Abstract

This essay explores the American Deaf community as a revealing limit-case for constructions of nineteenth-century national identity — specifically, how the religious boom during the Second Great Awakening rhetorically, structurally, and conceptually clashed with the Deaf community it spawned. The argument has three parts. The first part is a prehistory that explores the relationship between early nineteenth-century evangelism and construction of the first American Deaf community. The second part probes the hearing-based rhetoric and practice of evangelical preachers and the problems that deaf people the posed to emerging Protestant-American identity. The last section focuses on the actual battleground — language — arguing that oralism/manualism conflicts grew impassioned because they both located issues that deaf people raised with regard to oral transmission and became a lightning rod for less articulable threats to national unity. Finally, I suggest that many significant contributions Deaf studies has to offer American history and historiography have yet to be explored.

He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear.

- Matthew 11:15; Mark 4:9; Luke 14:35

In 1855, John Flournoy implored the U.S. government to create a state exclusively for deaf citizens. Joining a chorus of 1850s separatist cries threatening to dissolve the republic, including William Lloyd Garrison's "no union with slavery!" Flournoy argued deaf people were not full citizens.1 "Gallaudet," he claimed, was the "manifest destiny of our people," a space where deaf people could "have a small republic of our own, under our sovereignty, and independent of all hearing interference."2 Flournoy's efforts reflected desire more than feasibility.3 But the campaign for statehood did articulate very real, significant strains surfacing between the newly emergent Deaf community and the nation; deaf Americans, even those educated through sign language, were functionally restricted from participation in the nation's orally-dominated life.

Innovative educator Horace Mann saw the problem differently. While Flournoy envisioned separation as necessary for full citizenship, Mann considered the problem one of language. Mann found it "a great blessing of a deaf-mute to be able to converse in the language of signs" but believed "[t]he power of uttering articulate sounds — of speaking as others speak — alone restores him to society."4 Mann anticipated in the 1840s what would occupy politicians and deaf educators for over a hundred years: manual versus oral instruction. Later proponents of oralism grew harsher, arguing that deaf Americans could not judge their own interests.5 Late in the century, rising tensions split the Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf over the issue of oral instruction.6 Edward Gallaudet, son of manualist educator Thomas Gallaudet accused oralists of working "to engender serious if not permanent antagonism."7 Thus, from the 1840s onward, mounting tensions over Deaf separatism gestured insistently toward a larger cultural issue: what is/was/would be the relationship of the Deaf community to the American one?

Scholars have suggested some answers. Douglas Baynton importantly demonstrates historical attitudes toward deaf people, specifically toward sign language, often reflect trends in American society: that, for example, arguments for the "naturalness" of sign language partook of antebellum Romanticism and concerns about the "foreignness" of sign-language users stemmed from late-nineteenth century xenophobia.8 Baynton further hypothesizes that attitudes toward deaf people shifted drastically during the Civil War due to a sudden rise in nationalism:

Before the 1860s, deafness was most often described as an affliction that isolated the individual from the Christian community. Its tragedy was that deaf people lived beyond the reach of the gospel. After the 1860s, however, deafness was redefined as a condition that isolated people from the national community. Deaf people were cut off from the English speaking American culture, and that was the tragedy.9

While Baynton is right that tensions escalated dramatically after the Civil War, my antebellum examples suggest this was not a radical break. Rather, efforts to Christianize and nationalize deaf people form part of a continuous, complicated, evolving relationship. Second-Great-Awakening impulses that gave rise to deaf education and the Deaf community were the very same impulses awakening the country to its own cohesive consciousness — and, though the Deaf community was created to bring deaf citizens into the emerging religious and national fold, this relationship was always uneasy.10 Deaf people posed unique challenges to the construction of national identity.

This essay explores the American Deaf community as a revealing limit-case for constructions of nineteenth-century national identity — specifically, how the religious boom during the Second Great Awakening rhetorically, structurally, and conceptually clashed with the Deaf community it spawned. My argument has three parts. The first part is a prehistory that explores the relationship between early nineteenth-century evangelism and construction of the first American Deaf community. The second part probes the hearing-based rhetoric and practice of evangelical preachers and the problems the American Deaf community posed to emerging Protestant-American identity. The last part focuses on the actual battleground — language — arguing that oralism/manualism conflicts grew impassioned because they both located issues deaf people raised with regard to oral transmission and also became a lightning rod for less articulable threats to national unity. Finally, I suggest that many of the significant contributions Deaf studies has to offer American history and historiography have yet to be explored.

Early America and the Second Great Awakening in Northwestern Connecticut

The first years of the American Republic were unstable. Issues of national security — Shays' Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, the Tripolitan War, the Quasi War with France and continuing tensions with England — highlighted the precarious situation of the new nation. Amidst this turmoil, United States residents began the arduous process of crafting a new national identity out of disparate communities formerly unified only by their status as British subjects.

Historians have long contended that the variegated religious event known as Second Great Awakening was the engine of this unity and helped create a stronger sense of national identity. Much like the shift in American politics over the first half of the nineteenth century, which moved from a republican system of representation to a more direct democratic one, evangelical Protestantism shifted increasingly toward a model of direct and equal access to God. This meant that rather than including only "a few — commonly well-to-do folk — for salvation," evangelists promoted a salvation that "lay open to all who would seize it."11 Following historian Robert Wiebe, Nathan Hatch notes "only land could compete with Christianity as the pulse of a new democratic society."12 And while the Second Great Awakening refers to a conglomeration of radically different movements, broadly speaking, it fostered the spread of Christianity in the U.S. by privileging direct individual experience with divinity.

