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The Disabled Vets of the American Revolution

Date: September 09, 2015
As this year’s Patrick Henry Writing Fellow, historian Benjamin Irvin will work on his book about how the young United States cared for its disabled soldiers after the Revolution.

CHESTERTOWN, MD–Distinguished author, scholar, and professor Benjamin Irvin is this year’s Patrick Henry Writing Fellow at Washington College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. 

To kick off his yearlong residency, Irvin will give a presentation on his work, “I Still have an Independent Spirit’: The Disabled Veterans of the Revolutionary War,” at 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, September 9 in Hynson Lounge, Hodson Hall, on the College campus. Sponsored by the Starr Center and the Rose O’Neill Literary House, the lecture is free and open to the public. 

Irvin’s upcoming book, tentatively titled I Still have an Independent Spirit, explores the lives of Revolutionary War veterans and the social construction of disability in the founding era of the United States. The title is inspired by Moses Rollins, a Revolutionary War veteran who bound himself into three years of indentured servitude to pay for his medical care.  He was able to have his leg amputated because a “good many” of his neighbors “throw’d in” to pay for the operation. When Rollins finally applied for a disability pension in 1812, he explained his previous reluctance: “I have fought and bled for the Independence of our Country, and I still have an independent spirit.” 

Irvin’s discovery of a trove of online pension files, underutilized by historians, sparked the idea for his book. His timely research aims to provide historical context for current debates over present-day veterans’ health care.  According to Irvin, the earliest U.S. pension administration complicated disability by causing veterans to feel a sense of failure as men. “Some individuals, such as Moses Rollins, chose to suffer in silence rather than to be branded an object of pity or charity,” he says. “This is an important discovery and I’m thrilled to pursue it at Washington College.” 

“Disability studies is a cutting-edge discipline within history and other fields, and we’re pleased to support a scholar who is doing important and original work in this area,” says Adam Goodheart, the Hodson Trust-Griswold Director, C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. “Heroic narratives of the American Revolution – which caused more deaths as a proportion of the U.S. population than any conflict except the Civil War – rarely account for the human toll. And Ben Irvin’s spring course will be the first class in the history of disability to be offered at Washington College.” 

Irvin comes to Washington College from the University of Arizona, where his course offerings have included “The Era of the American Revolution,” “Manhood and Masculinity in the United States,” and “Introduction to the History of Disability in the United States.” He has also taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where he held a postdoctoral fellowship at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies. He is the author of the young adult biography, Samuel Adams: Son of Liberty, Father of Revolution. His scholarship in the founding era, national identity, the federal state, masculinity, and disability, has garnered a number of fellowships which have taken him to Virginia, Boston, Chicago, and now to the Eastern Shore. 

During his fellowship with the Starr Center, Irvin will work in a private office at the Starr Center in the circa-1746 Custom House on the Chester River and live with his family in the restored Patrick Henry House, a 1730s-era house in Chestertown’s historic district. He will work on completing his second book and teach a course in the History department during the spring semester. 

No stranger to the Starr Center, Irvin’s first book was a finalist for Washington College’s prestigious George Washington Book Prize in 2012. Entitled Clothed in the Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (Oxford University Press, 2011). 

Launched by the Starr Center in 2008, the Patrick Henry Fellowship aims to encourage reflection on the links between American history and contemporary culture, and to foster the literary art of historical writing. It is co-sponsored by the Rose O’Neill Literary House, Washington College’s center for literature and the literary arts. The Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship’s funding is permanently endowed by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, with further support provided by the Starr Foundation, the Hodson Trust, and other donors. 

Washington College acquired the Patrick Henry Fellows’ Residence in January 2007 through a generous gift from the Barksdale-Dabney-Patrick Henry Family Foundation, which was established by the Nuttle family of Talbot County, direct descendants of the patriot Patrick Henry. 

Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in colonial Chestertown on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Based in the Custom House along the colonial waterfront, the College’s C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience fosters the art of written history and explores our nation’s past—particularly the legacy of its Founding era—in innovative ways, through educational programs, scholarship and public outreach. For more information on the Center and the Patrick Henry Writing Fellowship, visit http://starrcenter.washcoll.edu

For more information on Benjamin Irvin, please see: http://uanews.arizona.edu/story/ua-historian-studies-revolutionary-war-veterans


Last modified on Aug. 17th, 2015 at 10:37am by Jean Wortman.