Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie Praises Our Work Promoting the Memory of America’s First Veterans

January 17, 2020



On January 9, President General Pless Lunger and American Revolution Institute Board of Overseers Chairman Mark Williams visited Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie at his office to present him with a replica of the painting A Pensioner of the Revolution, the oldest known portrait of a homeless veteran.

The work of the American Revolution Institute of the Society of the Cincinnati is attracting the attention of leaders who care about our history and recognize the importance of understanding the past. Among them is Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, who praises our current efforts to focus attention on the veterans of the Revolutionary War—the subject of our current exhibition, America’s First Veterans, and the theme of new public programs, publications, and educational materials from the American Revolution Institute.

We met Secretary Wilkie when he spoke at Anderson House on Veterans Day 2019. The secretary says he decided to accept our invitation—one of many he received for the 100th Veterans Day—when he learned about our work to preserve the memory of the American Revolution and educate today’s Americans about the first generation of American veterans.

“It is an honor for me to be here,” he told a capacity crowd, “among the keepers of the American flame, and those who fight against presentism, and who understand people like the indispensable man over my shoulder”—alluding to the portrait of George Washington—“are men imbedded in their times and struggled to make the best of what has been given to them.” He discussed the history of veterans, the debt we owe to generations of soldiers and sailors, and current efforts to transform the way we serve our veterans, demonstrating his appreciation of the Revolution and a detailed command of over 200 years of American military history.

Before he spoke, Secretary Wilkie took a tour of America’s First Veterans led by Curator Emily Parsons. He took a special interest in our daguerreotypes of Revolutionary War veterans who lived into the era of photography, and by what we believe is one of only two surviving examples of the Badge of Military Merit—the Revolutionary War precursor to the Purple Heart.

He was particularly moved by A Pensioner of the Revolution, one of the many treasures in our collections, and the touching story behind its creation. The artist, John Neagle encountered the elderly veteran on the street in Philadelphia on a snowy December night in 1829. He painted the portrait to draw attention to the plight of veterans. One hundred and ninety years later, Secretary Wilkie has made solving veteran homelessness a central goal of his work, and under his leadership the number of homeless veterans has dropped considerably.

The painting, he learned, publicized the plight of Revolutionary War veterans and helped persuade Congress to pass a law authorizing the first military pensions honoring service, without regard to disability or financial distress. “It would be great to have a copy of that in my office,” he said, not imagining that we would have one made for him to express our appreciation for his remarks on Veterans Day. The replica will go on display in the secretary’s office as a sign of the ongoing effort to solve the problem of veteran homelessness and a symbol of our mission to ensure that Americans understand and appreciate our Revolutionary past.

Learn more about our special exhibition America’s First Veterans here.

Read our latest blog post for more information on A Pensioner of the Revolution here.

Watch Secretary Wilkie’s Veterans Day remarks at Anderson House here.