Religious revivals spread quickly and had profound cultural impact. Donald Matthews argues "the Awakening in its social aspects was an organizing process that helped give meaning and direction to people suffering in various degrees from the social strains of a nation on the move in new political, economic, and geographic areas."13 Mark Noll clarifies: "[… E]arly national culture [was] politically fragmented, culturally barren, floundering in unprecedentedly vast amounts of space, and nearly overwhelmed by fractious local allegiances."14 But evangelical Christianity played a "critical" role in "building the walls of nationhood" through its "organizational and ideological" consolidation of the nation.15 Of all early nineteenth-century national transformations, the Second Great Awakening had the greatest impact because it encouraged citizens to participate in an intensely personal experience that was also national. More unifying than local politics or other cultural movements, this religious sweep pushed citizens to connect both personally and locally — in the immediate context of the revivals and camp meetings — as well as nationally — in that those revivals and camp meetings swept America.

For the Deaf community, the most important incarnation of the Second Great Awakening was its early Connecticut phase when Hartford and Litchfield counties were set ablaze by religious revivalism.16 New Divinity preachers spread quickly and aggressively across the Connecticut countryside capturing the heads and hearts of lapsed Christians.17 The magnitude was enormous: in its most active years, revivals transformed the social and religious landscape of Connecticut, increasing church membership by up to 100 people per town per year in a region where only Hartford boasted 5,000 residents and most towns were much smaller.18 It was here that both New Divinity revivalism and the American Deaf community were born.

Though the Connecticut phase is usually depicted as more staid than the 'enthusiasm' of later revivalism, it shared methodology with the itinerant revivals that swept the nation.19 Connecticut preachers understood that carefully wrought theological arguments were useful but did not convert sinners. During revivals evangelists deliberately avoided writing down complete sermons so that the spirit of God might spontaneously fill them in the act; extemporaneous preaching was crucial to success.20 The electrifying regional minister Edward Griffin once brought a whole congregation to tears by uttering a single, well-timed sentence.21 The repetition of revival sermons also enabled spontaneity, allowing ministers to rely on mental outlines and inspiration.22 Such methods set the stage for the preaching of evangelists like Charles Grandison Finney who was born and spent time in the region, and who later encouraged ministers "to throw out their notes, look their audience square in the face, and preach in a style that was colloquial, repetitious, conversational, and lively — 'the language of common life.'"23 Impromptu speech facilitated the auditory flexibility of sermons. Adopting language and style to audiences, auditory and performative versatility were keys to success.24 Finally, New Divinity preachers encouraged on-spot emotional responses, if more restrained, than their western counterparts. David Kling writes, "the New Divinity psychic counterpart […] to the physical shaking, rolling, dancing, jerking, and barking of the frontier revivals was stillness, silent weeping, and melancholy."25 These procedural and affective practices drew Americans into new religious and social communities.26

That Connecticut's more staid awakening took part in national practices is not surprising. Not only did Northwestern Connecticut help spawn many of the later movements, but it was also closely linked to those revivals. Men like Lyman Beecher, who himself preached for a decade in Litchfield, envied the talents of early Connecticut men like Edward Griffin.27 Itinerant preachers Charles Finney and Lorenzo Dow, who transformed the religious and cultural landscape from South Carolina to Maine, were born and raised near Hartford.28 The spectacular history of Northwestern Connecticut during the Second Great Awakening suggests the region's ties to the burgeoning national movement.

The Religious Beginnings of Deaf Education

It was this surge of Connecticut evangelism that spurred minister Thomas Gallaudet to help found the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb at Hartford in 1817.29 Gallaudet spent most of his life in Hartford except for his months in Europe and a few brief years at Yale and Andover studying with New Divinity preachers like Timothy Dwight. Opening the Asylum, he articulated his mission: that deaf people "may not only be rescued from intellectual darkness, but that they may also be brought to a knowledge of the truth as it is in Jesus, and finally be found among the redeemed of the Lord."30 The annual reports confirm the institution's continued commitment to Deaf salvation, lauding student spiritual inquiry, religious practice, and salvation narratives.31

But this rosy picture of Calvinist redemption was complicated by the prominent presence of French Catholic instructor, Laurent Clerc. Gallaudet had gone to learn Deaf instruction from the British, but his access was blocked, so he turned to French instructor Abbé Sicard. When Gallaudet found sign language difficult, he convinced pupil/instructor Laurent Clerc to return with him and educate America's deaf. Seeking to minimize Clerc's problematic religious and political affiliations, Gallaudet limited Clerc's teaching to

grammar, language, arithmetic, the globe, geography, [and] history; the Old Testament as contained in the Bible, and the New Testament including the life of Jesus Christ, the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles of Saint Paul, Saint John, Saint Peter, and Saint Jude. He is not to be called upon to teach anything contrary to the Roman Catholic religion which he professes and in which faith he desires to live and die.32

Gallaudet taught "all matters of religious teaching which may not be in accordance with [Catholicism]."33 Still, entrusting geography, history and Jesus Christ to a man whose social, political, and religious paradigms differed radically from those of his Protestant backers was potentially problematic. 34 Furthermore, Gallaudet believed such separation disingenuous and detrimental. Elsewhere he writes: "The religious instruction of children should be made a prominent part of the whole course of their education, and blended with all the other studies and pursuits."35 He considered the isolation of religious education a "strange inconsistency […] Why this want of harmony of influence, of unity of design, of singleness of purpose, in training up the heirs of immortality!"36

The American Asylum needed to rely on a committed French Catholic to help make deaf students good Protestant Americans. This intrinsic tension is notable in Clerc's absence from descriptions of the first years of the American Asylum. Newspapers and annual reports rarely mention Clerc despite Gallaudet's admission that "our country will ever be indebted" to Clerc and is "yet, under his skill and guidance, to be trained to the complete mastery of the science and practice of their profession."37 Though Clerc remained on the instructor list for years, his direct student impact slipped into reports only through the cracks. Published letters from students to Napoleon, sympathetic depictions of France, and a French essay "On the Advantages of Civil Liberty" all testify Clerc's influence.38

Hearing the Word of God: Structural and Rhetorical Incompatibilities between the Deaf Community and American Revivalism

But the problem of integrating the Hartford's Deaf students into the American Protestant community extended far beyond Clerc's Catholicism. In many ways, while the American Deaf community was created to bring deaf individuals into the religious and national fold, the nature of deafness revealed structural and rhetorical problems with this vibrant national movement. While the Second Great Awakening sold itself as a force unifying American culture, the burgeoning Deaf community revealed it otherwise.

