In Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1864, the Civil War was entering its third year. Although the Union had won major battles at Antietam in 1862 and Gettysburg in 1863, the carnage was horrifying: there were more than 20,000 casualties at Antietam alone. In April 1864 President Lincoln doubted he would be re-elected.
Despite the grim mood of war-time Washington, the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind was humming along in a sleepy, almost rural, corner of D.C., just north of the Capitol. Eight years earlier Amos Kendall, who had served as Postmaster General under President Andrew Jackson, had donated this plot of land for the school and had hired twenty year old Edward Miner Gallaudet to run it. E. M. Gallaudet had accepted the inauspicious position of Superintendent of this modest establishment in 1857 because he hoped that he would be able to turn it into his dream, a college for deaf students. Now in April 1864, E. M. Gallaudet's dream would come true because of an act of "monumental cheek," as he would call his decision, to seek Congressional support.
The bill introduced in the Senate that would empower the Columbia Institution to grant collegiate degrees was controversial at first. How could "deaf-mutes" succeed in college? But it passed without dissent and sailed through the House without objection. During the same congressional session the House allocated $26,000 for the purchase of additional land and buildings, and, on April eighth, President Abraham Lincoln signed the enabling act, known to generations of Gallaudet alumni as "the Charter."
A few months later the Union Army captured Atlanta and in November Lincoln was re-elected in a landslide. A year and a day later, on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant, effectively ending the Civil War. Within the week Lincoln was dead, killed by an assassin's bullet.
When he signed the enabling legislation for the College, thereby initiating higher education for the deaf, what might Lincoln's motivation have been? Pulitzer Prize winning historian James McPherson suggests that we remember a phrase he used in his first message to Congress in 1861-- that a principal purpose of his administration would be to give everyone "a fair chance in the race of life," to level the playing field for all, so that all Americans might have a chance to succeed.
We can also place the founding of the college for the deaf within the context of the expansion of American higher education at the time. In 1862 Lincoln signed the Morrill or Land-Grant Colleges Act that began the process of mass public higher education in the United States, extending its benefits to the general public and not just the socially elite. During the 1850s and 1860s colleges were also being founded to serve African Americans and women who were generally excluded from higher education institutions of the time.
Presently Gallaudet University celebrates "Charter Day" every year on a Saturday in April. This year, 2009, Gallaudet celebrates the 145th anniversary of its incorporation as a degree-granting institution of higher learning and the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth. In doing this we celebrate Gallaudet's share of the Lincoln legacy, the extension of educational opportunity to Americans of all kinds, and deaf people especially.