Ballots for bullets? Disabled veterans and the right to vote.

Author:Belt, Rabia
Position:Introduction into III. 'There Is No Disguising It, Boys; the People Are Afraid of US!', p. 435-463 - Author abstract

Table of Contents Introduction I. Creating the Home A. Appeals for an Asylum B. Open for Business C. Home Life II. Disability and War A. War and Amputations B. War Trauma III. "There Is No Disguising It, Boys; the People Are Afraid of Us!" A. A Population of Dependents B. "Like Monkeys in a Zoo": Veterans and Disgust IV. Disenfranchising Veterans: The Cases A. Civil War Voting and Its Legacy B. Local Distrust C. Legal Obstacles to the Vote D. Jurisdictional Hurdles E. Charity or Benefit? Conclusion Introduction

Uriah Carpenter expected to be able to vote. Like any other potential voter in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1892, Carpenter registered, took an oath, and arrived at his polling place. (1) But Carpenter's attempt to vote was rejected. His offense? His residence. Carpenter lived in the Michigan Soldiers' Home, and the election officials believed that his residence in the institution meant that he was not a legitimate citizen of Grand Rapids. (2) Carpenter sued, claiming a violation of his right to vote. (3) He thus became part of a stream of Civil War veterans who challenged their disenfranchisement--and lost.

"Old Hank" Rose planned to vote, too. (4) He used to live in the Michigan Soldiers' Home as well, but the Home expelled Rose for refusing to bathe. (5) He then lived in an eight-by-ten square foot shanty with a "lame mule, pigs and a dog, sleeping on some filthy rags in a corner." (6) After he lost his shanty, "[f]or about two years he lived in a fence corner with a few boards to shelter him and a stove that furnished heat in the winter time." (7) Finally, he took up shelter on "an old couch amidst a number of old farming implements and under a roof, which [wa]s suspended in mid air by two old rookeries on either side of it." (8) Rose was an unwelcome newcomer to the town of Mason. The Detroit Free Press recounted that "people in whose vicinity he has resided have always persisted in trying to make him be clean." (9) At one point, "some young men carried him down to a lake where they dipped him in, scrubbed him good, shaving and cutting his hair. Aftre [sic] he had donned a new suit of soldier's clothes, he looked real nice, it is said, but it did not last long." (10)

Rose was an avid political enthusiast. Though once a Democrat, receipt of his full military pension of $12 per month had occasioned a switch: "Ever since he has been a stanch [sic] Republican, having been told that the G.O.P. secured the money for him. At that time he lived near Dansville, and the 'Demmies' there didn't like it a bit because of Hank's change of politics." (11) The day before the election, some townspeople from nearby Mason "kidnaped [sic] the old fellow, carrying him at least twenty miles from home, where he was turned loose." (12) Nevertheless, "[j]ust before the polls closed the next day, weary and footsore, old Hank limped into the voting booth by the aid of his faithful cane. He had walked most of the distance back." (13) The next year, the townspeople tried again, this time "blindfolding him, and zigzagging about the country." (14) Rose again managed to find his way back to the town. (15)

According to conventional scholarly wisdom, none of this should have happened. Carpenter's legal disenfranchisement and the attempted guerilla disenfranchisement of Rose run contrary to a longstanding, multidisciplinary consensus on the privileged place of disabled veterans in American law, politics, and society. Veterans are central to two major developments in U.S. history: the creation of the social welfare state and the democratization of voting. (16) Many scholars have discussed the democratizing effects of war and the positive benefits given to veterans. (17) In this Article, I show that, contrary to what this consensus suggests, the very war injuries that the veterans experienced and the welfare benefits they received actually undercut their political rights. Because disabled veterans received benefits and recognition from the government, they lost the right to vote alongside other citizens. Disabled veterans were considered too dependent for political rights.