Deaf students must have been exposed to revivalist discourse circulating around Hartford.39 It would have been difficult, in fact, to live in Northwestern Connecticut and remain oblivious. Hartford was a printing hub of the Connecticut phase of the Second Great Awakening during a moment when evangelists considered the circulation of information key to American conversion.40 Publications like Hartford's The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine attest this wide dissemination of revival news and practices.41 Nevertheless, it would also have been clear to Deaf students, as to other Connecticut residents, that New Divinity evangelicals privileged conversion through speech and oral appeals to the heart. New Divinity leaders still wrote intellectually, but, as historian David Kling has argued, these Second Great Awakening preachers "understood that they were engaged in two different modes of communication."42 Writing prepared the head; preaching redeemed the heart. As the American Asylum grew, these practices became more pronounced. In the 1820s, New Divinity evangelism lost its totalizing grasp, and other denominations swept through — denominations that were more explicitly dependent upon the spoken word. By 1831, for example, Methodist Charles Finney had lit up the Connecticut countryside with his fiery oratory.43 It became increasingly clear that extemporaneous speech was the key to salvation. While the annual reports of the Asylum celebrate Deaf participation in this conversion fervor, student testimonies within offer a counter-narrative. Repeatedly, students seem preoccupied with the limitations of their access to revival narratives and preaching. One twenty-five year old woman describes watching her sister saved at church:

I was much surprized in looking at her & she became a new Christian. I wondered at her, because nobody told me about her. I was anxious in looking at her & I wished to be taught by her about Religion. She was very happy to talk with her friends. I thought I would resolve to imitate her, but I was mistaken. Then I dreamed about the large sun which was like a king who would punish me. I besought my sister to save me from him, but she said to me she could not save me.44

Here conversion is auditory. The student finds herself barred from redemption by tremendous obstacles. Repeatedly, she seeks and cannot find access by looking. She then wishes to be "told" and "taught" but is denied despite her sister's willingness to "talk with her friends." Sight, hope, imitation, request, and finally imagination fail her. She learns that in her native community hearing is the avenue to salvation. Similarly, her peer writes, "When I went to church, I could not understand what the minister addressed the hearers. I believed that I would never be civilized, because I saw that nobody could teach me any thing to conduct like those wise persons."45 One man's Sabbath recitations led friends to declare "that I would become a minister if I lived" but going deaf rendered him both "ignorant" and vocation-less.46 Barred from preaching, he wishes only "to read the Bible and often pray with my friends. I should have many friends if I had not lost my hearing. I have very few now. They sometimes mock me because I am deaf." 47

These narratives suggest that beneath the blithe celebration of deaf salvation lay a recognition of the major incompatibilities between New Divinity evangelism and the actualities of Hartford's Deaf community. These tensions were exacerbated not only by revivalist practice but also its rhetoric. Extemporaneous preaching moved the crowds; hearing-based rhetoric rendered such transmission natural. The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine, for example, imagined that through revivals "Knowledge, especially divine knowledge, will be astonishingly increased. 'In that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.'"48 Yale president Timothy Dwight who trained many Connecticut evangelists, including Gallaudet, and who was an early advocate of the Asylum spoke similarly.49 Dwight explained that God gives up on "wretched prodigals, so that, hereafter, his word will fail of all useful efficacy on them; and Sabbaths return, the sanctuary open its doors, prayers ascend, and sermons call to repentance and eternal life in vain […] the last sound of the voice of mercy has died upon the ear."50 In addition to aligning deafness with prodigality, Dwight frequently punctuated his sermons with the biblical call: "He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear." 51

Hearing-based rhetoric was crucial to Second Great Awakening beyond its Connecticut phase. Charles Finney provides an ideal example because of his reliance on this language, the scope and longevity of his influence across the nation, and his ties to Connecticut, specifically. Like Dwight, Finney repeatedly deploys "He that hath an ear" rhetoric, and, in his instruction on "how to preach the gospel," Finney frequently uses auditory metaphors.52 The following vignette suggests how such metaphors worked. Finney begins:

Suppose yourself to be standing on the banks of the Falls of Niagara. As you stand upon the verge of the precipice, you behold a man lost in deep reverie, approaching its verge unconscious of his danger. He approaches nearer and nearer, until he actually lifts his foot to take the final step that shall plunge him in destruction. At this moment you lift your warning voice above the roar of the foaming waters, and cry out, Stop. The voice pierces his ear, and breaks the charm that binds him; he turns instantly upon his heel, all pale and aghast he retires […] and on your approach, he points to you, and says, That man saved my life. Here he ascribes the work to you; and certainly there is a sense in which you had saved him. But, on being further questioned, he says, Stop! how that word rings in my ears. Oh, that was to me the word of life! Here he ascribes it to the word that aroused him. But, on conversing still further, he says, Had I not turned at that instant, I should have been a dead man. Here he speaks of it, and truly, as his own act; but directly you hear him say, O the mercy of God! if God had not interposed, I should have been lost […] the preacher cries, Stop, but the Spirit of God urges the truth home upon him with such tremendous power as to induce him to turn […] Not only does the preacher cry, Stop, but through the living voice of the preacher, the Spirit cries, Stop.53

Here Finney's universal recipe for the redeeming of lost souls insists on the spoken word. Voice, roar, cry, ear, say, hear, ring. Salvation for Finney is auditory. The unsaved man — effectively rendered deaf by the sound of water and consuming nature of his own thoughts — almost plunges to his doom (damnation), 'deaf' to reality (the existence of God). The "warning voice," rises "above the roar of the foaming waters," "cry[ing] out, Stop" and "pierces his ear" to save him. That voice is nominally the preacher's, but it is really God's. God uses the preacher as a conduit of His divine message. The precariously positioned man turns at the call of God's agent. What's more, the spoken word, "Stop," reverberates not only in the ears of the story's newly-saved protagonist and the preacher's audience but also in Finney's listeners as Finney's speech itself enacts the divine rhetorical strategies it describes.

