Constituency Creation Through Federal Benefits: Democrats Use It Most Today, But Republicans Pioneered It

Most domestic spending programs are commonly associated with the Democratic Party and rightly so, particularly entitlement spending. However, they were not the first ones to dispense massive federal benefits and court political favor for it. The first party to do so was the Republican Party in their aggressive pushing of Union veterans benefits.

After the Civil War, the Republican Party became increasingly generous in doling out veterans benefits. At the conclusion of the Civil War, the Pension Bureau had been formed with the purpose of reviewing pension claims. These were initially for soldiers who had been wounded while in service. However, applicants for benefits found that if their claims were rejected they could appeal to Congress, its Northern members, especially Republicans, all too happy to dole out funds with little regard for investigating the legitimacy of claims. The purpose this served was to win the votes of Union veterans. Indeed, a strong lobby had formed on behalf of their interests called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). For a time, it was not possible to win the nomination to any major office as a Republican if you weren’t endorsed by the GAR. All Republican presidents from Grant to McKinley were Union veterans, and the only president who challenged pension claims was Democrat Grover Cleveland, who had paid someone to serve in the war in his place (yes, this was allowed back then). Over half of Cleveland’s 584 vetoes were of Civil War pension claims. The scope of these benefits was quite large: from 1866 to 1902 the number of beneficiaries increased from over 100,000 to 1 million, 21% of white males 55 and older were on pension rolls by 1900, and the program’s share of federal spending had increased from 3% to 30% (Costa, 1998). The average benefits for Union veterans were comparable to Social Security today. This constituted a leg of the table keeping the Republican Party dominant, as they ensured veteran loyalty at the polls. In 1879, the Arrears of Pension Act was signed by Rutherford B. Hayes, which permitted all Union veterans to reapply for pension and receive back payments to the date of their discharge, regardless when they last applied. In 1887, Grover Cleveland vetoed the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, which would have provided pensions for all veterans who served at least ninety days in service of the Union, were honorably discharged from service, and unable to perform manual labor. Cleveland thought this action might lose him reelection, and he was right: the GAR mobilized against him, costing him critical swing states of Indiana and New York, resulting in his defeat to Benjamin Harrison. He would sign the pension bill in 1890. The final expansion of these benefits would occur with Theodore Roosevelt’s Executive Order declaring all veterans over age 62 eligible for a pension, making old age classified as a disability.

The politics surrounding these pensions were often characterized by sectional tensions and angers. This trend was bitterly opposed by Southern Democrats, who still harbored ill feelings about the loss of the Civil War and were additionally peeved that Confederate veterans received no federal benefits. No Southern Democrat, for instance, voted for the Dependent and Disability Pension Act. A telling episode of pension politics highlighted the stark differences. In 1884, the House passed a bill providing pensions for veterans of the Mexican American War, with most Democrats and a little over half of Republicans in support. When the measure reached the Senate, however, the Republicans managed to narrowly block a Democratic effort at making Confederate veterans eligible for Mexican-American War benefits, with Senate Democrats overwhelmingly voting against the measure. The House would kill the Senate’s version of the bill for exclusion of Confederate veterans. Southern Democrats managed to score a partial victory when in 1887 they succeeded in getting pensions for veterans of the Mexican-American War, many who also went on to serve in the Confederate Army.

Democrats appear to have learned well from Republicans on this subject: Social Security effectively gave the vast majority of people an old-age pension, and ninety days of war service wasn’t even a prerequisite! The measure also provided unemployment and disability benefits, creating the modern welfare state. Social Security is often heralded as a great achievement in human welfare, but it was also a stroke of political genius: Democrats won working class and poor Americans of all races for several generations. The Social Security Act would be amended in 1965 to create Medicare and Medicaid, investing the elderly in maintaining a large federal government as well as future retirees. By 2016, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid made up 78% of mandatory spending and almost 50% of overall spending (CBO). While the Republican Civil War pensions were for the purposes of rewarding and providing for those who fought to preserve the union but also to secure their votes, the Democratic Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid are for the purposes of providing a safety net for the elderly and poor but also to commit these groups into supporting a large federal government. The ideology behind these approaches is different overall as well: while policies surrounding Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid fall under the liberal-conservative spectrum, Civil War pension politics were regional in nature and based on differences in views about the outcome of the Civil War.


Costa, D.L. (January 1998). The Evolution of Retirement: An American Economic History, 1880-1990. National Bureau of Economic Research. University of Chicago Press, 197-212.

The Federal Budget in 2016. Congressional Budget Office.

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“To Amend H.R. 5667, By Repealing Section 4716 of the Revised Statutes, Declaring That No Money Shall be Paid to Any Person, or Their Heirs, who Voluntarily Aided and Abetted the Late Rebellion Against the Authority of the United States.” Govtrack.

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“To Suspend the Rules and Pass H.R. 5667, A Bill Granting Pensions to Soldiers and Sailors of the Mexican War. (P. 1569-1).” Govtrack.

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“To Pass H.R. 5667. (P. 5529-2).” Govtrack.

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