Date of Award

Spring 2023

Document Type

Open Access Thesis



First Advisor

Woody Holton


This thesis examines how Revolutionary War widows deployed family archives as partisan tools to claim pensions. By reconsidering the relationship between women, family archives, and state building, it challenges established understandings of revolutionary women, nineteenth-century political economy, and memory.

Revolutionary War pension laws ignited fierce partisan debates. Since pensions would require Congress to impose tariffs and assemble a fiscal bureaucracy, they were generally supported by Whigs and contested by Democrats. Knowing that, women tailored their applications to their partisan audiences. Widows often appealed to Whigs by requesting welfare, citing their poverty. But when addressing Democrats, they framed the pensions they sought as overdue wages for care-work. These widows also challenged the process by which the War Department produced historical knowledge. The pension commissioner requested marriage certificates and written discharges. Women instead submitted bibles, samplers, gravestones, oral stories, and their own disabled bodies as evidence. When they lacked artifacts, they made their own: they asked clerks and treasurers to issue certificates attesting to the unavailability of evidence. By turning archival silences into tangible records, widows subverted pension officials’ definition of authentic evidence. And by submitting records they and their networks had created, widows insisted they could produce historical knowledge just as legitimate as memories generated by educated government officials.


© 2023, Riley Kathryn Sutherland

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