Deafness had long served as a metaphor for religious obstinacy and divine ignorance, but the Second Great Awakening's dependence on spontaneous speech made such language especially important. Historically, Geoffrey Bromiley writes:

The function of the ear makes it often synonymous with the "heart" and the "mind" as the organ of cognition (Prov 2:2, 18:15) […] God has created the ear (Prov. 20:12). Therefore, man has a great responsibility to use his ears wisely, allowing God to open them so life can be aligned with reality. There is, then, the ear that hears without comprehension or appreciation (Dt. 29:4 [MT 3]; Ps. 115:6; Isa. 49:8; Ezk. 12:2); on the other hand, if one is willing, God can open the ear to life (Job 36:10, 15; Ps. 40:6 [MT 7]) […] The ear is almost always given priority over the eye for the reception of revelation.[…] Therefore, Jesus heals the deaf (Mk 7:31-37) in response to the [Old Testament] prophesy (Isa. 35:5), for the Kingdom cannot come if men cannot hear the word of God.54

Religious revivals linked "ear" to "heart" and "mind," emphasizing seamless divine transmission. Individuals needed only to "open" or "unstop" their ears to receive God's word. What, then, did it mean for deaf people to feel and know the word of God but not hear it? Furthermore, if "heal[ing]" deafness is essential to the coming of God's kingdom, then deafness would be a central concern for evangelical Christianity — one not obviated by sign language. Problematically, even through education and conversion, deaf people remained, well, deaf.

Celebrated Deaf artist John Carlin poignantly distills the isolation experienced by the Asylum students:

Deep silence over all, and all seems lifeless;
The orators exciting strains the crowd
Enraptur'd hear, while meteor-like his wit
Illuminates the dark abyss of the mind —
Alone, left in the dark — I hear them not.

The balmy words of God's own messenger
Excited to love, and troubled spirits soothe —
Religion's dew-drops bright — I feel them not.55

In these few words, Carlin presents, if pessimistically, the relation of the emerging Deaf community to oral evangelism. The surrounding community is totally "enraptur'd" but to Carlin "all seems lifeless." Though he cannot know first-hand what he is missing (the case later Deaf activists would make for feeling no lack), Carlin's repeated negations reinforce his position as outsider; despite a sophisticated grasp of language, he finds himself "alone, left in the dark." 56 Carlin has been made to understand reading and writing are not enough. As one who cannot hear, Carlin casts himself beyond the reach of the nationally cohesive revivals.

What Carlin and deaf people inadvertently revealed was that the revivalist discourse that had built the community thrived on an assumption of direct access through oral transmission. Conversion and awakening only seemed unmediated processes, but more often individuals required preachers and revivals to be converted. These revivals functioned through a logic of transparency. Evangelists needed to be cast as conduits of God's word. Calling attention to the mediated nature of spoken language necessarily undermined larger national enterprises.57

Unique Challenges: Deaf America and the Second Great Awakening

Exposing the limitations of the rhetoric and practice of religious revivals was only one of a number of implicit critiques deaf people posed to growing religious and national communities. The structure of the Deaf community also, for example, denaturalized the Second Great Awakening logic of voluntarism. Revivals stressed that people had only to choose (the Protestant) God to become part of the national community. But as deaf people chose a voluntary religious community, they separated from the national one.58 Furthermore, deaf individuals' very existence had the potential to disrupt powerful theological cornerstones, namely revelation, predestination, and salvation. If it wasn't until 1817 that deaf Americans could know Christ, had God not considered a single deaf American worth saving until the nineteenth century? If, as evangelical rhetoric often asserted, God could choose to reveal Himself whenever He chose, why did deaf citizens require benevolent intervention? Was this the God supposedly available to all who were willing?

At first glance, such problems appear as though they might have been limited in scope. After all, the American Asylum was a singular institution located in Hartford serving only a few hundred students. But this description obscures the role the American Asylum played in the national imagination. Deaf instruction had been in the public mind for years before the establishment of Gallaudet and Cogswell's school.59 Additionally, the Hartford school attracted the attention of others who had attempted to educated deaf children and numerous articles documented its successes across the nation.60 The Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine state governments financially supported the Asylum almost from inception, and by 1830 Deaf schools in four other states had been modeled after the American Asylum.61 In fact, the name "American Asylum" was adopted only two years after the opening of the school, in recognition of the institution's national work.62 In ten years, the Asylum boasted students from 15 of 24 states — and even one from Havana.63 By 1833 Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, and Henry Clay had all visited, prompting more federal contributions.64 The American Asylum had a truly national presence.

National attention was tremendously useful for the American Asylum, and it also made the institution difficult to criticize. If Thomas Gallaudet had finally succeeded in educating and saving Deaf souls, who could question the school's work? This lack of criticism about the minority group's empowerment places deaf people in a unique position vis a vis the burgeoning national movement. Other minority groups simultaneously empowered by revivals underwent serious critique. Much has been written about women and African Americans in this light.65 While African American churches blossomed during the Second Great Awakening and women gained a religious voice through Spiritualism, cultural paradigms like pseudoscience curtailed these achievements: African Americans could be moved by evangelism because their piety emerged, as Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom illustrates, from natural simplicity. Women could be venerated Spiritualist mediums because of their innate sensitivity and passivity.66

Nevertheless, the limiting race/gender paradigms that carefully policed the democratizing power of the Second Great Awakening did not work for deaf people. In addition to the strong social and religious pressure to celebrate Deaf education, other social and biological factors impeded restrictive categorization. Unlike women or African Americans, for example, deaf people could not be conceived of as a distinct biological group. Even if pseudoscientific generalizations could be made about the congenitally deaf, many deaf individuals only become so later in life, often after serious illness. Socially, Deaf students — like other students — were mostly white, wealthy Protestants. The elite family ties of some congenitally deaf and the high percentage of non-congenitally deaf individuals in the American Deaf community made it difficult to generalize reductively. Doing so would have meant conceptually separating deaf children from hearing parents, deconstructing ideological buttresses supporting those parents' privilege, or blaming individuals for life-threatening illnesses that often caused their condition.

