Citizenship debate helped define 'disabled'

Ben Mutschler

Every one of us— from those with slight nearsightedness to the totally blind, for example—labors under some level of disability, but it is society’s response that categorizes certain persons as “impaired.”

“Like race, class, and gender, in other words, disability is a socially constructed category of difference,” said Ben Mutschler, an assistant professor of history at OSU. Mutschler is devoting his Center Research Fellowship to a book on the ways in which considerations of physical, mental, and social abilities entered into debates over citizenship rights in eighteenth-century America.

The project grew out of his first book, The Province of Affliction: Illness in Eighteenth-Century New England (forthcoming from Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture), which also was supported by a Center Fellowship.
The new book is rooted in the burgeoning interdisciplinary field of disability studies, and will be the first full-length study of its type to focus on the social and political history of early America. “Disability studies turns our conventional notion of a functioning, workaday life on its head,” Mutschler wrote in his project proposal. Rather than identifying a minority of “disabled” persons in a sea of able bodies, scholars examine what it is in our built environment, our economic and political institutions, and our notions of autonomy and freedom that confers “ability” on particular individuals.

“It is this reconsideration of what allows us to be ‘abled’ that gives disability studies its broadest importance and appeal,” said Mutschler. “A history of disability will reveal the complicated ways in which questions of capacity—who was capable and who was not—were implicated in many of the major developments in the society, culture, and politics of colonial and early national America.”

Unlike the current singling out of categories of the “disabled” for special attention, during the early years of the nation, physical and mental impairments of all sorts were included among such misfortunes as fire and disease. The book will focus on questions of ability and disability as they emerged during the Revolu-tionary period, a time when determining the exact qualities necessary for participation in the republican polity arose with urgency.

“In overthrowing monarchy and the political culture that sustained it, the Revolution raised a new and perplexing question. What qualities might be used in a system of popular sovereignty to differentiate among ‘the people’ and to determine the respective rights, responsibilities, and obligations of the new government and their citizens?”

Beginning in the 1760s and continuing through the turn of the century, Americans engaged in a protracted struggle over the ideal abilities that citizens must possess.

“Citizens were commonly expected to exercise self-regulation, virtue, sensibility, reason, elocution, and labor. Each of these qualities was promoted not only in the folk sayings and learned treatises of the period, but also in sharp debates over the most basic issues of governance, taxation, representation, and public service. Who could vote, who might serve in the legislature, who should count in the census—all these issues turned on the question of what one could do.”

In promoting reason, for example, writers pointed to “idiots,” “lunatics,” and “hysterical” women as incapable of lucid thought. A national citizenry was thus called into being “as much by labeling those unfit for citizenship as it was by articulating the attributes of those qualified for self-government.”