Slavery Reparations and Civil War Pensions

As a special task force in California develops proposals to provide slavery reparations to residents, it’s worth considering the only similar program in United States history, Civil War Pensions.  Then, as now, there proved to be no means to accurately assess claims, resulting in monstrous costs and an overall program that lumbered on for over 150 years after the end of the war.

In the progressive state of California, formally known as the California Republic, a commission has been established to study the feasibility of paying reparations to black Californians for the damages inflicted by slavery, the Task Force to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African Americans, with a Special Consideration for African Americans Who are Descendants of Persons Enslaved in the United States.  This task force was created under AB3121, directing a nine member group to “recommend appropriate ways to educate the California public of the task force’s findings” and “recommend appropriate remedies in consideration of the Task Force’s findings” in addition to developing the proposals themselves.  Perhaps needless to say, “members are drawn from diverse backgrounds to represent the interests of communities of color throughout the state, have experience working to implement racial justice reform, and, to the extent possible, represent geographically diverse areas of the state.”  After a series of videoconferences during the pandemic, the Task Force conducted its second in person meeting last week on December 14 and 15.  The proposed agenda captured some of the difficulty in addressing an atrocity that occurred over 150 years ago.  The plan was to discuss five key questions, including what we might call the elephants in the room.  “What are the damage time frames? This becomes even more important for the prioritization of African American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States. 1865-1960?  What year determines the beginning of harm?  Are there different starting points and end points for each atrocity category?  Will direct victims and/or all African American descendants of U.S. slavery in California (who meet the residency requirement) be compensated?  How will reparations be paid and measured to ensure the form of payment aligns with the estimate of damages?”

The meeting’s witnesses put the challenge in even starker, if slightly more absurd terms.  Max Fennell, a 35-year old entrepreneur and the first professional black triathlete proposed a total of $600,000 per person and 15-20 acres of land, apparently in an unspecified location. “It’s a debt that’s owed, we worked for free,” he said. “We’re not asking; we’re telling you.”  California Senate Candidate Deon Jenkins proposed an even higher cash figure, pegging the number to the average price of a home in California, approximately $800,000.  Some, however, were just happy the issue is getting attention from the public and subject to debate.  Richmond City Council Member Demnlus Johnson III noted, “You have to name a problem in order to address it.  Of course we want to see it addressed now, the urgency is now, but just having it all aired out and put on the line is a major feat.”  Considering there are over 2 million black people in California, that would put the cost of reparations at approximately $1.35 trillion for a single state if we use the lower figure.  Of course, how the other questions posed by the the Task Force would be addressed remains unclear.  They appear to be proposing a damages window that spans 95 years.  Assuming there was a direct descendent of a slave whose other descendants lived through the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow, does that person receive some kind of cumulative benefit based on “each atrocity”?  A person born in the middle of the 19th century could have around 500 descendants today, meaning for each slave, we could be paying reparations to hundreds of people, and you get a sense of the scale that any serious proposal would have to address.  Regardless, the Task force has until July 1, 2023 to submit their proposal and sort out these issues.

In the meantime, we would do well to consider how the only similar program in United States history unfolded, pensions for Civil War soldiers.  As in the aftermath of the war, fair-minded people can sympathize with the position of reparations advocates.  Slavery was an unspeakable crime committed against millions of people and restitution is not an unreasonable demand in principle.  In an ideal world, reparations would have been paid to the freed slaves during Reconstruction and the matter would have been settled long ago, but our world is far from ideal.  We are now over a century and a half removed from slavery, a period in which waves upon waves of new immigrants that were not involved in the atrocity arrived, making the practical challenges of any reparations plan insurmountable in my opinion, overwhelming any principle, however heartfelt.  At least, that certainly proved to be the case even in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War itself when how to enact a pension program for soldiers was a major policy and political topic.  There were approximately two million Union veterans at the time, many of them farmers or low-skilled laborers, and many damaged physically or emotionally from the horrors of the bloodiest war in American history.  It was easy to sympathize with them, throw parades in their honor and listen to their stories at rapt attention, but it was much harder to determine how to provide for them over the long term in an era without anything resembling Social Security or retirement in general, much less how to care for widows or orphaned children.  The first pension plan for Union soldiers was instituted in 1862 (Confederate soldiers were left to their respective states to handle).  It applied to disabled soldiers and widows of the deceased with payments based on rank and the extent of the injury.  The payments were generally small; a private who was classified as “totally disabled” received $8 per month.  Throughout the war, more generous benefits were offered as a recruiting tool, but there was a catch:  Payments were only made based on the time of the application.  A soldier injured in 1864 who failed to apply for benefits until 1874 would receive no payments for the 10 year period.