Deaf people posed a significant counterexample to the implicit logic of the Second Great Awakening. White, wealthy, Protestant — and, yes, deaf — individuals were, thanks to their own educational awakening, opting out of nationalizing movements. And as these fit members of society noticeably separated and stood by that separation, they revealed the problematic methodologies of other avenues of religious and national unification. But no solid counteracting theories could be deployed to deflect the danger of their increasing power and separation. The benevolent origins of deaf education, careful maneuvering, the lack of a central biological explanation, and the race/class/gender make up of the community made the mid-nineteenth-century Deaf inherently untheorizable. By calling deaf people "untheorizable," I mean to suggest that, for a time, no new limiting rhetoric could be deployed to circumscribe the emerging lives of Deaf Americans. Before Clerc, deaf individuals were cast as stupid, innocent and tragically unredeemed. After Clerc, informed Americans could not attach these attributions to the educated Deaf. This antebellum moment marks a major paradigmatic crossroad. The transformation of deaf individuals into educated Christians called for a new paradigm, but historical, social, and biological issues interfered with new constructions. Not until after the Civil War would heightened nationalism and xenophobia reorganize Deaf social constructions into a cogent theoretical structure; postbellum, men like Alexander Graham Bell would locate deaf people as potentially foreign with dangerous, hereditary disadvantages.

Sign Language in an Orally-Constructed Nation

These fraught issues help explain why sign language became a lightning rod for debate. Sign language was a logical focal point for two reasons: first, it was a concrete cultural feature both central to Deaf community and conceptually separable from deaf people. Because sign language's origins were French and because oralists believed in oral instruction's efficacy, deaf education reformers could think of sign language as a detached, foreign tool that, though brought with the best of intentions, had rent the Deaf community from the American one. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, Alexander Graham Bell would charge that sign language was "de l'Épée sign language."67 Second, sign language posed an enormous threat to the national cohesion being built by American evangelists. Namely: it drew attention to the medium through which ideology was being assembled — to the constructed nature of spoken language itself.68

What deaf people inadvertently revealed was that the revivalist discourse that had developed national unity thrived on the seamlessness of oral transmission. Conversion and re-awakening seemed unmediated processes, but more often than not individuals required preachers and revivals to be converted.69 These revivals functioned through a logic of transparency. Revivalist preachers needed to be God's direct conduits.70 Calling attention to the mediated nature of spoken language necessarily undermined larger national enterprises. John Carlin, sitting in a revival and feeling himself "left alone" in "the dark abyss" highlighted the limitations of the religious transmissions sweeping the nation.

The rhetoric of sign language's "naturalness" further threatened the transparency of oral transmission. For deaf people, oral instruction — especially in the absence of manual instruction — robbed them of their "natural" and "native" language.71 In "On the Natural Language of Signs," Gallaudet explains that the deaf child makes "descriptive signs and gestures, which his own spontaneous feelings lead him to employ" in "language which nature has taught him."72 Sign language "is not an arbitrary, conventional language. It is, in the main, picture-like and symbolical, corresponding, in these respects, to the ideas and objects which it is used to denote."73 The deaf child arriving at a manualist school "recognizes [signs] as the same which constituted the basis of those very signs which he and others around him have already invented."74 Thus, at manualist schools, the deaf child "finds himself, as it were, among his countrymen."75

Gallaudet continues, arguing for the inadequacy of spoken language even for hearing audiences. He extols "the genius of this natural language of signs" and "its decided superiority."76 "A visual language," Gallaudet avers has a "charm […] that merely oral language does not possess;" it offers "some of the deepest and most lasting impressions that are ever made on [a person's] intellect and heart."77 In fact, Gallaudet explicitly critiques antebellum orators for their inability to communicate feeling through language:

Our public speakers often show the want of [emotion], in their unimpassioned looks, frigid, monotonous attitude, and quiescent limbs, even when they are uttering the most eloquent and soul-stirring thoughts. Would they but look out and act out these thoughts, as well as speak them, how much greater power their eloquence would have.78

Signing remedies this "deficiency" and makes a "perfect communion" of souls possible.79 Through signing, thought and feeling might be "known and read of all men."80 Ultimately, Gallaudet concludes, for "all the finer and, stronger sentiments of the heart, this language is eminently appropriate and copious. Here, without it, oral language utterly fails; while it alone, without oral language, often overwhelms us with wonder by its mysterious power."81

Oralists, of course, fervently denied the innateness and universality of sign language.82 Signing was an artificial practice that rendered deaf people foreign. Alexander Graham Bell writes oralists deemed it "a crime to deprive a deaf child of the power of articulate speech […] A crime aggravated by teaching him a special language, peculiar to deaf-mutes that prevented him from mingling with his fellows of the hearing world and made of deaf children a race apart."83 Seeking to bring deaf people back into mainstream American experience, Katherine Bingham argued deaf children possess an "undoubted constitutional tendency toward speech" produced by "the cumulative inheritance of a thousand generations of ancestors who have employed this means of communicating their thoughts."84 Oralists imagined they would "socialize" deaf people and repair the tear manualism had rent in the fabric of American society. By teaching deaf children to read lips and sound out words, oralists hoped to "make our [deaf] children like ordinary hearing children" and erase deafness's public presence. 85 At the turn of the twentieth century, one oralist would cling to such illusions, boasting in Scientific American that oralism allowed "congenital mutes" to "speak so perfectly, that it is difficult to distinguish their voices from normal persons."86 It seemed that if deaf people could speak and look like they heard, the problem might be solved.

