Tribute to Gallaudet/Laurent Clerc
I was born in La Balme, Canton of Cremieu, Department of Isere, on the 26th of December, 1785. The village of La Balme lies twenty-six miles east of Lyons, on the east side of the Rhone, and is noted for its grotto, called, "Lagrottee de Notre Dame de la Balme." My father, Joseph Francis Clerc, a notary public by profession, was the mayor of the place from 1780 to 1814, My mother, Elizabeth Candy, was the daughter of Mr. Candy, of Cremieu, also a notary public. My father died in April, 1816, and my mother in May, 1818.
When I was about a year old, I was left alone for a few moments on a chair by the fireside, and it happened, I know not how, that I fell into the fire, and so badly burned my right cheek, that the scar of it is still visible; and my parents were under the impression that this accident deprived me of my senses of hearing and smelling.
When I was seven years, my mother hearing that a certain physician in Lyons could cure deafness, took me thither. The doctor, after examining my ears, said he thought he could make me hear, provided I would call at his office twice a day for a fortnight. My mother agreed to take me, so we called regularly every day and the doctor injected into my ears I do not know what liquids, but I did not derive any benefit whatever from the operation. And at the expiration of the fortnight I returned home with my mother still as deaf as I was before.
I passed my childhood at home, in doing nothing but running about and playing with other children. I sometimes drove my mother's turkeys to the field or her cows to pasture, and occasionally my father's horse to the watering place. I was never taught to write or to form the letters of the alphabet; nor did I ever go to school; for there were no such school-houses or academies in our villages as we see every where in New England.
At the age of about twelve, that is, in 1797, my father being unable to absent himself from home on account of the duties of his office, at his earnest request, my uncle, Laurent Clerc, took me to Paris, and the next day I was placed in the Institution for the Deaf and Dumb. I did not see the Abbé Sicard, but I learned afterward that he was in prison for a political offense. Mr. Massieu, deaf and dumb like myself, was my first teacher, and when the Abbé Sicard was set at liberty and had resumed the superintendence of the Institution, he took me into his class, and I was with him ever after.
Out of school hours, the Abbé Margaron, one of the assistant teachers, taught me to articulate together with a few other pupils. We learned to articulate pretty well all the letters of the alphabet, and many words of one and two or three syllables; but I had much difficulty to pronounce da and ta, de and le, do and to, &c. Although Mr. Margaron made me repeat these words again and again, I succeeded no better. One day, he became so impatient, and gave me so violent a blow under my chin, that I bit my tongue, and I felt so chagrined, that I would try to learn to speak no longer.
I applied myself to other things. I learned to draw and to compose in the printing office of the Institution till 1805, when I was employed as a tutor on trial, and in 1806 appointed a teacher with a salary of about two hundred dollars. In process of time, Mr. Sicard thought me capable of teaching the highest class, and I occupied that place when Mr. Gallaudet came to Paris. But before speaking of him more at length, let me say how I happened to make Mr. G's acquaintance.
