The Pension Grab

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/November 10, 1910

A man of marvelous and almost incredible courage is Walter H. Page, editor of the World’s Work. A Southerner by birth and a true lover of the South, he came to the conclusion several years ago that the Southern people would be far better off if they could but bring themselves to abandon bathos and hero worship—and being thus convinced he boldly said so, to the scandal of many folk south of the Potomac. No need to recall the harsh names applied to the idol-smasher by professional Southerners, sons of this-and-that, baiters of the unspeakable Yankee, merchants of maudlin rhetoric. Traitor and libeler were the least of them; the worst would probably bar this paper from Uncle Sam’s so moral mails. But did Mr. Page tremble, recant, apologize, lose his valor? Not at all. He know that the accusations he had made in “The Southerner” were true enough to sting, and so he let them sting—hoping all the while that the pain might do good. Far from being alarmed by the uproar or put to flight, he at once looked about him for new idols to smash, and as if seeking to prove his fairness and freedom from Yankee contamination, he chose this time one that was already denied and derided by his former victims, to wit, the Union pensioner.

Upon the Union pensioner Mr. Page is now conducting a bitter war, and despite the fact that all such wars, in the past, have ended in the overwhelming victory of the pensioner, he seems to be convinced that it is worthwhile to fire and be fired at. With the bona fide Union veteran, properly pensioned for wounds received in the service of his country, Mr. Page, of course, has no quarrel. He believes in such pensions and such men, just as every other fair man must believe in them. But with the professional veteran, the bogus affidavit manipulator, the bounty man, the home guard, the strutter in uniform, the whitewashed deserter, the $12 widow, the downright grafter—with these vermin he has no patience. He wants to expose them, denounce them, take their stealing away from them. He wants to see Uncle Sam drive them from the pie counter as common thieves. And he is willing, in the furtherance of his desires, to face that odium which at once attaches to every man who presumes to demand documentary proofs of the valor of self-confessed heroes.

 Congress And The Grabbers

Attacking the pension graft is no light sport for Saturday afternoons. It demands persistence, a good wind, a thick hide. Every member of Congress is well aware that a large proportion of the pension bills offered at every session are without merit; that the deserters who seek to have their records cleared really deserted their country in its hour of need; that the widows who beg for help are often mere speculators, old men’s darlings, kidnappers of the senile; that the disabilities described so eloquently in medical certificates are often the product of lack of exercise rather than of wounds—but what Northern member has courage enough to say so? To say indeed, would usually be an act of political suicide, for an attack upon bogus veterans is at once transformed, north of the Potomac, into an attack upon real veterans, and the man whose sole purpose it is to keep grafters from their spoils is denounced as one who seeks to keep helpless and deserving men from their just dues.

But Mr. Page goes at it, and the pages of the World’s Work bulge with his facts and figures. He shows how Uncle Sam’s pension bill has risen from $16,000,000 in 1866, when the country was full of maimed and invalided men, to $165,000,000 in the present year of grace—more than the British government spends on its navy, three times as much as the Japanese government spends upon its army and navy together. He shows, too, by specific instances, how bogus claims are made and allowed—how one man with a 60-acre farm receives $12 a month and cries for more; how medical evidence is manufactured; how deserters by the company, regiment and brigade are given honorable discharges and pieces of the pie; how the young widows of ancient fellows—women whose mothers were still babies in ’61—are pensioned for their sacrifices to patriotism; how the pension mill at Washington grinds so sedulously that, no matter what the mortality returns, the annual cost of operation never decreases.

The Real Veteran

The story, in itself, is unpleasant enough. It becomes more unpleasant when the fact is brought forward that most of the patriotic organizations, instead of uniting against the bogus claimant, seem inclined to unite against those who would expose and denounce him. Every effort to limit pensions, to confine them to the deserving, to bring down the annual cost of a reasonable sum, is mistaken for an effort to abolish pensions altogether. No such betrayal of the veteran, of course, is actually contemplated by anyone. The principle that the state shall permit no man to want who has stepped forward to defend it in time of need, sacrificing his health, his individual welfare, his very means of livelihood, is a principle so firmly established among us that no American thinks to dispute it. It was good enough for Julius Caesar, who demanded lands for his Gallic veterans, and it is good enough for us. But few among us, on reflection, would advocate its extension to men who were dragged into the field unwillingly, who suffered no injuries while there, who fled at the first opportunity. Why should we pension deserters? Why should we pension bounty men? Why should we pension persons so absurdly removed from participation in the war that they were yet unborn at its close? And why, finally, should we assume that patriotism itself, without regard to the damage suffered by the patriot, is a thing which should be paid for in dollars and cents?

The real danger, of course, lies in this last assumption. A man who asks for aid on the ground that his work in the war left him wounded or diseased and so handicapped him in the struggle for existence, or on the ground that age has left him helpless and alone and made it impossible for him to earn that decent living which every patriot deserves—this man will never ask in vain. But the man who demands a life pension on the mere ground that, in time of peril, he did a citizen’s duty—this man is one who degrades patriotism to the dust and makes sacrifice a mere trade.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection)

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism.