AMERICA’S FIRST PENSIONS
Henings Statutes at Large, Volume II, Act I of 1675.
The United States has a long history of paying military pensions. In fact, disability and survivor pensions date back to the colonial period. The earliest pension was enacted in 1636 by the colony of New Plymouth. This law by the Pilgrims provided for the care of soldiers who were disabled in defense of the colony.
The simple, one sentence act provided as follows: “It is enacted by the Court that if any man shalbe sent forth as a souldier and shall returned maimed hee shalbe maintained competently by the Collonie during his life.” Records of Plymouth Colony, Laws, 106.
Similar laws were subsequently adopted in several other colonies, including Virginia, New York, Rhode Island and Maryland. Virginia Act IX of 1644 provided as follows:
“WHEREAS in the late expeditions against the Indians, diverse men were hurt and maimed and disabled from providing for their necessary maintenance and subsistence, Be it therefore enacted by the authoritie of this present Grand Assembly, That all hurt or mahymed men be relieved and provided for by the severall counties, where such men reside or inhabit.” Hening’s Laws of Virginia, Vol. I, page 287
In 1675 Virginia expanded its pension law to provide not only for the support of disabled soldiers but also promised to support widows and orphans. “An act for the safeguard and defense of the country against Indians” provided that “due consideration shalbe had by the grand assembly of the indigent ffamilies of such as happen to be slaine, and of the persons and ffamilies of those who shalbe maimed and disabled in this war.” This expansion of pension protections was adopted during King Philip’s War, otherwise known as the First Indian War. Hening’s Laws of Virginia, Vol. II, page 324 and page 331.
In contrast to today’s pensions which contain a specified benefit formula, the early colonial pensions did not fix the benefit rate. The benefit structure was addressed through the process of pension administration.
As the pension process evolved over time, the benefit rate would be set by law. For example, the Revolutionary War pensions were calculated based on a percentage of the soldier’s salary.
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Another great article on the history of pensions.