Mr. Sicard, who was a royalist and an adherent to the dynasty of the Bourbons, sometimes imprudently entertained secret correspondence with the garrisons of the Comte de Provence (since Louis XVIII.) then in England. Napoleon, as every body knows, being generally well informed of all that transpired both in Paris and throughout France, knew that such correspondences took place; but not considering Mr. Sicard a very dangerous enemy of his, and thinking him, on the contrary, very useful to the unfortunate deaf and dumb, he suffered him to remain undisturbed, but determined to reprove him for meddling with politics instead of attending to his own business, by never conferring upon him any title of honor he might merit. Mr. S., who had the simplicity to believe that Napoleon was ignorant of his intrigues, wondered why he did not receive the cross of the legion of honor, an honor not unfrequently conferred upon persons much less entitled to it than himself. He did not, however, despair of obtaining it at some future time, and for this purpose, he besought some of his friends whom he knew to have free access and great influence over Napoleon to prevail on him to visit the Deaf and Dumb Institution, but all attempts and persuasions failed, for Napoleon constantly refused, not that he did not feel interested in the deaf and dumb, but on account of Mr. Sicard, whom he wished to punish by not seeing him. Things went on without any other extraordinary occurrences till the Allied Powers entered Paris in 1814. Soon after Louis XVIII. was seated on the throne of his ancestors, Mr. Sicard was among the first who went to congratulate his majesty on his happy return, and it was not long before the cross of the legion of honor for which he had aspired so much, was conferred on him by the king himself, and by and by the order of St. Waldimir of Russia, by the Emperor Alexander, and another order by the king of Sweden. Mr. Sicard was now satisfied that justice had been done him, and desired nothing more. But when Napoleon returned from the island of Elba in March, 1815, Mr. Sicard was so afraid that Napoleon would deprive him of his honors, that he accepted an invitation to visit England in order not to be in Paris while Napoleon was there. He took Mr. Massieu and myself along with him. We arrived at London during the last days of May. We had our first exhibition on the 2d of June. [Footnote: The questions and answers of Massieu and myself at these public exhibitions were published.] We gave two a week, and they were generally attended by princes, members of both houses of parliament, and other distinguished individuals of both sexes, among whom were the Duke of Kent, the Duke of Orleans, (since Louis Philippe,) and her grace, the Duchess of Wellington. Little did I anticipate, at that time, the total defeat which Napoleon was to experience by the combined armies of Europe, under the command of her illustrious husband, the Duke of Wellington. I had the mortification of being present at the house of lords when the prince regent came in person, to announce to both houses the battle of Waterloo and the flight of Napoleon. I also witnessed the illumination of the city in the evening, and the joy that this event caused to the English!
It was at the close of one of our public lectures that Mr. Gallaudet was introduced to me for the first time by Mr. Sicard, to whom he had previously been introduced by a member of parliament. We cordially shook hands with him, and on being told who he was, where he came from, and for what purpose, and on being further informed of the ill success of his mission in England, we earnestly invited him to come to Paris, assuring him that every facility would be afforded him to see our Institution and attend our daily lessons. He accepted the invitation, and said he would come in the ensuing spring. We did not see him any more, as we left London soon afterward. In the spring of 1816, according to his promise, he came to Paris, and glad were we to see him again. He visited our Institution almost every day. He began by attending the lowest class, and from class to class, he came to mine which, as mentioned above, was the highest. I had, therefore, a good opportunity of seeing and conversing with him often, and the more I saw him, the more I liked him; his countenance and manners pleased me greatly. He frequented my school-room, and one day requested me to give him private lessons of an hour every day. I could receive him but three times a week, in my room up stairs in the afternoon, and he came with punctuality, so great was his desire of acquiring the knowledge of the language of signs in the shortest time possible. I told him, nevertheless, that however diligent he might be, it would require at least six months to get a tolerably good knowledge of signs, and a year for the method of instruction so as to be well qualified to teach thoroughly. He said he feared it would not be in his power to stay so long, and that he would reflect, and give me his final decision by and by. In the mean time, he continued coming to receive his lesson, and we spoke no more of "how long he would stay" till the middle of May, when taking a favorable occasion, he intimated to me that he wished very much he could obtain a well educated deaf and dumb young man to accompany him to America. I named two young deaf and dumb men who had left our Institution a few years since, that I knew would suit him, as they both had some knowledge of the English language, whereas I had none at all; but he answered that he had already made his choice, and that I was the person he preferred. Greatly astonished was I, for I had not the least expectation that I should be thought of. After a