The dominant scholarly account, spanning several fields, holds that veterans were immune to the discrimination otherwise associated with dependence and disability. A generation of political science scholars has contended that although the United States lacks a robust welfare system, it nonetheless provides disabled veterans with significant care. (18) Linda Kerber's work examines the other side of this phenomenon, showing how regard for military veterans privileged those male veterans over female nonveterans for the awarding of government benefits, including welfare and civil service jobs. (19) Gender and citizenship, poverty, and social welfare scholars demonstrate how military benefits were a key part of structuring a two-tier benefits system that treated women as stigmatized dependents and men as worthy recipients of government benefits. (20)

Law of democracy scholars also suggest that American culture and politics place veterans on a pedestal. Here, the argument goes that war served as the primary catalyst of voting democratization because it allowed veterans to cite their military service in successfully seeking inclusion as political citizens. (21)

Disability scholars also characterize veterans as exceptional. While disabilities have generally inspired fear, pity, or revulsion, they argue, veterans have often benefited from the equation of wartime disabilities with manliness, honor, and nationalism. (22)

This Article challenges and complicates this consensus. War was not just an engine of democracy. It was a factory of death and disability. As it disabled, it transformed. Citizen-soldiers became dependent citizens. And this dependency carried oft-detrimental political, social, and legal consequences. This Article takes a fresh look at the perennial question how the country deals with veterans who, as a consequence of war, become disabled. An examination of the lived experiences of disabled Civil War veterans contests traditional accounts of Civil War veterans receiving preferential treatment in U.S. voting, politics, and welfare policy. From the important yet overlooked vantage point of the veterans themselves, it becomes clear that disabled Civil War veterans often encountered disgust and disdain. Courts disenfranchised them, the political process sidelined them, and care providers offered them few effective treatments. Though such veterans did receive government benefits, these benefits brought with them the stigma of dependence and the sacrifice of independence, manliness, and racial privilege. Ironically, it was this very recognition by the State that led to the veterans' subsequent disenfranchisement.

Through a historical examination of congressional hearings and state court cases on contested elections, this Article provides the first scholarly treatment of the hitherto unknown systematic disenfranchisement of disabled Civil War veterans living in soldiers' homes. This Article canvasses state hearings, state court cases, and newspaper articles to take a closer look at the legal and historical record, shifting focus from federal policy to local politics and state law. Such an examination calls into question the privileged position of the disabled veteran. It asks how the largest concentration of disabled Civil War veterans fared in the arenas most central to political participation and civil legitimacy. It breaks new ground by showing that to a much greater degree than scholars have recognized, mental trauma rather than physical injury was the typical Civil War disability. As existing scholarship reveals, some physically disabled veterans--especially those with amputations--were able to transform otherwise stigmatizing disabilities into visible reminders of military honor. (23) But these men were exceptional. Veterans with mental disabilities had impairments that others associated with weakness and dependence. (24) Previous military service did not save them from disdain.

These findings reveal that dependence, deservingness, and disability were all key concepts animating U.S. voting practice and law. This has been at best implicit in much prior work. That lack of express attention combined with misunderstandings of disabled veterans' experiences has left the relationships between these concepts and U.S. voting murky and muddled. This Article explores these concepts from a new vantage point and provides insights that more accurately delineate their relationships. Moreover, the tangle of disability and dependence still ensnarls veterans today.

The conventional account contends that disabled veterans are exceptional in two ways: they receive welfare benefits when others do not, and they expand the franchise. This is particularly remarkable because access to welfare benefits is traditionally associated with loss of access to the franchise. (25) While disabled Civil War veterans received benefits as a result of their service, they were not exempt from the general negative ethos toward dependent citizens and the attendant consequences for dependent citizens' right to vote. Amputees might have escaped deprecation as dependent citizens. But the many more veterans who suffered from war trauma generally could not. Most importantly, they did not have their own distinctive legal status for political citizenship. As a result, they became part of a set of dependent disabled people rendered placeless and voteless by state law. Their disability status trumped their military history, even when those disabilities were inflicted in service to the country, and even when their dependence on the State was considered fair or just payment rendered by a grateful nation for military service. To a far greater extent than we have previously appreciated, voting and dependence are tightly linked. Dependence trumps deservedness even with veterans. Voting remained--as it in...

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