March 29, 2010

Gallaudet University and President Abraham Lincoln: April 8, 1864/April 8, 2010

Washington, DC – April in Washington is all about cherry blossoms and happy tourists.   Indeed, the city’s blossom prognosticators say that the pink and white beauties will be at their crowning best on April 8.

Also on April 8, Gallaudet University will celebrate its 146th birthday, commemorating the signing of its charter by President Abraham Lincoln.

On that fine spring day in 1864, though the Civil War continued to rage, the President certainly realized that the tide was turning in favor of the Union. And it’s easy to imagine him executing the 19th Century equivalent of a "fist bump" when he got word that Thursday [and like this year, April 8, 1864 fell on a Thursday] of the Senate’s vote in support of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.

There is no record showing at what point during that same day Lincoln put his famous signature on the document giving Gallaudet—then called the Columbia Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind—the authority to award collegiate degrees.  Initially, the notion that “deaf-mutes” could succeed in college was controversial. But thanks to the energetic advocacy of school’s young superintendent, Edward Miner Gallaudet, the bill passed through both the Senate and the House, and landed on the President’s desk.

One wonders about Lincoln’s motivation for signing legislation that created the world’s first [and only, still] college for deaf people.  We know this, though: In his inaugural message to Congress as President he stated that a principal goal of his administration would be to give everyone “a fair chance in the race of life.”

Whatever President Lincoln’s reasons were for signing Gallaudet’s charter, deaf people, especially those who have attended Gallaudet, feel a strong connection with him. Some even hold that his statue at the Lincoln Memorial shows the seated President’s hands forming the “A” and “L” of the manual alphabet. And why not? After all, Daniel Chester French, the sculptor of the famous Lincoln statue, earlier had been exposed to sign language when he created the statue, located on the university's campus,  of Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet [the nation's first teacher of deaf children and the university's namesake] and his student, a young deaf girl named Alice.

Happy birthday, Gallaudet.  And thank you, Mr. Lincoln. 

Contact: Mercy Coogan