the surplus. Following this suggestion, in 1818 Congress passed such a law and thereby established two precedents: That the government would provide for its former soldiers in their old age and that such payment would be tied to high tariff rates.

9.37 Since the passage of the 1818 pension law, Congress has enacted many laws creating new benefits for veterans of succeeding wars, increasing pension rates, and generally expanding eligibility for pensions and other benefits based on military service. Most of the records of the Committee on Pensions relate to individuals who sought relief through passage of private acts. Although Congress has enacted thousands of private laws to assist such individuals, the number of claimants so affected is minuscule compared to those who applied for and received benefits through executive branch agencies. To illustrate, National Archives Record Group 15, Records of the Veterans Administration (which includes records of the Bureau of Pensions of the Department of the Interior and predecessor agencies) has among its holdings 64,250 feet of records and over 2,800 rolls of microfilm of records relating to pensions and another closely related one-time benefit of military service, bounty lands.

9.38 Pension Committee records (61 ft.) consist of four series: Committee reports and papers, 1817-47 (3 ft.), consisting of manuscript and/or printed reports on bills, resolutions, petitions, and memorials, and related correspondence, affidavits, and medical certifications; committee papers, 1847-1929 (12 ft.), consisting of legislative case files (until 1887), related and miscellaneous correspondence, and a small number of original transcripts of hearings; petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures and other bodies referred to the committee, 1817-1944 (41 ft.), including supporting papers for petitions for private laws during much of the 19th century; and legislative dockets, 1907-29 (31 vols., 5 ft.), containing entries for each private bill introduced from the 60th to the 71st Congress, which are indexed in each volume by name of claimant. Legislative case files for private bills, 1887-1901, and all bills and resolutions, 1901-46, referred to the Pensions Committee are in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions, which includes nearly all such records for all committees for the years indicated.

9.39 A turning point for the Committee on Pensions was World War I. In 1917 veterans benefits programs took a new direction when the Committee on Finance assumed responsibility for the war risk insurance program. This measure and others that followed represented a fundamental shift away from pensions as gratuities to benefits, such as low-cost Government insurance, as compensation. Other elements of veterans benefits came to include vocational rehabilitation and medical care for service-connected disabilities. Thereafter the Committee on Finance exercised authority over matters about which the Committee on Pensions had been concerned, and with the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946, the Pensions Committee was abolished along with several minor standing committees.

9.40 A number of printed sources may be useful to researchers using these records. For example, volume six of the U.S. Statutes at Large comprises all private laws enacted from 1789 through March 3, 1845 (1st-28th Congresses). In the 19th century, the Congress also published occasionally, either as House or Senate documents in the Congressional Serial Set, lists of persons on the pension rolls, with related information. Most comprehensive are five volumes published in 1883 as serial volumes 2078-2082, which give name of pensioner, reason for the pension, post office address, rate of pension per month, and date of original allowance. For an excellent summary of pension records at the National Archives, see Chapter 7 of the Guide to Genealogical Research in the National Archives (Washington, DC: 1982).

1816-1901 (14th-56th Congresses)

9.41 Nineteenth-century records of the Committee on Pensions (41 ft.) consist of committee reports and papers, 1817-47 (3 ft.); committee papers, 1847-1901 (11 ft.); and petitions, memorials, resolutions of State legislatures and other bodies referred to the committee, 1817-1901 (27 ft.). There are no committee papers for the 37th and 39th Congresses (1861-63 and 1865-67).

9.42 The subject matter of the records is largely personal for most of the 19th century. Both the committee reports and committee papers contain documentary evidence of congressional action in response to petitions of individuals seeking passage of private laws on their behalf. Many of the petitions and memorials referred to the committee also contain documents, such as affidavits and doctors' statements, and a few contain original military commissions or discharge certificates. The records also contain document withdrawal notices, indicating that in certain instances, the records were transferred to the Pension Office. The petitioners include Revolutionary War veterans, such as Samuel Nowell, who claimed to have participated in the Boston Tea Party (21A-D12, 21A-G14), as well as widows, such as Mehitable Smith, who lost her husband, Lt. Jesse Smith, in 1829 when the sloop Hornet disappeared in the Gulf of Mexico (21A-D12). Pension claims based on service during the War of 1812 and the Indian wars are also documented among these records. A few petitioners requested the establishment of pension agencies in their towns or areas.

9.43 From the 14th to the 29th Congresses (1816-47), the committee reports and papers, which are arranged by Congress and thereunder chronologically by date of report, consist of manuscript and/or printed reports, most of which were written in response to personal petitions. In some instances, the files also include papers obtained by the committee as evidence, such as copies of papers on file with the office of the Commissioner of Pensions or other offices to support their disposition of the petition. Records relating to the pension claim of Isaac Phinney, for example, include certified copies of his 1820 and 1823 schedules of personal property (land, tools, housewares, livestock) and a description of his family (21A-D12). Other files contain personal appeals to Senators for relief, copies of surgeons' certifications of disability, and affidavits submitted by the petitioners supporting various facts in their cases. The petitions on which the committee reported may be with the reports or in the series of petitions and memorials. In many instances, the committee did not report on petitions; in others, bills may have been introduced.

