- Early American Disability Studies
If a scholar of the early Americas wanted to learn more about the understudied topic of disability in the period, she might head to her desk, open her computer, and keyword search disability or disabled in a digital database like Early American Imprints, Early English Books Online, or Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Sure enough, she would find over twenty thousand combined citations, a great number of which point to legal and religious documents that use disability as a metaphor to describe individuals alienated from God or who had somehow lost their legal rights. While she would find documents that refer explicitly to physical or cognitive impairment, those citations would neither be as numerous nor as familiar as she might hope, given how many hits her initial searches produced.1 For a sense of the multiple registers in which disability circulated at the end of the eighteenth century—often in the same document—she could turn to Article 2, Section 1 (clause 6), of the US Constitution, which describes the removal of a president from office:
In Case of the Removal of the President from Office, or of his Death, Resignation, or Inability to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the Same shall devolve on the Vice President, and the Congress may by Law provide for the Case of Removal, Death, Resignation or Inability, both of the President and Vice President, declaring what Officer shall then act as President, and such Officer shall act accordingly, until the Disability be removed, or a President shall be elected.2
Here she would note the way that “inability” to perform the duties of the office—figured alongside death and resignation at the beginning of the clause—slides seamlessly into “disability” by the end. In this context, “disability” suggests a temporary condition impeding the performance of the office’s constitutionally defined functions, but the clause does not specify that this impairment is physical or cognitive. Anecdotally, this scholar would begin to suspect the following: disability was clearly a word that circulated [End Page 1] widely and with a broad range of applications in early America, but it did not yet have the meaning, the reach, or the cultural heft that it carries today. The idea of disability—that is, a set of stigmatized physical and cognitive impairments around which certain exclusionary practices are organized—was likewise at work in early America, but disability was not yet the singular word used to describe it.
This tension between the language, the idea, and the history of disability has thus far been one of the factors slowing the broad uptake of disability studies into early American scholarship. We certainly don’t mean to suggest that disability studies is irrelevant for early American literary studies or to devalue the work of scholars who have recently begun work in this direction. On the contrary, the potential contributions of disability studies to the field of early American literary studies are as vital as they are complicated; indeed literary approaches are particularly well suited to tracing intellectual and rhetorical genealogies of concepts like disability through close textual analysis across a range of genres and forms. An important component of this work is historiographic in nature, but, as we argue in this introduction, our approaches have been shaped by a conviction that historiographic work is bound to a set of narrative and discursive forms that literary studies and disability studies are ideally positioned to investigate. Thus, we begin by making manifest the two paths these investigations call on us to follow: first, to consider what the word and the concept of disability each meant in early America, and second, what they mean for the scholarly practice of early American studies today. While easily stated, this intersection of the contemporary and the historical prods us to consider how present-day disability studies understands its constitutive elements before we proceed headlong into the archival work that is most familiar to us. Only when being attentive to the critical histories and political valences of disability in the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century do we leave ourselves open to the...