This persisted until the Arrears Act of 1879 provided lump sum payments based on the date of the injury, making the pensions far more attractive, increasing the number of pensioners and the cost to the federal government.  Applications swelled from 37,000 before the bill was passed to a whopping 110,000 the following year even though the system remained limited to soldiers who suffered physical injury during the war or the widows of soldiers who died, and the war itself had been over for fifteen years.  Regardless, a successful claim, whether based on a real injury or not, could result in a huge financial windfall and a seemingly endless well of public sympathy for veterans proved an irresistible opportunity for enterprising politicians to show how much they cared.  In addition to the public system, Congressmen began to introduce private pension bills on behalf of single soldiers or a small group, sometimes after they had been denied by the existing Pension Bureau.  The result was something of a feeding frenzy:  The politicians proposing the private bills cast themselves as guardians of their constituents and protectors of the downtrodden, while others voted in favor of these bills, hoping for the same reciprocity when their turn came at the trough.  The majority, and there were hundreds of them, were passed by a simple voice vote.  President Grover Cleveland personally investigated each during his first term in office, vetoing 228 in four short years because he found that they were based on false claims. Incredibly, this figure amounted to only 10% of the total number of private pension bills.  A little more than a year into the Presidency, Cleveland remarked that he was “thoroughly tired of disapproving gifts of public money to individuals who in my view have no right or claim.  “I have now more than 130 of these bills before me awaiting executive action.  It will be impossible to bestow on them the examination they deserve, and many will probably become operative which should be rejected.”  To cite one example, President Cleveland vetoed a bill providing a pension to John W. Farriers, noting “The ingenuity developed in the constant and persistent attacks upon the public Treasury by those claiming pensions…is exhibited in the bold, revealed by this attempt to include sore eyes among the results of diarrhea.”  In another a short time later, he concluded “there seems to be no allegation of present disability either from Army service or the injury sustained while gathering dandelions.”  Fanciful as it sounds, President Cleveland was not wrong.  The pensioner claimed he broke his leg in a ditch while collecting flowers, but the injury was slow to heal because of a gunshot wound fifteen years earlier and even this was a lie.  The soldier had been on sick leave when he claimed to have been shot.  Ultimately, the President concluded, “We are dealing with pensions and not with gratuities.”

Congress, however, was not dissuaded by President Cleveland’s forceful and, at that point, unprecedented use of veto power (he vetoed more bills in his first term than all previous presidents combined).  They sought an end run around a President’s ability to veto an individual bill, and passed a larger public program, the Dependent Pensions Act, by large margins in 1887.  This was a monumental expansion of  the program.  Any soldier who served for more than 90 days was now eligible, regardless of whether the claimed injury was the result of their military service.  President Cleveland correctly understood it would serve as an opportunity for massive fraud and an unprecedented drain on the budget.  Even the earlier pension bills were incredibly expensive, costing 7.5 times more than expected.  In 1887, pensions accounted for $2 billion a year in 2019 dollars.  He promptly vetoed the bill, much to the consternation of his constituents and with a huge public backlash, but his successor, Benjamin Harrison, signed a similar version into law known as the Dependent Pensions Act of 1890.  Almost immediately, President Cleveland’s worst fears were realized:  In three years, the number of recipients more than doubled – keep in mind this was now 25 years after the end of the war – from 465,000 to 935,000 – also keep in mind that there were only 2 million total veterans, not all of them still living by that point.  The costs increased astronomically as well, consuming a truly incredible 40% of the entire federal budget in 1893 alone, and giving rise to a new type of legal practice, the pension attorney.  This was still not enough. Nor were veterans and their widows the only recipients.  Widows could continue to receive benefits even after they remarried as of 1901.  Dependents could also qualify, and in 1892 the program was extended to nurses who received benefits simply by showing they could not support themselves.  By 1907, old age itself was considered a disability,  and by 1910, 90% of Union veterans that were still alive received a pension.  The last actual soldier to receive pension died in 1956, but the program lived on.  The last known widow passed in 2008, but still it did not stop:  Two dependents continued to receive benefits.  The last was Irene Triplett, who died on May 31, 2020.  Her father had fought for both the Confederacy and the Union, starting a new family at the ripe young age of 78.  The program persisted for 130 years.

It is difficult to imagine how any reparations program could do any better when the logistics of identifying eligibility based on a grievance that occurred over 150 years ago to a great-, great-, great grand relative in most cases are far more complicated than identifying who was injured in a war in recent memory.  In reality, it would likely do far worse: Millions who are not eligible will claim they are descended from slaves with no way to prove it, and any projection of recipients will be much lower than those who actually apply.  People rejected will tell their stories to a media eager to hear about the hardship, and a new legal community will spring up happy to appeal any claims.  If it happened with Civil War pensions, when the Federal Government was a fraction the size that it is now, it will happen a thousand times worse this time around.  Reparations will be paid for a hundred years or more, perhaps permanently. However noble the intention of the California Task Force, it will not end well, assuming it ends at all.

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