In the winter of 1829, a baby girl was born not far from Hanover, New Hampshire, to a farming couple named Daniel and Harmony Bridgman. The Bridgmans were churchgoing Baptists. Shortly after the girl, Laura, had passed her second birthday, scarlet fever attacked the family. With versatile cruelty, it killed her six-year-old and four-year-old sisters but left Laura alive—completely deaf and, to use the blunt word of the doctor who attended her, with her eyes “spoilt.” She retained some sensitivity to light in one eye until, at the age of five, she pierced it by walking into a spindle projecting from her mother’s spinning wheel, and her world went totally dark.
Trying to be a good Christian—trying, that is, to suppress her questions about why this plague had been visited upon her children—Mrs. Bridgman wrote to a friend that “my feelings were more easily conceived than expressed.” Small wonder. Like any pious mother, she was expected to reconcile her love for her children with the doctrine that, conceived and born in sin, they shared in the guilt passed down from generation to generation since Adam’s original sin in Eden. Here is an earlier New England mother, the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, summing up in a quatrain the doctrine that every infant is born depraved and deserves whatever punishment God metes out:
Stained from birth with Adams sinfull fact
Thence I began to sin as soon as act:
A perverse will, a love to what’s forbid,
A serpents sting in pleasing face lay hid.
For believers in this predestinarian version of Christianity that persisted in New England more or less continuously for some two hundred years, the question of why God spares some children while sweeping others into the furnace of pain and death was perhaps the deepest mystery of their faith; and their greatest trial was to accept God’s reasons without his revealing what those reasons were.
As the fever receded and became a memory, the Bridgmans went on with their lives. In the time between Laura’s sickness and her hideous accident, two sons were born, and Harmony Bridgman learned to cope with the needs of her surviving daughter. She taught Laura such household tasks as setting table and churning butter, and when the child became wild and unmanageable, she did her best to calm and comfort her by hugging and holding her until the tantrum passed. Both parents developed a system of taps and caresses that conveyed to Laura their responses—approval, warning, anger, consent—to her behavior. Before her illness, Laura had spoken a few words, and for a short time after her recovery she sometimes cried out “dark, dark” as if begging for someone to light a lamp—but she soon lost her ability to speak and reverted to what sounded, at least to visitors, like bestial grunts and moans.
The Bridgmans lived in a theological world little changed from colonial times. God ruled their lives with unpredictable and unappeasable anger; they worshiped him in a congregation gathered on the model of what they took to have been the apostolic Christian church; and their creed—centered on the doctrines of total depravity and unconditional election—remained in its essentials that of the fervent Protestants who had founded New England two centuries earlier. Elsewhere in New England, however, especially in the coastal towns and cities, a new theological liberalism was softening, or (from the orthodox point of view) undermining, the old creed. God’s judgments were coming to be understood less as punishments for inherited sin than as prods to ameliorative human action. As the leading Unitarian minister of the day, William Ellery Channing, put it in a widely noted sermon of 1819, we “gradually come to see, in suffering and temptation, proofs and instruments of the sublimest purposes of wisdom and love.”
In the summer of 1837, a Boston Unitarian named Samuel Gridley Howe decided that Laura Bridgman presented him with just such a sublime purpose. He had learned of her case from an account published in a local New Hampshire newspaper by a Dartmouth professor named Reuben Mussey, and he wrote to Mussey forthwith. Since Laura “might be made useful to science by throwing light upon some points of intellectual philosophy,” he said, she should be brought to Boston for examination and education at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, of which Howe was the director. When the Bridgmans indicated their willingness to let their daughter go, Howe—according to the recollection of a traveling companion—felt “exaltation.”
As the historian Ernest Freeberg puts it in his lucid book The Education of Laura Bridgman, Samuel Howe was a “professional reformer.” His was a new vocation in the United States, as Freeberg explains: he was a sort of executive officer appointed to run a charitable organization by the well-to-do citizens who had formed and financed it. In her equally valuable The Imprisoned Guest (the title comes from an anonymous newspaper poem about Bridgman), Elisabeth Gitter, a professor of English, gives a lively sketch of Howe’s rise to the attention of the benefactors of what would become the Perkins School. Born in 1801 to a Boston ropemaker, he grew up “restless, unmoneyed, [and] adventurous,” performed poorly as an undergraduate at Brown and competently at Harvard Medical School, and then, stirred by Lord Byron’s death in the service of the Greek revolution, sailed to join that crusade against “the unspeakable Turk” as a guerrilla fighter and military surgeon. From 1824 till 1831 he was a soldier, a lecturer on behalf of the Greek cause, and a proficient organizer of what we would call public works projects—deploying hundreds of refugees in rebuilding the port of Aegina, then, in 1829, founding what was essentially a private colony that he called Washingtonia, in which he tested the latest Anglo-American pedagogical techniques on the illiterate poor. Before leaving Greece for a tour of Europe en route home, he bought at auction a battle helmet rumored to have belonged to Byron. Describing Howe in these years, Gitter calls him, with a flourish, a “benevolent Mr. Kurtz.”
