Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

The Life and Times of T. H. Gallaudet

Academic journal article Sign Language Studies

The Life and Times of T. H. Gallaudet

Article excerpt

THIS REFRESHING and revisionist study of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet (1787–1851) is a welcome addition to the canon of works in the field of Deaf history. Here, Sayers moves beyond the traditional “grand narrative” that has become a familiar story to students and scholars in the fields of disability studies, Deaf studies, and Deaf history: the romanticizing of Gallaudet’s interest in and instruction of Alice, the deaf daughter of his neighbor in Hartford, Connecticut, Mason Fitch Cogswell, a physician who sought an education for his child. The usual narrative continues that Cogswell received the backing of wealthy Hartford citizens and generated capital to fund Gallaudet’s transatlantic journey to learn the art of educating deaf students. Gallaudet first traveled to England and met with the Braidwoods, who were proprietors of private oral schools. Rebuffed by their secrecy and intrigued by the chance spotting of a poster for lectures by a French teacher and his deaf students in London, Gallaudet made a decision that changed the course of history. He continued onto Paris. There he met with French educators, including Laurent Clerc, and offered the young deaf Frenchman a contract to help found a school for deaf children in the United States. Gallaudet then brought Clerc and his pioneering methods of pedagogy back to Hartford, to a republic so new, just over three decades removed from the end of the American Revolution. The story, Sayers shows, is more complex and interesting than this.

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet’s family moved to Hartford, Connecticut, from Philadelphia. Hartford, at the turn of the nineteenth century, was a town of five thousand people and deeply religious—Calvinism predominated. Hartford’s wealthiest citizens profited handsomely from the slave trade. Even after the slave trade closed in Connecticut in 1808, staples such as corn and cod were sent to the Caribbean islands to support slaves that had been brought from Africa, who were eventually dispersed to South America and states along the Atlantic seaboard. Bankers and merchants who benefited from the slave trade also served on the board of the American School for the Deaf.

Gallaudet himself matriculated to Yale University in nearby New Haven, Connecticut. Gallaudet’s studies at Yale covered a range of scholarly and esoteric subjects. He graduated at seventeen years old before taking up law. Sayers frequently notes that Gallaudet constantly complained of manifestations of fatigue and constipation due to fiber deficiency and his addiction to opium. She discusses his general classism, racism, and strong bias against non-Calvinists. As Gallaudet founded the American School for the Deaf (ASD) with Mason Fitch Cogswell and master teacher Laurent Clerc, the school itself did not teach children per se. Most of the students were nearly young adults, and Gallaudet was apparently frustrated with their ill behavior and subpar academic performance. Religious instruction, Gallaudet believed, would save their souls. Sayers insists that “Mass conversions among the deaf had always been regarded not only as the school’s [ASD’s] primary purpose but also as its primary justification for using sign language” (135). Sometimes Gallaudet appeared unsympathetic in his administrative work, even appearing harsh to his students.

The chapter “Mission to the Deaf ” brings a closer examination of ASD’s operations in its early years, following its founding in 1817. After the Panic of 1819, the federal government gifted the school with land in two parts of Alabama. The school’s board selected William Ely as the agent to explore and mediate the land sale in Alabama. Ely, a Yale product and Hartford resident, was a trader who facilitated the sale of cotton and slaves off the gifted lands to pay off the debt for the expansion and construction of a new ASD building. Sayers writes that the “correspondence archived at the school makes its active complicity inarguable” (142). While the school has yet to acknowledge its interest in and profiting from the slave trade, its involvement was not unusual at the time. …

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