One of Three ASD Founders of the First Permanent Institute for the Deaf in North America
Written by Loida R. Canlas
The Early Years
Louis Laurent Marie Clerc was born into an important family on December 26, 1785 in La Balme-les-Grottes, in southeastern France. From the 15th century, the males in the Clerc family had served the king through the office of Tubelion or the Royal Commissary. His father, Joseph Francois, was the royal civil attorney, justice of the peace, and from 1780 to 1814 was mayor of their village. His mother’s father was a magistrate in another town. Thus, his family knew and practiced law.
When he was about a year old, Clerc fell from his high chair into the kitchen fireplace. His right cheek was severely burned, a fever developed, and later, it was discovered that his senses of hearing and smell were damaged. It was never clear if this resulted from his accident or if he was born with those disabilities. His name-sign derives from the scar that remained – the middle and index fingers brushed downward across the right cheek near the mouth. His parents tried many different treatments to restore his hearing, but none succeeded. For the next 11 years he stayed at home, exploring the village and taking care of their cows, turkeys, and horses. He did not go to school and did not learn to write. Thus, as a deaf child, Clerc had neither an education nor a systematic mode of communication.
Young Laurent Enters School
When he was twelve years old, his uncle-godfather after whom he was named, Laurent Clerc, enrolled him in the Institut National des Jeune Sourds-Muets. This institution was the first public school for the deaf in the world, established by the priest Abbe De L’Epee, known as the “father of the deaf.” It became the model for hundreds of other schools that were to be established later. The school was directed by the Abbe Roch-Ambroise Sicard.
His first teacher, who later became his mentor and lifelong friend, was Jean Massieu, 25 years old and deaf like him. At the time, Abbe Sicard was in prison, expected to be put to death for sympathizing with the deposed King Louis XVI. Massieu led the school’s deaf students, including Clerc, to petition the court for the release of Sicard. Because of this action, Sicard was released.
Clerc excelled in his academic studies. However, an assistant teacher, the Abbe Margaron tried teaching him to pronounce words. Clerc’s difficulties in pronouncing certain syllables so infuriated this teacher that one time, he gave Clerc a violent blow under his chin. This caused Clerc to accidentally bite his tongue so badly that he swore never again to learn to speak. Later, this experience would strengthen his belief that signing is the method of communication by which deaf students can best learn.
He learned to draw and to compose in the printing office of the Institution. In 1805, just eight years later, he was chosen to become a “tutor on trial.” The following year, he was hired as a teacher. His salary was about $200.
When Napoleon returned to Paris in March, 1815, Sicard decided that he should leave. He visited England and brought with him Massieu and Clerc. In London, they lectured and demonstrated their teaching methods. One of their lectures on July 10 was attended by the Yankee Congregationalist minister, Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, from Hartford, Connecticut.
Gallaudet was a neighbor of Mason Fitch Cogswell. Cogswell had taken interest in deaf education due to the deafness of his daughter, Alice, and the fact that there were no schools for the deaf in the United States at that time. As his neighbor and friend, Gallaudet became equally concerned for this cause. The two men gathered support from their friends, wealthy members of their community, and the city fathers. In due time, Gallaudet was sent by their supporters to travel in Europe to learn about teaching methods for the deaf.
Earlier, Cogswell had loaned a treatise to Gallaudet – the Theorie des Signes, written by Sicard. Now, in London, Gallaudet was introduced by a member of Parliament to Sicard himself. Sicard, in turn, introduced Gallaudet to Clerc. Clerc and the others invited Gallaudet to visit and attend daily classes in their Institution in Paris. He gladly accepted the invitation.
In 1816, Clerc had become Sicard’s chief assistant, and he was teaching the highest class in the Institution. In addition to his classes with Sicard, Massieu, and Clerc, Gallaudet was also given private lessons by Clerc. Gallaudet was so impressed by Clerc that he invited this “master teacher” to go to America and help him establish a school for the deaf there.
After much discussion, the Abbe Sicard gave his permission for Clerc to leave. However, he convinced Clerc’s mother that he “could not spare [Clerc].” Clerc’s mother tried to dissuade him from leaving.
Clerc had been offered a teaching position in Russia. However, he declined due to financial problems. Now came Gallaudet’s offer. He was only 28 years old. He knew that if he went, he might never be able to see his family again. He also knew that the work involved would be enormous. But he was greatly motivated by his empathy for Alice and other deaf Americans who lacked language and were receiving no education. He was also adventurous and was intrigued by the prospect of living in a country that was not Catholic. In spite of his mother’s objections, Clerc decided to go. However, Gallaudet had to sign a contract with Sicard, stating that Clerc was “on loan” only for three years in the States.
Clerc and Gallaudet left for America on board the ship Mary Augusta on June 18, 1816. The voyage lasted fifty-two days. Clerc used that time to teach Gallaudet “the method of the signs for abstract ideas.” In return, he received tutoring in the English language from Gallaudet (Clerc already had a “considerable skill” in writing in English, as evidenced by his writing his journal entirely in English during this voyage). He also brought with him a French-English dictionary which was written by Massieu and published in 1808.
