A Charter and a Champion: The Meaning of Lincoln’s Legacy at Gallaudet

April 06, 2018

Author: Roberta J. Cordano, President

On April 8, 2018, we will celebrate the 154th year of the signing of Gallaudet University’s charter by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864. We celebrate this moment because the founding of Gallaudet University through this charter was truly a seminal moment in our world’s history. This new idea, radically innovative for its time, would provide deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind people “a fair chance in the race of life,” as Lincoln would say.1 As Gallaudet’s president, I feel it is important to honor and reflect upon just how far we have come in that race.

The inkling of this dream for higher education opportunities started as early as 1851. Hearing-ally teachers and administrators like W. W. Turner and Dr. Harvey P. Peet, and deaf leaders like John Carlin, began to develop a vision for students moving from elementary and secondary education to higher education based on the rapid success experienced from educating deaf children through sign language (referred to as manual language at that time) and English beginning in 1817.2 This year’s celebration concurs with our year-long celebration of 200 years of deaf education in the United States, which began with the opening of the American School for the Deaf in Hartford, Connecticut by Rev. Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, Dr. Mason Cogswell, and Laurent Clerc on April 15, 1817.

For deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind people, the granting of this charter opened a new future of educational, employment, and business opportunities by teaching visually, relying on sign language as the key language of instruction and using English primarily through reading and writing. (This teaching methodology is now more commonly referred to as bilingual education.)

In a short span of 154 years, we leaped from having little or no access to formal education or employment to becoming one of the largest middle class of deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind people in the world. We have built a reputation as one of the leading and most innovative universities in the world because of our unique contributions.

Gallaudet University has earned the reputation for graduating leaders, innovators and change-makers. In the past half-century, Gallaudet’s innovations and discoveries have made significant contributions to our nation and our world. Like the founding of our university, our experience and discoveries are a result of the actions of a rich community of people with multiple and varied identities, all of whom have a shared commitment and belief in sign language and its power of learning, research and discovery, and who value and seek to incorporate the experience and culture of deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind people. Contributions from Gallaudet and its alumni include:

  • Discovering of American Sign Language: Fifty-eight years ago, it was here, through years of research, that American Sign Language (ASL) was validated as a language. This led to the recognition of approximately 121 sign languages throughout the world. It is estimated that there are more than 300 signed languages yet to be recorded and studied. The progress of these discoveries in this short time in human history is remarkable.
  • Affirming that the Deaf community has culture: Gallaudet was part of the building of our community of knowledge that framed and identified our signing community as a culture. We are a key producer of ASL teachers, and have the first Ph.D. program in Interpretation in this country. American Sign Language (and Deaf culture) are now among the most popular languages taught in higher education in this country.
  • Declaring our political and civil rights: The student Deaf President Now protest that occurred 30 years ago, in March 1988, was a critical juncture in our political history. It transformed Gallaudet’s landscape of opportunity and leadership of deaf people in this institution. Just as importantly, this moment in the civil rights history of this country helped strengthen the political will to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act two years later.
  • Discovering and altering our understanding of how the brain acquires language. Our Brain Learning and Language Laboratory (BL2) and our Visual Language and Learning Laboratory (VL2) have made new discoveries that advance our understanding about language acquisition, most notably that sign language and spoken/aural languages are processed in the same language center of the brain. Deaf babies’ brains are biologically equivalent to all babies’ brains when they receive language inputs immediately. This National Science Foundation-funded research at Gallaudet University has led to a pioneering model for creating Educational Neuroscience Ph.D. researchers. Last year we had the first deaf graduate complete the program. Currently, five deaf Ph.D. candidates are working to complete their degrees, and other universities are modeling their programs after Gallaudet’s.
  • Patenting real-time texting technology. A Gallaudet research team created and patented technology to create real-time access to texting for smartphones. Following this, the university led an effort to have the Federal Communications Commission pass regulations to ensure access to this technology on all smartphones by 2019.
  • Developing captioning and advocating for expanding access to media through captioning. Gallaudet and its alumni were instrumental in creating access to movies and television. It began with captioning movies that were released in theaters and distributing them to deaf communities throughout our country, and evolved to passing policies and expanding access to movies and television nearly everywhere in this country.

