Palgrave Macmillan Author Perspectives

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Emmet Kennedy on the Bicentennial of the American School for the Deaf

On the 200th anniversary of the founding of the oldest continuously operating school for the deaf in the United States, the author of Abbé Sicard’s Deaf Education: Empowering the Mute, 1785–1820 reflects on the connections between the French Revolution, Abbé Sicard, and the humanitarian roots of deaf education.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the American School for the Deaf, the first such school in the U.S., founded by Rev. Thomas Gallaudet and Laurent Clerc. Gallaudet and Clerc were students of the path-breaking founder of the National Institution for the Deaf in Paris, the abbé Ambrose Cucurron Sicard, a French priest who had enjoyed a meteoric rise from Toulouse and Bordeaux to Paris as a teacher of the deaf in the old regime. He survived the French Revolutionary terror as a nonconformist because of his expertise in sign language. My Abbé Sicard’s Deaf Education, Empowering the Mute, 1785-1822, published by Palgrave Macmillan in September 2015, is the only biography since 1873 of this man who inspired many European and American schools, especially the Hartford school in 1817.

While Sicard’s  mentor, the abbé de l’Epée, is better known, Sicard surpassed him in two ways, namely by stressing that signing had a grammar, rather than simply a list of nouns, and secondly by  surviving the crisis of the French Revolution after Epée had died peacefully in 1789. When Sicard succeeded Epee, he acquired the epithet “the benefactor of humanity” by linking sign language to the cause of “liberty and equality.” Besides his contribution to sign language, Sicard became a member of the famous Académie Française and stands as an undeniable representative of many cultural cross-currents of his time such as Catholicism, the Enlightenment, the Revolution and Franco-American ties.

My interest in Sicard goes back to my doctoral dissertation on Destutt de Tracy, the French noble friend of Lafayette and Jefferson, who was also interested in language and signs. Tracy coined the word “ideology,” to designate “the science of ideas,” which he believed would solve the conflicts of ideas in the Revolution.  Two other books followed my dissertation, the best known being my Cultural History of the French Revolution (Yale U.P., 1989), which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

 In 2004, I attended a meeting of French historians in Paris and was encouraged by two scholars of the intellectual and linguistic history of the French Revolution to pursue a study of the origins of sign language.  I began collecting documents at the Paris Institute of the Young Deaf (the Institut de Jeunes Sourds de Paris), which still exists on the same site where the Abbé Sicard was its director from 1794 to 1822.

Before Sicard’s death, he communicated the art of sign language to Rev. Thomas Gallaudet, a recent Yale graduate, whom he met in London in 1815, where the master was demonstrating his deaf students before the British aristocracy. Sicard there put questions like these to two of his students, who answered impressively in signs: “What is the difference between ‘legal’ and ‘legitimate’?” And “What was ‘ambition’?”’ or poignantly “Was it humiliating to be unable to hear?” to which one student, Laurent Clerc, answered frankly, “He who has nothing, has lost nothing and he who has lost nothing has nothing to regret.”   Clerc subsequently taught signing to Gallaudet in Paris, and soon after Gallaudet brought Clerc to Hartford to help found the American School for the Deaf. That school, under Jeffrey Bravin, its deaf president, is presently celebrating its 200th anniversary with much aplomb.

 The debt this school owed to the French institution was made clear by Gallaudet in a letter to Secretary of State Henry Clay in 1826—a letter which I discovered in the archives of the State Department.  There Gallaudet unequivocally credits the Paris school: “ and especially…the late distinguished Abbé Sicard (under whose auspices it was then conducted) [to whom] the United States will ever be under the deepest obligation for  the  liberal and benevolent manner such . . . effectual aid was granted for communicating to the Western World, that happy art of affording relief to a heretofore neglected class of our fellow citizens, which the genius of France had brought to such a surprising degree of excellence, – [and] which had already been diffused through so many portions of continental Europe.” 

  Laurent Clerc and Gallaudet made numerous appearances on the East Coast including a visit to Congress in 1818, where they demonstrated the new method and raised funds for the Hartford School.  The signing method of deaf education prevailed during the first half of the nineteenth century before its temporary suppression by the oral method until about World War II. The cause of deaf education was linked originally to other humanitarian causes like abolitionism.  In 1836, the ship, the Amistad, carrying mutinous slaves from Cuba, was docked in New Haven.  Their trial was held in Hartford where they were defended successfully by John Quincy Adams.  The slaves were befriended by some of the Hartford deaf community including Gallaudet and Clerc, who taught them American signs. The slaves were eventually freed to return to Africa.  Steven Spielberg made this story into a famous movie, Amistad, in 1997. 

Emmet Kennedy is Professor Emeritus of European History at The George Washington University, USA. His book A Cultural History of the French Revolution was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

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