Boston University School of Law


"Petitions Without Number ": Widows' Petitions and the
Early Nineteenth-Century Origins of Marriage-Based Entitlements

Kristin A. Collins

Laaw and History Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, February 2013, pp. 1-60
Boston University School of Law Working Paper No. 11-27 (June 8, 2011)


Between 1792 and 1858, Congress enacted approximately seventy-six public law statutes granting cash subsidies to large classes of military widows.  War widows’ pensions were not wholly unknown in Anglo-American law before this time, but the widows’ pension system of the early nineteenth century was distinctive in both scope and kind.  Congress rejected the class-salient approach that had characterized war widows’ pensions of the eighteenth century by pensioning widows of rank-and-file soldiers, not just widows of officers.  It also significantly expanded the scope and purpose of widows’ military pensions by extending pensions to widows of veterans, rather than just widows of men who died in the line of duty.  The significant equalization and expansion of widows’ pensions resulted in the creation of the first broad-scale system of marriage-based entitlements in America.  This Article argues that widows’ petitioning efforts played a central role in the development of this system.  Widows seeking pensions did not challenge socio-political conventions by petitioning Congress.  Rather, in both locution and purpose, widows’ pension petitions conformed to and reinforced dominant views concerning men’s and women’s social roles and responsibilities.  And it was precisely the conformist nature of widows’ petitions that made them effective.  Attention to these overlooked sources helps explain the emergence of marriage-based entitlements in American law, and enables us to construct a more textured picture of how, in the early nineteenth century, the law shaped women’s lives and women shaped the law. 

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Suggested Citation:

Kristin A. Collins, "'Petitions Without Number': Widows' Petitions and the Early Nineteenth-Century Origins of Marriage-Based Entitlements," Forthcoming in Law & History Review (2012), SSRN no. 1679919, Boston University School of Law Working Paper No. 11-27 (June 8, 2011).

Kristin A. Collins Contact Information

Boston University School of Law
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Boston, MA 02215

Phone: (617) 353-3126

Fax: (617) 353-3077

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