“Your Dominion Has Palsied Him”: Constructing Disability and Dependence in Antebellum Abolitionist Rhetoric

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:50 PM
Murray Hill West (New York Hilton)
Dea Boster, Columbus State Community College
Ideas about disability in the antebellum period were often firmly entrenched in American culture and thought, and observers rarely called attention to their assumptions about disability in the documents they created. Abolitionist literature (particularly ex-slave narratives) and disability narratives gained wide readership in the mid-nineteenth century and utilized many of the same conventions, including sentimental language, direct appeals to readers, testimonials and authenticating evidence, and claims of independence. It is therefore unsurprising that the metaphor of slavery as disability had tremendous power in an antebellum culture influenced by increasing objections to pain and suffering, as well as a strong work ethic that scorned weakness and dependence. Fears of suffering and helpless reliance had a strong influence on the moral outrage that many northern abolitionists aroused in their readers and listeners. According to some abolitionist rhetoric, emancipation (and by extension, introduction into a free labor system) immediately would confer fitness and vitality to African-American slaves “unfitted” not by their race, but by the peculiar institution itself. Nestled in this idea was a celebration of ability and a conviction that healthy, able bodies were necessary for participation in a free society at a time when concepts of health, citizenship and labor were changing dramatically. Abolitionist arguments about the cruel and disabling aspects of the institution of slavery targeted widespread assumptions about innate racial inferiority and disability (social as well as physical and intellectual), but ultimately reinforced general assumptions about physical and mental disability as well as social dependence.