Objects of Sympathy

While in France, Enlightenment philosophy emphasized the notion that man could be released from ignorance and superstition through rational knowledge and experience, the situation was drastically different in England. Instead of beings seen as evidence of the philosophies of the Enlightenment philosophers or reflective of the political ideologies of the time, the deaf in England were viewed as objects of charity. Fuelled with charitable and evangelical fervour, British men of good will conformed to the view that it was their divine duty to elevate the spiritual state of the poor and disabled populations.The dissatisfaction and unrest among the disenfranchised led evangelicals to offer a solution “by exploiting moral self-reproach among the increasingly affluent middle class to generate social projects that aimed to rehabilitate the ungodly but retrievable poor.”[1] In particular, urbanization and general effects on growth of large-scale cities and towns associated with the dramatic growth of voluntary charities, “responding to social dislocation and the emergence of what was perceived as a myriad of good causes.”[2]

By emphasizing the imperative to “hear the word of God,” the doctrinal culture of Protestant England placed an increased value on hearing in relation to other senses.[3] Deafness was constructed as a social tragedy, one which left its victims vulnerable, helpless, and at the mercy of the hearing community to rescue them from their exile.[4] This social deprivation stigmatized the deaf, forcing them into a state of isolation and creating the conception that they were deficient in intellect and rationality. Among the high-society Londoners, the poor deaf and dumb were perceived as curiosities to be poked and prodded and made the “butts and objects of contempt and their affliction a joke.”[5]Even criminal cases involving the deaf either turned them to causes celebres, as characters of theatrical spectacles, or reduced them as physically defective bodies that were morally deviant. [6] Under evangelicalism, deafness could also be seen as a dual nature: an affliction as yet as a blessing. In other words, deaf individuals were thought to have a greater moral advantage in that they had been left relatively unscathed by a corrupt world. Instead of being deviants or isolated in their deafness, they were perceived as innocence, protected by the divine from the darkness and corruption of society.

In historical accounts of charity, one of the key theme to emerge “has been the role of charitable institutions as extensions of the power relations and policy development in urban society.”[7] But because of source materials, research largely from perspectives of institutions and professionals—i.e. very one-sided. How do we assess the impact of charity for the perspective of the poor (especially since charities usually reveal a “top-down” kind of history)? Here, I am more interested in knowing how the charitable values of British citizens enabled them to construct the deaf not as individuals with a psychological or physiological disability, or even as objects of philosophical discourse, but as objects of charity that needed to be rescued, trained, and restored to civilization. British charity thus created a particular social image of deafness; one as helpless fellow-creatures worthy of paternalism.

Bouily’s play, for instance, was translated and adopted to the British stage by the dramatist Thomas Holcroft (1745-1809).

First produced in 1801, Deaf and Dumb: or, The Orphan Protected continues the saga of a deaf boy who comes under the care of a benevolent teacher. Like Bouilly’s play, it alludes to a specific legal issue—whether deaf-mutes are competent to participate in legal trials—but more importantly, it highlighted the differences in French and British approaches towards the deaf:

What made this case especially appropriate for Holcroft’s treatment was the ‘spin’ that leaders of the French Revolution put on de L’Epee’s revelations about the deaf person’s abilities. To them the deaf appeared as models of the good citizen, innocent and honest, yet aware above all of their inherent rights as human beings, possessing a naural sense of justice unbiased by the prejudices embedded in ordinary language. For Holcroft the case also provided the opportunity to recuperate the reputation of the lawyer and demonstrate the sympathetic rationality of the pre-trial process.[8]

Edwin John Mann, a pupil of the Hartford Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb in Connecticut, remarks on this point in his review:

Such are the leading incidents of this play, of which the interest is so powerful, that, in despite of the dullness of some scenes, and the impertinence of others, the expectation is kept alive to the end of the drama. The unwearied benevolence of L’Épée; the singularity; and yet the unquestionable probability of the action; the proneness of the human heart to feel for a fellow-creature deprived of blessings which we feel to be so very precious; the engaging manners of the youth, who had been exposed in the public streets to perish with hunger, without the means of making known his wants or his injuries to the passers-by; and the providential occurrences by which this innocent victim is brought into the presence of the wretch who had usurped his inheritance, are the chief sources of that delight which the audience seemed to experience from the representation of ‘The Deaf and Dumb.”[9]

The deaf, then, are constructed as objects of sympathy


[1] Borsay, “Deaf Children and Charitable Education in Britain,” 78.

[2] Anne Borsay and Peter Shapley (eds), “Introduction,” in Medicine, Charity, and Mutual Aid: The Consumption of Health and Welfare in Britain, c.1550-1950 (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishers, 2007), 1.

[3] Emily Cockayne, “Experiences of the Deaf in Early Modern England,” The Historical Journal 46.3 (2003), 496.

[4] Douglas Baynton, ““A Silent Exile on this Earth:” The Metaphorical Construction of Deafness in the Nineteenth Century.” In The Disabilities Studies Reader 2nd Edition, ed. Lennard J. Davis (CRC Press, 2006), 220.

[5] Hodgson, The Deaf and their Problems, 156.

[6] Rosenfeld, “Deaf Men on Trial,” 169.

[7] Borsay and Shapley, “Introduction,” 3.

[8] Victoria Myers, “Law and the On-Stage Trial,” in The Encyclopedia of Romantic Literature, eds. Frederick Burwick, Nancy Moore Goslee, and Diane Long Hoeveler (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), 776-784; 782.

[9] Edwin John Mann, “The Deaf and Dumb, or the Orphan Protected,” in Deaf and Dumb, Or, a Collection of Articles Relating to the Condition of Deaf Mutes; Their Education, and the Principal Asylums Devoted to their Instruction (Boston: D.K. Hitchcock, 1836), 270.

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