The tenacious fervor with which oralists attacked the manual system bespeaks the very real challenges deafness posed to the republic. More than just seeming "foreign," deaf people called attention to and troubled the tools used to craft American religious and political identity. Championing sign language as more "natural" (and better) than spoken words, Gallaudet implicitly, if unintentionally, launched a critique of national unification. Mythologies like nation-building narratives must appear independent of the time or tools from which they emerge and must appear seamlessly inevitable to be ideologically effective. Evangelical exhorters were not transparent vessels of God and nation; in fact, a revival critic announced, they told tales with "cunning" and "considerable art."87 Their sermons were carefully wrought. But the necessity of selling sermons as spontaneous, unmediated divine inspiration was crucial for the evangelical exhorter. Calling attention to the medium through which cohesion was built and its intrinsic limitations, the Deaf community revealed chinks in the newly developed armor of national identity. If there were good Christians whom "the balmy words of God's divine messenger" could not touch, what did that say about the words or the messenger?

Thus, when debates over deaf instruction and Deaf separatism reached their peak in the late nineteenth century, they simply organized cultural tensions present since the community's inception. In retrospect, such conflicts seem inevitable. Despite its benevolent origins, the Deaf community always stood in stark contrast to the national one, throwing into relief aspects of nation-building otherwise carefully concealed. This contrast proves illuminating and instructive for facets of Americanness that often go unexamined. While the American community was constructed through political and religious means, it was also cemented by the spoken word. In a culture where the spoken word gives you access to both heaven and nation, one must ask: what space is there for the Deaf citizen? The possibilities opened up by such considerations abound. Given space limitations, this essay can only suggest a few implications of the Deaf community's formation. Further studies are needed to flesh out more fully, for example, the relationship between the Deaf community and the actualities of citizenship or deaf access to — and participation in — other important cultural phenomena. Moreover, I hope this essay suggests an immediate need to bring the currently all-too-separate disability-studies histories into conversation with more traditional American historiography. Reintegrating expunged histories into dominant cultural narratives alter those stories by insisting on crucial aspects of American history and identity that might otherwise remain obscured. Finally, I have no doubt that examining these relationships will deepen our understanding of the past, but I am also certain it will make us reconsider our present.

I would like to thank Joe Strauss for his encouragement of this project in its early stages and both Sarah Chinn and Neil Meyer for their invaluable insight into the argument as it developed. I would also like to thank my enormously helpful reviewers at Disability Studies Quarterly for their thoughtful and provocative commentary.

Endnotes

  1. Like other scholars, I have capitalized the word "Deaf" when referring to the communal identity created at the beginning of the nineteenth century by schools like Gallaudet's.


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  2. Quoted in Jill Lepore's A is for American: Letters and Other Characters in the Newly United States (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2002), 108.


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  3. Lepore, 109. Having run three times for public office and gained little support, this project stemmed as much from frustrated ambition as it did from national concern.


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  4. Quoted in Lepore, 106. For further discussion of both Flournoy and Mann in relation to the political participation of deaf people, see Lepore's chapter "Natural Language" in A is for American.


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  5. Harlan Lane, When the Mind Hears (New York: Vintage, 1984), 367.


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  6. Lane, 367-8. The term "manualist" refers to a proponent of sign language, manual communication; "oralist" refers to supporters of oral education for deaf people. Oral education involves lip reading and sounding out spoken syllables. In these debates, deaf educators would advocate oralism, manualism, or a combined system.


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  7. Lane, 367-8.


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  8. Douglas C. Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996). See chapters 5 and 6.


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  9. Douglas Baynton, Forbidden Signs, 15, emphasis in original.


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  10. See Douglas Baynton's Forbidden Signs, Jill Lepore's A is for American, or Harlan Lane's When the Mind Hears for thorough treatments of the particulars of deaf history. Baynton and Lepore, especially, make important opening gestures toward bringing deaf history into conversation with American history.


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  11. Robert H. Wiebe, Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 19.


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  12. Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 6. Also see Wiebe's Self-Rule, esp. Chapters 1-4.


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  13. "The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: A Hypothesis American Quarterly 21(1): 23-43 (Spring 1969), 27.


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  14. Mark Noll, America's God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 194-5.


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  15. Noll, 195.


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  16. For another brief history of the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb as a benevolent Second-Great-Awakening institution, see Charles Roy Keller's The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1942), 166-171.


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  17. New Divinity in this context refers to the intellectual inheritors of Jonathan Edwards in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century New England. These preachers were especially interested in Edwards's balancing of Calvinist head and heart conversion tactics. For excellent discussions of the Connecticut phase of the Second Great Awakening, see Charles Roy Keller's The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut, Richard D. Shiels's "The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut: Critique of the Traditional Interpretation," Church History 49 (1980), David Kling's A Field of Divine Wonders: The New Divinity and Village Revivals in Northwestern Connecticut, 1792-1822 (University Park, PA: Penn State, 1993), Jonathan Sassi's Republic of Righteousness: The Public Christianity of the Post-Revolutionary New England Clergy (Oxford: Oxford University, 2001), and Mary Kupiec Cayton's "The Connecticut Culture of Revivalism" in Perspectives on American Religion and Culture (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999).


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  18. Kling, 255. As an example, David Kling offers: "In Litchfield and Hartford counties nearly thirty parishes experienced surges in church membership, ranging from 20 to over 150 new communicants and totaling nearly 1700 during the 1798-1800 revivals" (169). These numbers are enormous: until 1820, Hartford, New Haven and Middletown were the only places with more than 5000 inhabitants (Cayton, 359).


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  19. The Connecticut phase was also largely New Divinity Calvinist, while Methodists and Baptist flourished during the later revivals. My argument, however, is less concerned with theological differences than with the methods and rhetoric of conversion. For more on the unifying commonalities between the Second Great Awakening revivals, see Mark Noll's America's God, specifically his discussion of the "American Synthesis."


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  20. Kling, 117.