short pause, I said I would not hesitate to go if I could do it properly. I suggested to him the idea of speaking or writing to the Abbé Sicard on the subject, as I considered myself engaged to the Abbé. He said he would write, and accordingly wrote; but although his letter was never answered, we both inferred that Mr. Sicard's silence was rather favorable than otherwise. But in order to ascertain his views, I was requested to sound him. Accordingly I called and inquired in the most respectful manner whether he had received Mr. G's letter, and if so, what answer he had returned. I received but an evasive answer to my question; for he abruptly asked me why I wished to part with him. My reply was simply this, that I could without much inconvenience leave him for a few years without loving him the less for it, and that I had a great desire to see the world, and especially to make my unfortunate fellow-beings on the other side of the Atlantic, participate in the same benefits of education that I had myself received from him. He seemed to appreciate my feelings; for after some further discussions on both sides, he finished by saying that he would give his consent, provided I also obtained the consent of my mother, my father being dead. I said I would ask her, if he would permit me to go home. He said I might. Accordingly I made my preparations and started for Lyons on the 1st of June, after having promised Mr. Gallaudet to return a few days before the appointed time for our voyage. I thought I was going to agreeably surprise my dear mother, for she never imagined, poor woman, that I could come to see her, except during my vacation, which usually took place in September; but I was myself much more surprised when, on my arrival, she told me she knew what I had come for, and on my inquiring what it was, she handed me a letter she had received from Mr. Sicard the preceding day. [Footnote: One of my sons, Francis or Charles, when in France, took a copy of Mr. Sicard's letter to my mother, which was still in the possession of one of my sisters.] On reading it, I found that the good Abbé Sicard had altered his mind, and written to dissuade my mother from giving her consent; saying he "could not spare me!" Accordingly my mother urged me hard to stay in France, but to no purpose, for I told her that my resolution was taken, and that nothing could make me change it. She gave her consent with much reluctance, and said she would pray God every day for my safety, through the intercession of La Sainte Vierge. I bade herself, my brother and sisters and friends, adieu, and was back in Paris on the 12th of June, and the next day, after having taken an affectionate leave of the good Abbé Sicard, who had been like a father to me, I went also to bid my pupils good-by, and there took place a painful scene I can never forget. A favorite pupil of mine, the young Polish Count Alexander de Machwitz, a natural son of the Emperor Alexander, whom I knew to be much attached to me, came over to me and with tears in his eyes, took hold of me, saying he would not let me depart, scolding me, at the same time, for having so long kept a secret my intention to go away. I apologized as well as I could, assuring him that I had done so, because I thought it best. However, he still held me so fast in his arms, so that I had to struggle, to disentangle myself from him, and having floored him without hurting him, I made my exit, and the day following, the 14th of June, I was en route for Havre, with Mr. Gallaudet and our much honored friend, S. V. S. Wilder, Esq., who, I am happy to say, is still alive, and now resides some where in Greenwich, in this state. On the 18th of June, in the afternoon, we embarked on board the ship Mary Augusta, Captain Hall, and arrived at New York on the 9th of August, 1816, in the morning.
Owing to adverse winds and frequent calms which usually occur at sea in the summer season, our passage lasted fifty-two days. It was rather long; but on the whole, the voyage was pleasant. A part of our time on board was usefully employed. I taught Mr. Gallaudet the method of the signs for abstract ideas, and he taught me the English language. I wrote my journal, and as I thought in French rather than in English, I made several laughable mistakes in the construction of my sentences, which he corrected; so that being thus daily occupied, I did not find the time to fall very heavily upon me. We formed plans for the success of the institution we were going to establish; we made arrangements for the journeys we expected to undertake for the collection of funds; we reformed certain signs which we thought would not well suit American manners and customs.
The weather was fair when we landed. Our first steps were directed to the store of Messrs. Wilder & Co., in Pearl street, thence to the customhouse, and thence we proceeded to the house of Mr. Gallaudet's father, in John street. I anticipated much pleasure in witnessing his joy at again seeing his parents, brothers and sisters, after so long an absence; but I must acknowledge that I was rather disappointed; for I did not see any greater demonstration of welcome on both sides than the mere shaking of hands; little was I aware, at that time, of the difference between the French and American mode of saluting, especially with respect to the ladies. We staid about ten days in New York. We met, or rather we called on several gentlemen of Mr. Gallaudet's acquaintance, who gave me a cordial welcome to America.
My first impression of the city was admiration of Broadway which appeared to me to be the finest street in the world, and my astonishment was great at seeing so much bustle in the streets, people in so great a hurry and walking so fast.
