Wages of War discusses the impoverished state and mistreatment of many vets after the Revolution. Suffering Soldiers discusses the changing public view of vets and the causes of this change.
By the time Jefferson took the presidency, veterans, though honored to a certain degree, were not memorialized because citizens believed fighting for liberty was its own reward. The idea that the Revolution was a people’s war was popular; citizen-soldiers and people were the same and had suffered just the same during the war. The Continental Army was not included with this group. They were seen as the dregs of society, corrupt and untrustworthy. However, division arose because of Jefferson’s poor defense policy. The Federalists believed a standing army was necessary for the protection of the nation, while the Republicans, under Jefferson, held animosity towards permanent armies, vestiges of fear towards the British standing army from before the Revolution.
During this time, the Continental Army and its hardship became romanticized. While the Republicans used the idea of the citizen-soldier as an ideal, the Federalists, in order to gain support for a standing army, used the Continental Army as a symbol of patriotism. Instead of being viewed a rabble and poor men, the army became a virtuous group fighting against the evils of corruption and tyranny. This became true of all soldiers, who had the so-called “spirit of seventy-six.”
As a new war became a threat, the image of the heroic soldier as well as the people’s war became a rallying cry. Young men were expected to live up to the valor, bravery, and self-sacrifice of those Revolution heroes who came before them. Publications of the time promoted unity and civic duty, with soldiers as a representative of American greatness. The spirit of ’76 was still strong. It soon became apparent that this was not the case as the British won many battles. The idea of the people’s war was dead. Now that of the American soldier, the suffering soldier, grew strength. The disaster of the War of 1812 showed America that a citizen soldier wasn’t enough; a trained military man was necessary to protect the nation. It was time to create a standing army.
Around this time the idea of moral sentiment grew popular. Society felt it had a debt of gratitude to repay to those who had fought for their freedom. Sympathy grew towards the suffering soldier, who despite giving up so much, was treated terribly by citizens after the war had ended. The indifference and outright animosity shown towards vets, as discussed in Wages of War, now made Americans feel guilty. Unlike the disgust aimed at impoverished and disabled vets in years past, these poor men were no longer to be shunned. In fact, poverty and permanent injury were among many signs of their virtuous characters.
Veterans used this recognition to make petitions to Congress in order to get their pensions. Despite moral sentiment and popularity, Congress turned down many of these petitions. Finally, in 1816 a pension act for disabled vets was passed. Then the 1818 Revolutionary War Pension Act was passed and soldiers of the Revolution were seen by all as brave exemplary republican warriors who were among the greatest of Americans.
After many years, veterans were getting the respect and the payment they deserved. It was an Era of Good Feelings in more ways than one. However, there were those vets that didn’t live to experience this popularity, and instead died in obscurity.
The new feeling that grew towards Revolutionary War vets is a perfect example of how history changes as outlooks on the present change. The experiences of the Continental Army were revised and romanticized to suit the needs of the nation at a time when patriotism was especially necessary. Veterans were then idealized when a movement of moral sentiment grew. This brings a question of how much of history is reliable. Can we really trust anything were learn as complete fact? When the whims of the people change, history can change right along with them.