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  21. A student of Griffin's describes an 1825 revival in which Griffin reflected on eighteen unconverted men in the local community: "We waited in breathless silence for the Doctor. He came, and the lecture room was so crowded that he stood at the door […] He stood for a moment gazing through his tears on the crowd before him. Then clasping his hands and lifting up his face to heaven, he uttered in the most moving accents these words — 'Or those eighteen upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?' The effect was overpowering. For minutes he could not utter another word, and the room was filled with weeping. It was one of those inimitable touches" (in William Buell Sprauge's Memoir of Rev. Edward D. Griffin, D.D., Compiled Chiefly from his own Writing [New York: Taylor and Dodd, 1839], 260.


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  22. Kling, 123.


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  23. Hatch, 197.


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  24. For example, when Joshua Leavitt transcribed Finney's Lectures on Revivals of Religion, he insisted that he could only give a "sketch" of Finney's lectures: "It is hardly necessary to mention the Mr. Finney never writes his sermons; but guides his course of argument by a skeleton, or brief, carefully prepared, and so compact, that it can be written on one side of a card […] His manner is direct, and his language colloquial and Saxon" (from the "Opening Advertisement" of Charles Grandison Finney's Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Second Edition [Boston: Leavitt, Lord & Co., 1835]).


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  25. Kling, 5.


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  26. The title "The Second Great Awakening" suggests some common ground between these disparate phases. Donald G. Matthews also avers for seeing the social functions of the various revivals as a unifying feature between them in his essay "The Second Great Awakening as an Organizing Process, 1780-1830: A Hypothesis (American Quarterly 21[1]: 23-43).


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  27. Kling, 126-8; Joan Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 6.


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  28. Though Finney and Dow preached as Methodists, spending time near Hartford exposed them to the practices of New Divinity revivalism.


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  29. Deaf education was one of many reform imperatives established by the Second Great Awakening. For more on the Second Great Awakening and American reform movements/benevolent societies, see Charles Roy Keller's The Second Great Awakening in Connecticut, Jonathan Sassi's Republic of Righteousness, and Mark Noll's America's God. Additionally, it should be noted that many were involved in supporting the first successful Deaf education in America. Mason Cogswell is the other prominent name associated with the founding of the American Asylum. It was Cogswell who initially pushed for the founding of the American Asylum to help educate his deaf daughter Alice, though Gallaudet was most involved in the educational and practical aspects of the institution.


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  30. Report of the Committee of the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1817), 5.


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  31. For example, note the central place of the first student salvation narrative in the 1819 annual report (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1819), 10.


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  32. Lane, 203.


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  33. ibid.


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  34. Popular newspaper records and public announcements of the 1820s, '30s and '40s do not register these points of stress, but the fervor of both the 1850s deaf-state movement and the anti-manualist/pro-oralist push beginning in the 1860s attest to the fact that tensions had been brewing. It seems likely that critics evaded publicly voicing their concerns because of how impolitic it must have seemed to criticize state-funded, benevolent, Christian ventures. Most brief news features were written by people like Gallaudet who had a vested interest in the schools, exhibitions, and events that these articles announced. Tellingly, when these stories mention Clerc, they discuss his Christian mission but not his Catholic faith.


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  35. From Gallaudet's introduction to Thomas Babington's A Practical View of Christian Education (Hartford: Published by Cooke and Co, 1831), 9.


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  36. A Practical View of Christian Education, 10.


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  37. Report of the Committee of the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1818), 6.


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  38. The American Asylum frequently published student writing in their annual reports to demonstrate the progress and intelligence of their students. For examples of heavily Clerc-influenced samples, see the 1820, 1828 and 1834 annual reports.


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  39. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1820), 4.


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  40. David Kling writes, "Although New Divinity men organized themselves primarily to save individual souls, they expected that the sum of regenerate individuals would save the collective soul of the nation" (45).


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  41. The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine (Hartford: Hudson and Goodwin, 1800). For more information on the circulation of revival news in Connecticut see Cayton, 358.


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  42. Kling, 114.


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  43. Keller, 49. For a discussion of Finney's later visits to Hartford, see his chapter "Labors in Hartford and in Syracuse" in his memoirs, Memoirs of Rev. Charles G. Finney, Written by Himself (New York: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1876), 415-427.


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  44. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1822), 25.


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  45. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1822), 29.


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  46. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1842), 26.


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  47. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1842), 26-7.


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  48. From "A Missionary Sermon" delivered at the North Presbyterian Church in Hartford on May 17, 1814. Reprinted in The Connecticut Evangelical Magazine and Religious Intelligencer (Hartford: Peter B. Gleason and Co, 1814).


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  49. Keller, 166. Mason Cogswell consulted his friend Timothy Dwight about the project early on.


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  50. Sermons By Timothy Dwight, Vol 2 (New Haven: Howe, Durrie, and Peck, 1831), 238.


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  51. ibid. This second volume of Dwight's sermons alone contains six allusions to the biblical passage.


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  52. Finney, 14, 16.


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  53. Finney, 181-2.


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  54. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, Vol II: E-J (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 2-3.


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  55. Baynton, 22.


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  56. As Douglas Baynton argues: "Unless they once heard and became deaf, the word [, silence,] is meaningless as a description of their experience. (Even for those who once heard as the experience of sound recedes further into the past, so too does the significance of silence diminish.) Silence is experienced as the absence of sound. For those who have never heard, deafness is not an absence" (23).


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  57. Some have seen the relationship of American religious movements to the Deaf community more optimistically, arguing that religion has been an empowering and emancipatory venue for Deaf individuals, especially in the ordaining of Deaf clergy members. For further discussion, see Kent Robert Olney's Religion and the American Deaf Community: A Sociological Analysis of the Chicago Mission for the Deaf, 1890-1941 (PhD diss, University of Oregon, 1999), esp. 191-204.


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  58. Douglas Baynton highlights the singular mechanism of Deaf cultural formation:

    Deaf people occupy a unique position. They make up the only cultural group where cultural information and language has been predominantly passed down from child to child rather than from adult to child, and the only one in which the native language of the children is different from the language spoken by the parents. In schools for the deaf, children whose parents are deaf (about 10 percent of the total) teach the other children American Sign Language (ASL) and pass on the culture of American deaf people (2).

