A social and cultural historian of British North America and the United States, Benjamin H. Irvin is the executive editor of the Journal of American History and an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington. His primary research interests include national identity, the federal state, gender, disability, and law in the revolutionary era and in the early republic. His first book, Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (2011), examines the material culture and ceremonies of state—including, for example, fast days, funeral processions, diplomatic protocols, and presentment swords—by which Congress promoted armed resistance and independence. Central to his study are the many ways that the American people challenged Congress and its vision of the United States. His next book project concerns masculinity, disability, class, and citizenship among veterans of the Revolutionary War. Focusing particularly on the family relations and occupational pursuits of impaired soldiers and officers as well as their efforts to obtain invalid pensions from state and federal governments, Irvin’s investigation illuminates the many ways that political ideologies, social norms, medical technologies, labor practices, bureaucratic infrastructures, and domestic arrangements shaped veterans' experiences as they struggled to subsist in Jefferson's yeoman republic. In support of this project, Irvin spent spring 2014 as the Emilia Galli Struppa Fellow at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and 2016-2017 as the Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College.
This lecture examines the lives and pension histories of Revolutionary War veterans in order to investigate the nexus between disability and the nation-state in the early U.S. republic. After the Revolutionary War, monetary pension benefits constituted the foremost accommodation of impaired veterans. However, the state and federal governments that distributed those benefits were young and unseasoned. During the Critical Period, and after ratification of the Constitution, these governments underwent rapid but often haphazard legal, political, and fiscal transformation. Soldiers and officers impaired during the War for Independence commonly experienced disability as the construct of a fledgling, cash-strapped republic. At the same time, the administration of Revolutionary War disability pensions propelled the United States toward greater constitutional stability. The enactment and implementation of federal pension laws necessitated the prior resolution of troublesome constitutional quandaries; they forced jurists and legislators to contend with and remedy certain defects inherent in their new system of laws. The federal republic contoured the lived experience of veterans’ disability, and in turn, the lived experience of veterans’ disability contoured the federal republic. In this way, disability was fundamental to the founding of the United States.