Given this rich history, the question about the context of President Lincoln signing this charter becomes more poignant. Why was he willing to sign this unique charter in the midst of a raging Civil War? Historians have indicated that there is no written record of his reasons. Throughout his life, he had numerous experiences that perhaps influenced his decision. They include encountering thousands of soldiers who became deaf in the Civil War (interestingly, hearing loss is the reason most members of the military receive honorable discharges). He encountered deaf and hard of hearing people advocating for him to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, and at that time, there were prominent deaf people he met, including Fielding Bradford Meek, a respected expert in fossils who was deaf and who resided at the Smithsonian Institution. And, much more personally, he and his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, were friends with a prominent war correspondent, Laura Redden Searing, who was better known by her pen name, Howard Glyndon.3 We know that they communicated with her through writing when visiting together. Recently, the Lincoln Library learned that Redden’s family has a book with a personal inscription from Lincoln.4 Prior to 1864, when Gallaudet’s charter was signed by President Lincoln, Laura Redden (Searing) had interviewed President Lincoln, General Ulysses S. Grant, General James A. Garfield, and other prominent persons, and these interviews were featured in her first book published in 1862 titled, Notable Men in the House of Representatives.5 She was also one of a few women given the honor of accompanying General Grant to the front lines of the Union Army. Lincoln reviewed and read her book, Idyls of Battle and Poems of the Rebellion, in 1864 before its release in October 1864. Lastly, in her book, she acknowledges President Lincoln as one of “the gentlemen…I owe most cordial and grateful acknowledgments for friendly encouragement and active cooperation with me in the work…”6

In his public life, Abraham Lincoln took positions that clearly conveyed his affinity with and belief in the potential of deaf people. It is known, for instance, that he supported access for deaf people to elementary and secondary education. In 1839, while Lincoln was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, Senator Orville Browning shared his experience of meeting a deaf man on a steamboat ride on the Mississippi River. He was so impressed by how well educated the man was that he brought a bill to establish the Illinois Asylum for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb. Lincoln supported this bill. Less than 10 days after the bill’s passage, it was signed by the Governor. As President, Lincoln advocated for pensions for veterans with disabilities during the Civil War.

During his presidency, before signing the charter, Lincoln met Dr. Edward Miner Gallaudet several times. As Dr. Gallaudet reported to the Chicago Alumni Association of Gallaudet College regarding the context for Mr. Lincoln signing the charter, he said:

I am sorry I can give you no reminiscences of Mr. Lincoln, except that he signed the Bill. He was too busy saving the Union to take note of the humble beginnings of our work here and I had not the “cheek” to ask for his attention. I met him, however, a number of times and he was always kind and cordial.7

The act of Congress passing this charter and President Lincoln’s decision to sign it, marked the first time in world history that a government sanctioned the right of an educational institution to provide access to a collegiate education for deaf people through the use of sign language and English. Sadly, this seminal event in ensuring access to higher education for deaf and hard of hearing people in both American Sign Language and English continues to be largely overlooked in historical texts and biographies of President Lincoln and our nation’s civil rights movements.

For deaf, hard of hearing and deafblind people, the granting of this charter opened a new future of educational, employment, business and wealth creation opportunities by guaranteeing true access to higher education for generations to come here in the U.S. and around the world.

Gallaudet University is one of the crown jewels of this nation. I write this with the hope that more historians will mark the signing of this charter as one of Lincoln’s greatest contributions to America and the world. It is time that this moment in American history cease to be overlooked among President Lincoln’s significant accomplishments and among our nation’s significant civil rights achievements.


1Armstrong, David F. (2014). The History of Gallaudet University: 150 Years of a Deaf American Institution. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
2American Annals of the Deaf. (1851). Proceedings of the Second Convention of American Instructors of the Deaf and Dumb, August 27-29, 1851, pp. 21-3., Hartford, CT: Press of Case, Tiffany and Company.
3Lang, Harry G. (2017). Fighting in the Shadows: Untold Stories of Deaf People in the Civil War. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.
4President Cordano’s travel to Illinois and Lincoln Library in Springfield, IL, February 2018.
5Van Cleve, J. V. (Ed.) (1987). Gallaudet Encyclopedia of Deaf People and Deafness. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
6Searing, L. R. (1864). 7The Buff and Blue, Vol. 7, No. 7, April 1899, p. 133.