|Letter from the Secretary of the Interior on
Implementation of the Arrears of Pension Act
February 18, 1879
FROM THE SECRETARY OF THE INTERIOR,
His views in relation to the proper mode of obtaining evidence in claims for arrears of pensions under the act
approved January 25, 1879.
FEBRUARY 19, 1879.—Referred to the Committee on Pensions and ordered to be printed.
DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR,
Washington, February 18, 1879.
SIR: In my letter of the 8th instant, transmitting a copy of a letter addressed to me by the Commissioner of Pensions
in relation to the act of January 25, 1879, granting arrears of pension, and recommending that, in view of the facility
with which fraudulent and unmeritorious claims for pensions may be prosecuted under the ex-parte system now
provided by law for adjusting pension claims, I had the honor to request that Congress give consideration to the
plan proposed by him in that letter and in his three annual reports.
The developments in the business of the Pension Bureau since the passage of the act of January 25 make it my
duty to again present the subject.
During the first six months of the current fiscal year 6,217 persons who served in the Army and Navy presented
claims for invalid pensions; an average of 34 per day. From January 20 to February 15 instant, inclusive (21 days),
2,301 claims for invalid pensions were presented, of which 409 were presented in the first seven days, 455 in the
next seven, and 1,437 during the last week.
Under the law it is the duty of the Commissioner of Pensions to furnish those desiring to make application for
pension with the necessary blank forms upon request.
Since the passage of the act the calls on this account have been more than ten times as numerous as for a year
previous, and average not less than 140 per day, coming from all parts of the country. The same tendency is also
evidenced by the great number of rejected claims (more than 2,000) which have been called up for re examination
since the 25th of January. Many of these are claims which were barred under section 4717 of the revised Statutes,
but the number not belonging to this class is unprecedented in the history of the office, altogether showing that
under the incitements of the arrears act there is a general movement among the persons who have been in the
service to obtain pensions, of whom there are supposed to be upwards of 1,000,000 living who have never applied
for pension. This extraordinary activity in presenting claims, when taken in connection with the fact that despite
every effort to settle them the file of undetermined cases has constantly increased, must inevitably overwhelm the
bureau under the present system, and the delays which now attend the settlement of the claims, amounting
practically to a denial of justice in many cases, will not only be greatly prolonged, but extended to a much greater
number of cases; and while 'the honest claimant will too often be deprived of his rights because he is too
conscientious to manufacture testimony, the government will be defrauded by the more unscrupulous.
It is among the most sacred obligations of the government to fulfill promptly its promises to those who were disabled
in its service or rendered dependent by its casualties, but in the present condition of legislation it is impossible for
the department to execute either promptly or properly the will of Congress in this direction.
The plan which has been proposed by the Commissioner seems efficient to remedy the most serious evils of the
present system, and to relieve the department from the embarrassments under which it has labored in the execution
of the pension laws, and which, in the present aspect of affairs, will very soon culminate in disaster both to the
government and to those who are entitled to its aid. I have heard no serious objections urged against its adoption,
except that it will entail upon the pension claimant burdensome difficulties and expenses in presenting his claim.
These objections are in my judgment groundless, and are urged either by those who have not appreciated the evils
and embarrassments of the present system or have not understood the operation of the plan, or by others known to
be interested in the continuance of the present system, out of which they are receiving an income in the shape of
fees. I therefore take occasion briefly to outline the general course of proceedings under it.
After the country shall have been properly districted, and the time and places where the commission, consisting of a
surgeon and a skilled clerk, will attend (usually at the county-seat of each county and other principal places in the
district), duly published, the proceedings will generally be as follows:
Upon the receipt of the application for pension at the Pension Office, the records of the War or Navy Department, as
the case may be, bearing upon the claim would be obtained, and a copy thereof, together with a copy of the
claimant's allegations, upon which he rests his case, forwarded to the Commissioner, with a specific letter of
instructions upon what points witnesses are to be examined. At the same time a notice will be sent to the claimant
that his case is ready for the production of the testimony required to establish it, specifying clearly the points to
which it must be directed, and the class of witnesses—i. e.. officers, comrades, neighbors, family physician, &c.—
whose testimony should, if possible, be produced. The claimant will then appear at the time and place most
convenient to himself and witnesses, he will then be furnished by the commission with a blank affidavit for each
witness, with the formal portions in print. Each witness will write, or have written for him by the claimant, in the blank,
a brief and concise statement of the facts to which he proposes to testify, and present it to the clerk, who will read
his statement over to him and ask such questions as will elicit answers showing the ground of the witness's
knowledge, and test the weight which should be given to his testimony. These answers will be written down below the
witness's voluntary statement, and the whole then subscribed and sworn to before the clerk. Meanwhile the surgeon
will take from the claimant, if an invalid, a full detailed history of the occurrence of the disability for which he claims a
pension, and its history and development, to which the claimant will subscribe and make oath; and also examine the
claimant to determine his physical condition, as well as the nature, degree, and probable cause of the disability
If any of the claimant's witnesses cannot attend with him, they may appear at another more convenient time and
place in the district, at which the commission will afterwards be in attendance. If a witness resides at a distance in
another district, the claimant will furnish to the commission his name and the point upon which he is expected to
testify, and he may attend at his convenience before the commission in the district in which he resides, and that
commission will forward his testimony to the first commission, and when the claimant shall have thus gathered all the
testimony he desires, the whole will be forwarded to the Pension Office, where the case will be settled. Provision
should be made so that testimony not conveniently obtainable by this process may be taken in such manner as the
Commissioner of Pensions shall direct.
These proceedings are simple, and the claimant in most cases would be able to produce the testimony in support of
his claim without the aid of an attorney. The commission would usually attend at each county-seat at least once in
each year, and in most cases once every six months, and would be able usually to take the testimony in five or more
cases per day.
The plan would operate upon the old pending claims as follows: They would be subjected to a very careful
examination by an expert examiner, and a letter and notice prepared as in a new claim, specifying one or more
points upon which the witnesses would be required to appear in person before the commission, but putting the
claimant to no needless trouble in re-establishing well-proven points in his claim.
The expenses of adjusting claims under this plan will not exceed the present annual expenditures for the same
purpose, and after the expiration of three or four years, within which period the accumulated claims will have been
disposed of and the business of the bureau brought up to date, will be very much less than the present expenditure.
The publicity of the proceedings, added to the scrutiny given the case by the surgeon and clerk, would, in my
judgment, be sufficient protection to the government against fraudulent and unmeritorious claims; while the simple
and direct methods of the plan would greatly increase the facilities of the meritorious claimant to obtain a speedy
settlement of his case, and thereby protect his interest, they would be an obstacle only in the way of those who
attempt to defraud the government. Very respectfully,
Hon. W. A. WHEELER,
Vice-President of the United States and President of the Senate.