9.44 Committee papers for the 30th Congress (1847-49) are not arranged but thereafter, from the 31st Congress (1849-51) through the 49th Congress (1885-87), most of the records are legislative case files that are arranged either alphabetically by name of claimant or by type of bill and thereunder numerically. A typical case file concerning personal relief measures may include copies of the printed bill, petitions, correspondence, affidavits, medical certifications, and other corroborative evidence supporting the bill. Most of these after 1867 concern Civil War veterans. Beginning with the 50th Congress (1887-89), legislative case files for private bills are located in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions, and the committee papers are much less voluminous. For the 50th and 54th Congresses (1887-89 and 1895-97), the committee papers include Presidential veto messages of private bills. Case files on general pension legislation continue to be part of the committee papers until 1901.

9.45 Committee papers also include original copies of transcripts of certain hearings. These include hearings on S. 496, to provide for examination and adjudication of pension claims, February 6-May 3, 1880 (46A-E16); testimony to the Committee on Pensions of the Grand Army of the Republic, March 3, 1884, and January 19, 1886 (48A-E16, 49A-E19); and hearings of the House Select Committee on Pensions, Bounty, and Back Pay, April 7-June 12, 1880 (46A-E16). It is unclear how the transcript of this House select committee came to the Senate Pensions Committee.

9.46 Petitions and memorials referred to the committee also concern primarily personal matters. Until the late 1860's, most of these records have been arranged for each Congress alphabetically by person or place (i.e., petitioner, proposed beneficiary, State, or town); the remainder are arranged chronologically by date of referral. Petitioners for private acts include Mary Chase Barney, sole daughter and survivor of Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence (36A-H12), and Evelina Porter, widow of famed U.S. Navy Commodore David Porter (38A-H14, 39A-H15). Aged War of 1812 veterans and their widows sought passage of a law to afford them treatment comparable to Revolutionary War veterans (35A-H12, 40A-H17, 41A-H16), and, somewhat later, veterans of the Mexican War formed groups, such as the National Association of Veterans of the Mexican War, and petitioned for pension legislation for their group (43A-H16, 44A-H15.1, 45A-H16.2, 46A-H16). A smaller but otherwise similar petition campaign was waged by Civil War prisoners of war (47A-H19.2, 48A-H18.1, 54A-J27). Other petitioners protested a proposal to allow pensions to Confederate veterans (55A-J26) and supported a perdiem pension bill, which would allow pensions on the basis of length of service, not extent of disability or survivorship alone (50A-J19, 53A-J25.1, 56A-J29). Many petitions and memorials related to pensions were also tabled.

1901-1946 (57th-79th Congresses)

9.47 The records of the Pensions Committee for this period (20 ft.) include committee papers, 1905-31 (1 ft.); petitions, memorials, and resolutions of State legislatures and other bodies, 1901-44 (14 ft.); and legislative dockets, 1907-29 (21 vol., 5 ft.). Among the committee papers, only the 67th, 69th, and 70th Congresses (1921-23, 1925-29) have measurable amounts of unprinted records, mostly correspondence or executive communications. The legislative dockets contain information on legislative case files on bills referred to the committee that are in the series of papers supporting specific bills and resolutions.

9.48 The petitions and memorials are arranged for each Congress into specific subject categories or a general category ("various subjects") and thereunder chronologically. There are few personal petitions among these, which to the extent they are present, are usually filed under "various subjects." Rather, the petitions demonstrate lobbying efforts by veterans groups such as the Grand Army of the Republic in support of extending coverage of pension laws to Spanish-American War veterans and their widows and orphans (62A-J65, 63A-J65, 64A-J65, 67A-J49, 69A-J33, 71A-52) or advocating passage of any one of a number of bills to equalize or increase pension rates and to reduce the age of eligibility (66A-J47, 67A-J49, 68A-J48). Some advocated the per diem pension described above (60A-J103, 61A-J73), or the plan proposed by the periodical National Tribune to raise pension rates for Civil War veterans and widows (61A-J74, 69A-J31, 70A-J36), among others. Other veteran-related subjects of petitions referred to the committee include abolition of pension agencies (59A-J81, 60A-J99, 62A-J62) and passage of a law to award pensions to Civil War veterans of the U.S. Military Telegraph Corps (60A-J101, 63A-J66). Nonmilitary pension matters were rarely referred to the committee, but among these is a petition from former slaves and their descendants of Bullock County, AL, in favor of a bill to grant pensions to freedmen. Each petitioner listed his name, his age, name of master, State and county, and post office as of 1909 (61A-J76). Several petitons supported Representative Victor Berger's bill for old-age pensions beginning at age 60 (62A-J63), and others related to old-age pension legislation prior to the New Deal (71A-J51, 72A-J51). There are no petitions and memorials for the 76th, 77th, or 79th Congresses (1939-42, 1945-46).

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Bibliographic note: Web version based on Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives, 1789-1989: Bicentennial Edition (Doct. No. 100-42). By Robert W. Coren, Mary Rephlo, David Kepley, and Charles South. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.