Deaf History Unveiled
Interpretations from the New Scholarship

John Vickrey Van Cleve, Editor

from Chapter Five:
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet: Benevolent Paternalism
and the Origins of the American Asylum

by Phyllis Valentine

Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet always believed that the deaf people who were his students at the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb should be treated like his own children: with a father's kindly watchfulness and firm authority. During the winter of 1816 while he was in Edinburgh, Scotland, preparing to become administrator of the American Asylum, a homesick Gallaudet wrote to his friend Dr. Mason Cogswell: "I long to be in the midst of my deaf and dumb children, for such I mean to consider them" [italics added]. Once he returned to the United States, paternalism continued to be Gallaudet's lifelong disposition toward hearing-disabled pupils. For the next thirteen years, from 1817, when he began serving as principal, until 1830, when he resigned, Thomas Gallaudet's perspective never changed. In his role as guardian to younger children, paternalism may have been appropriate; but Principal Gallaudet also maintained this posture toward former pupils who grew up, graduated from school, took jobs, married, and established families of their own.

Fortunately, Thomas Gallaudet's paternalism was benevolent. Many graduates of the American Asylum remarked about the extraordinary kindness of this man, of his gentle nature and inoffensive manner. Certainly he did not assume that deaf people were his social or intellectual inferiors. Instead, he took every opportunity to declare them as fully valued as hearing people in the human family. They are, he emphasized to New England audiences, "bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh."

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