They arrived in Hartford on August 22., 1816. That same day, he met Alice Cogswell and communicated with her through sign associations. He found her to be a very intelligent girl who was hungry for knowledge but “virtually without a language.” Clerc became more resolved to carry out the mission that he came to do.
Clerc, with Gallaudet as his interpreter, and sometimes accompanied by Dr. Cogswell, delivered many speeches and demonstrations of their teaching methods to get public, legislative, and financial support for their goals. From October 1816 to April 1817, they went to Boston, New York, Philadelphia, New Jersey, and other places. They informed the public, interviewed parents of deaf children, communicated with prospective students. They raised around $12,000 from the public. In a great show of support, the Connecticut General Assembly made history by voting an additional $5,000 for the school – the first appropriation ever for the education of handicapped people.
On April 15, 1817, rented rooms made up their school which opened with seven students – Alice Cogswell being the first to enroll. It was originally called the Connecticut Asylum at Hartford for the Instruction of Deaf and Dumb Persons (now the American School for the Deaf). Gallaudet was the principal, and Clerc was the head teacher. A year later, poor and uneducated students filled the school. They ranged from 10 to 51 years of age.
In January, 1818, Clerc went to Washington, D.C. to gather support from Congress. He sat next to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon. Henry Clay, and was well-received by the members of Congress. Later, at the White House, he was introduced to President Monroe by the French Ambassador, Mr. Hyde de Neuville. He was applauded for his work by the President, who had attended one of Sicard’s demonstrations in London with Clerc and Massieu.
On May 28, 1818, through Gallaudet’s reading of his speech, Clerc addressed the Connecticut Legislature, becoming the first deaf person to ever do so. In the 1819-1820 session, with the help of Mr. Clay, the congressmen from Connecticut sponsored a bill granting the school with 23,000 acres of government land in the state of Alabama. President Monroe easily sanctioned the act. That land was sold for around $300,000. The proceeds were used to construct school buildings at the Asylum and start an endowment from which income could be drawn for the school.
On May 3, 1819, Clerc was married to Eliza Crocker Boardman, one of their earliest pupils from Whiteborough, New York . The wedding was held at the house of Eliza’s uncle, Benjamin Prescott, Esq. The Rev. Mr. Butler officiated at the wedding. A year later, the first of their six children Elizabeth Victoria, was born. Clerc visited France in 1820. He went again In 1835, taking his son, Francis, with him. His last visit to his homeland was in 1846, with his son, Charles.
While Clerc primarily taught grade-school students, he also trained future teachers and administrators – hearing or deaf. Many of their students went on to become productive deaf citizens and educated deaf leaders, spreading Clerc’s teachings and making him the greatest influence in the establishment of new deaf schools in the States at that time. His invitations were not limited to teaching. For example, he was invited to be the acting principal of the Pennsylvania Institution in Philadelphia from August 1821 to March 1822.
Clerc’s students and trained teachers founded other schools around the nation or taught in them, using Clerc’s teaching methods. The first school modeled after the Hartford institution was established in New York; the second, in Philadelphia. Other schools were to follow in many states around the Union such as in Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Virginia, and Quebec in Canada. In all, more than thirty residential schools were established all over the nation during Clerc’s lifetime.
Clerc went on to complete 50 years of teaching (41 of those in the States), retiring in 1858, when he was 73 years old. Although retired, he continued his advocacy for deaf education, maintaining an active interest in the school, and appearing as a guest or speaker at many academic functions. In June 1864, with much difficulty due to his age of 79, Clerc came to Washington, D.C. He was the guest of honor at the inauguration of the National Deaf-Mute College, now Gallaudet University.
He never attended college, but several honorary degrees were bestowed upon him for his pioneering work in deaf education.
On July 18, 1869, Clerc passed away. He was 83 years old.
Clerc and his wife, Elizabeth, are buried at Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford. In 1992, a deaf man, Alan Barwiolek, visited the Clerc gravesites. He was appalled at the deteriorated and vandalized headstones and started a nationwide campaign to restore the headstones. His efforts drew great support from countless individuals and organizations, including the Laurent Clerc Cultural Fund of the Gallaudet University Alumni Association. Six years later, honor was brought back to the Clerc family with the unveiling of new headstones at their final resting place.
Clerc’s mode of instruction was French signs. His students learned those signs for their studies. However, for their own use, they also borrowed or altered some of those signs and blended them with their own native sign language. As the Hartford students and teachers widely spread Clerc’s teachings in his original and in their modified signs, deaf communication acquired an identifiable form. This evolved into the American Sign Language, used in education and assimilated into the personal lives of America’s deaf population and its culture. Consequently, about two-thirds of today’s ASL signs have French origins. Examples of words that mean the same and have the same signs in American and French are: wine = vin; hundred = cent; look for = chercher.
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