While he was away, an acquaintance from Howe’s Brown and Harvard days, John Dix Fisher, the physician who was later to introduce the use of ether in childbirth in the United States, had been raising private and public funds in Boston for an institution to help the blind. Fisher and his colleagues hoped that its first director would be Thomas Gallaudet, an evangelical minister who had founded the American Asylum for the Deaf and Dumb, at Hartford, Connecticut—but Gallaudet declined. When the disappointed suitors turned to Howe, he threw himself into the job with a fervor that may have been enhanced by his knowing he was their second choice.
As Gitter remarks, “The nineteenth-century American remedy for problems of ignorance was almost always a trip abroad to study,” and so, subsidized by his employers, Howe returned to Europe to observe techniques for teaching the blind. He was particularly impressed by a school in Paris that furnished blind students with embossed books, maps, and mathematical slates whose raised letters and numbers they could recognize by touch. But he was disappointed by the resignation of European educators to the permanent exclusion of blind or deaf people from “normal” society. He came home convinced that Americans could do better—that he could find ways to help the blind and the deaf achieve self-sufficient citizenship.
The fit between Howe’s personal ambition and the philanthropic movement sweeping New England was exact. Pulpits and podiums rang with denunciations of slavery, poverty, and illiteracy; the spirit of reform seemed everywhere on the rise. Writing in 1842 about his first visit to America, Charles Dickens was struck by the number and quality of charitable institutions, including the Perkins School, that had lately sprung up around Boston, “institutions and charities… as nearly perfect, as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them.” Behind all the good works was doubtless an element of self-interest. Even as they welcomed the influx of cheap labor, the propertied classes of New England (a small percentage of the whole population) worried that, in the absence of educational and economic opportunity, immigrants from such blighted countries as Ireland would bring with them the discontent and unrest that were threatening Europe. “No one,” Orestes Brownson declared in 1840, “can observe the signs of the times with much care, without perceiving that a crisis as to the relation of wealth and labor is approaching.”
As with subsequent reform movements from Progressivism to the New Deal and the Great Society, there was a motivating awareness that ignoring the worst inequities now could create conditions requiring more radical remedies later on. But the antebellum New England reformers—whether they came from old money like the Choates or Eliots, or from modest means like the leader of the public education movement, Horace Mann—were animated not only by fear for the safety of their own possessions but also by a disinterested concern for the dispossessed. “No man can be a Christian,” Brownson added, “who does not labor to reform society…so that free scope shall be given to every man to unfold himself in all beauty and power.”
The old relation between individual and society, as Emerson later remarked about these heady days of his youth, was being reversed. If “former generations [had]…sacrificed…the citizen to the State,” now “the modern mind believed that the nation existed for the individual, for the guardianship and education of every man.” And as the terms of the sentence (“guardianship,” “education”) implied, these obligations had to begin with the rearing of children. There was, Emerson wrote in retrospect, the growth of “a certain tenderness on the people” that expressed itself especially in a new attitude toward children, who once “had been repressed and kept in the background [but] now…were considered, cosseted and pampered.” What we think of today as a perennially true refrain—that teachers in America are undervalued and underpaid—emerged for the first time in the 1830s as a political theme. Preachers and politicians called for public funds and parental sacrifice. “There should be no economy in education,” Channing declared in 1833. “Money should never be weighed against the soul of a child.”
Samuel Howe’s contribution to this first American age of liberal reform was his conviction that children without hearing or sight should have the same rights and opportunities as those whose senses were intact. This idea might seem self-evident today—though Gitter remarks that, even now, 70 percent of disabled Americans are unemployed—but in antebellum America it was an untested assertion. Howe knew that he faced not only the daunting task of teaching the blind but also of defeating public prejudice against them. Even people of good will were troubled by the “blindisms” of sightless children (“they swing their hands, or work their heads or reel their bodies,” Howe himself wrote with evident distaste) who were typically quarantined in asylums, where they tended to become shy or listless or prone to outbursts of temper. Few people believed that blind children could expect anything more than to be housed in asylums or to grow up into lives of dependency on their families. When the offer came to run the Perkins School on the principle of training blind children to lead independent lives as workers and citizens outside a protective institution, Howe set out to prove the skeptics wrong.