    The Deaf community is so powerful because individuals choose membership. It is unique because it infrequently passes from parent to child, and is more often acquired principally through personal commitment. Nineteenth-century citizens, of course, did not control deafness, but there is still an enormous step between hearing impairment and active participation in a vibrant, separatist community; it was — and is — the difference between being deaf and being one of the Deaf. Deaf voluntarism implicitly challenged religious and national ideas of voluntarism.


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  59. Consider, for example, the popularity of Jean Bouilly's "Abbé de l'Épée " which was adapted and staged numerous times under various names such as "Deaf and Dumb; or, the Orphan" between the late 1790s and the early 1820s.


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  60. John Braidwood tried to start a school in Virginia and Rev. John Stanford attempted to educate deaf children in New York. Braidwood was the grandson of Thomas Braidwood, the famed Scottish oral instructor of deaf people, and the main reason why Gallaudet was refused education in Scotland. For a discussion of Braidwood's failure, see Betty Unterberger's "The First Attempt to Establish an Oral School for the Deaf and Dumb in the United States" (The Journal of Southern History 13.4: 556-566). For more on deaf education as a nationally growing imperative, see Marc Marschark, Harry G. Lang, and John Anthony Albertini's Educating Deaf Students: From Research to Practice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 27-8.


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  61. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1830), 13-4.


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  62. Keller, 169. It had formerly been known as the "Connecticut Asylum for the Education of Deaf and Dumb Persons."


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  63. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers, 1827), 8.


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  64. Report of the Committee of the American Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (Hartford: Hudson and Co. Printers 1834), 26-7.


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  65. See, for example, Ann Braude's Radical Spirits: Spiritualism and Women's Rights in Nineteenth-Century America (Bloomington, IN: Indian University Press, 2001), Susan Hill Lindley's "You Have Stept Out of Your Place": A History of Women and Religion in America (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), Paul E. Johnson's African-American Christianity: Essays in History (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1994), Timothy Earl Fulop and Albert J. Raboteau's African-American Religion: Interpretive Essays in History and Culture (London: Routledge, 1997).


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  66. Braude, 83.


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  67. Baynton, 144, emphasis added. For an in-depth discussion of the foreignness of sign language, the Romantic conceptions of it, and the subsequent backlash, see Douglas Baynton's Forbidden Signs, Chapters 5 and 6.


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  68. For more on the idea of America as an orally-constructed nation, see Christopher Looby's Voicing America: Language, Literary Form, and the Origins of the United States (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1996). This book is tremendously useful, though it treats an earlier period than the one discussed in this article.


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  69. Note, for example, the enormous growth during the early 1800s of actively evangelical sects like the Baptists and the Methodists in contrast with limited growth of more staid groups like the Episcopalians.


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  70. In Lectures on Revivals of Religion, Finney writes: "The agency of men is commonly employed. Men are not mere instruments in the hands of God. Truth is the instrument. The preacher is the moral agent in the work he acts; he is not a mere passive instrument; he is voluntary in promoting the conversion of sinners" (16). This appears to give preachers active agency, but the preacher only chooses to be the conduit of "truth." His "voluntary" act is to choose to convey the word of God.


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  71. Thomas Gallaudet, "On the Natural Language of Signs; And Its Value and Uses of Instruction in the Deaf and Dumb, Part I" (American Annals of the Deaf, October 1847, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/lib/docs/1685.htm Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org [January 18, 2010]), Paragraph 2, 10. For more on the Romantic nature of sign language and the backlash against it, see Baynton's Forbidden Signs, esp. Chapters 5-6.


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  72. Gallaudet, "On the Natural Language of Signs," Paragraph 2.


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  73. ibid.


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  74. ibid.


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  75. "Natural Language, Part I," Paragraph 10. Gallaudet's language of nation illustrates a double threat. Not only might sign language be more natural than spoken language, but it also might create a group of foreigners out of deaf Americans — an assertion oralists would later adopt. It is in this context that arguments for oralism, misguided though they were, begin to make more sense. One might wish to demonize the oralists, but they did have a point: national identity was emerging among the citizens of the young nation was being orally constructed. Gallaudet argued for the universality of signs, but the nation grew otherwise. However pedagogically mistaken — however problematic oral instruction would be for the deaf community — it came from the impulse, as Mann's writings suggest, for integration. Oralists understood signing to keep deaf people separate and to some degree in tension with fellow citizens. And as arguments for deaf instruction had originally come out of paternalistic, benevolent, unifying impulses, the proponents of oralism saw themselves as returning to the original mission of American deaf education.


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  76. Thomas Gallaudet. "On the Natural Language of Signs; And Its Value and Uses of Instruction in the Deaf and Dumb, Part II" (American Annals of the Deaf, October 1847, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/lib/docs/1686.htm Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org [January 19, 2010]), Paragraph 6.


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  77. ibid (final emphasis added).


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  78. "Natural Language, Part II", Paragraph 7.


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  79. ibid.


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  80. ibid.


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  81. "Natural Language, Part II", Paragraph 25, emphasis in original.


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  82. For a detailed discussion of the oralist/manualist debate, see Richard Winefield's Never the Twain Shall Meet: Bell, Gallaudet, and the Communications Debate (Washington: Gallaudet University, 1987), Douglas Baynton's Forbidden Signs, John Vickrey Van Cleve and Barry A. Crouch's A Place of their Own: Creating the Deaf Community in America (Washington: Gallaudet University, 1989), Chapters 10 and 11, Harlan Lane's When the Mind Hears, and Robert M. Buchannan's Illusions of Equality: Deaf Americans in School and Factory, 1850-1950 (Washington: Gallaudet, 1999).


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  83. Winefield, 4.


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  84. Baynton, 143.


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  85. Baynton, 145.


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  86. Baynton, 146.


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  87. Hatch, 125.


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