Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Meet Laurel Daen, OI-NEH Postdoctoral Fellow

· August 9th, 2018 · No Comments

Laurel Daen started her two-year term at the Omohundro Institute on July 1, 2018, as the OI-NEH Postdoctoral Fellow. You can read more about the fellowship, including how to apply, on our website.

by Laurel Daen

Hello! I started last month as the 2018-20 OI-NEH Postdoctoral Fellow. I’m happy to be here! I’m actually not new to the OI or to William & Mary. I received my PhD in History from William & Mary in 2016 and worked at the OI as the Lapidus Initiative Communications Coordinator from 2016-17. This past year, I was an NEH Long-term Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society and an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Short-Term Fellow at the Huntington Library. After these stints in Boston and LA, I’m glad to be back in Williamsburg.

My book project is about disability, authority, and the formation of the American nation state. In the Early Republic, disability became an increasingly meaningful governmental and institutional category of social welfare and exclusion. For example: the federal government began to issue invalid pensions to wounded veterans; states provided scholarships for deaf and blind children to go to school; Americans joined mutual aid societies, which dispensed disability benefits, in growing numbers; and courts more stringently enforced restrictions, such as the inability to marry, on people with intellectual impairments. In these arenas and more, questions emerged about what counted as disability. Who qualified for pensions and scholarships? Who was subject to legal proscriptions? And, more importantly, who had the authority to decide?

My research reveals that Americans—politicians, judges, institutional administrators, and everyday people—debated these questions extensively and ultimately turned to physicians to resolve disputes and lend the category of disability greater shape and weight. With twenty-first-century hindsight, this turn to medicine may seem obvious or expected, but it was not. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, few Americans considered physicians to be professional authorities or disability to be a medical condition. Nevertheless, as controversies about disability intensified, people cultivated alliances with doctors, who used the specialized and seemingly impartial language of medicine to preside over the emerging classification. Physicians also used their positions as assessors of disability to assert and claim professional status.

By the mid-nineteenth century when my project concludes, disability was a more standardized, medicalized, and significant administrative and institutional categorization and doctors were viewed as experts on disability policy and disabled people. These developments, I argue, had important consequences. As a widely-used bureaucratic classification, disability helped to expand and entrench the structures of the new government. In addition, as a category that privileged the opinions of physicians, disability advanced the professionalization of medicine. Finally, increased regulation of disability had mixed repercussions for disabled people. While some benefited from new social welfare provisions, others faced additional challenges—due to both expanding restrictions and the growth of medical power. Lacking familiarity with medical discourse and medical degrees, disabled people lost the status of experts on their own bodies.

During my time at the OI, I will be revising my manuscript. At this point, I’m not sure all that this will entail, but I have at least two goals. First, over the past year I have been immersed in colonial legal records, which have reminded me (of course!) that governmental and institutional regulation of disability was nothing new in the Early Republic. Before the Revolution, disabled people regularly interacted with local and colonial officials, arguing for benefits and against restrictions imposed on account of their incapacity. In addition, colonial judges, like their early national counterparts, were deeply invested in deciphering ability from disability and demarcating these categories in legal contexts. In my revisions, I plan to integrate these findings from the colonial period into the manuscript, highlighting what changed (and stayed the same) following the Revolution.

Second, I intend to add more material about disability and slavery. When I wrote the dissertation, I was drawn to sources on New England and the Northeast—regions known for their histories of state- and institution-building as well as for their rich and accessible historical documentation. As I conducted my research, however, I found that these sources offered little insight into questions of disability and slavery. People in or recently released from bondage, I discovered, were even more obscured in the records than most disabled people. As part of my revisions, I plan to use slave “unsoundness” cases—in which buyers of slaves sued sellers because the people they purchased had unanticipated physical and intellectual ailments—to explore how the category of disability developed in ways particular to slaves that exemplified and reinforced their bondage.

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