My second impression was the wearisomeness which the uniformity produced. Men, streets, squares, buildings, every thing was alike; all looked well, nothing appeared magnificent. I noticed neatness without elegance, riches without taste, beauty without gracefulness. I found that the happiness of the Americans was at their firesides with their wives, children and friends. They had few amusements, few spectacles and very few sublime objects capable of arresting the attention of a European; and such a one could not easily appreciate the extent of the private happiness of a people who were secure and not poor.
At length, we left New York for New Haven, where we made a short tarry, which I wished had been much longer; for I found it a delightful place. We called on President Dwight and some of the professors, who welcomed us. We visited the college, the library and chapel. The next day, it being very pleasant, we took the stage for Hartford, where we arrived in the afternoon of the 22d of August, 1816. We alighted at Dr. Cogswell's in Prospect street. We found Mrs. Cogswell alone at home with her daughters, excepting Alice, who was then at school under Miss Lydia Huntley, (now Mrs. Sigourney, our lovely poetess.) She was immediately sent for, and when she made her appearance, I beheld a very interesting little girl. She had one of the most intelligent countenances I ever saw. I was much pleased with her. We conversed by signs, and we understood each other very well; so true is it, as I have often mentioned before, that the language of signs is universal and as simple as nature. I had left many persons and objects in France endeared to me by association, and America, at first, seemed uninteresting and monotonous, and I sometimes regretted leaving my native land; but on seeing Alice, I had only to recur to the object which had induced me to seek these shores, to contemplate the good we were going to do, and sadness was subdued by an approving conscience.
On the 23d of August in the evening, that is, the next day after our arrival at Hartford, we attended a meeting of the directors of the Asylum at the State House, and I was introduced to them individually. By and by, I made the acquaintance of the principal citizens of Hartford and their families, who all received and treated me so kindly, that I felt quite at home.
On the 3d of September, Dr. Cogswell, Mr. Gallaudet and myself set out for Boston, with many letters of introduction, among which was one from Gov. John C. Smith to Gov. Phillips. The object of our coming hither was soon generally known. I was at the Atheneum upon two days of the week and answered a great variety of questions proposed to me by a large company of gentlemen. On the second day, that is, on the 9th of September, an address was delivered to the gentlemen, which I had written in the morning. It is proper to remark that I had only studied the English language about three months; no apology, therefore, is necessary for the idiomatic expressions discoverable in my style. Here is my address, the first I ever made in this country:
"Gentlemen—You know the motive which has led me to the United States of America. The public papers have taught you it; but you do not yet know, I believe, the reason why I have come to Boston with Mr. Gallaudet and Dr. Cogswell, and why we have invited you to honor this meeting with your presence.
"It is to speak to you more conveniently of the deaf and dumb, of those unfortunate beings who, deprived of the sense of hearing and consequently of that of speech, would be condemned all their life, to the most sad vegetation if nobody came to their succor, but who entrusted to our regenerative hands, will pass from the class of brutes to the class of men.
"It is to affect your hearts with regard to their unhappy state, to excite the sensibility and solicit the charity of your generous souls in their favor; respectfully to entreat you to occupy yourselves in promoting their future happiness.
"The celebrated and immortal Abbé de l'Epée invented the art of restoring them to society and religion. It is according to his method that the institutions in Europe have been formed; it is consequently to him that all the deaf and dumb who know how to write and read, owe their temporal and spiritual happiness.
The Abbé Sicard, my respectable and beloved master, was the most distinguished among the disciples of the Abbé de l'Epée, whom he succeeded. The latter had left some things to be designed, the Abbé Sicard has supplied them; but if there had not been the Abbé de l'Epée, there would not have been the Abbé Sicard; thus glory, honor and eternal gratitude are due to those two friends of humanity.
"I was about twelve years old when I arrived at the Abbé Sicard's school. I was endowed with considerable intelligence, but nevertheless I had no idea of intellectual things. I had it is true, a mind, but it did not think; I had a heart, but it did not feel.
"My mother, affected at my misfortune, had endeavored to show me the heavens, and to make me know God, imagining that I understood her, but her attempts were vain; I could comprehend nothing. I believed that God was a tall, big and strong man, and that Jesus Christ having come to kill us, had been killed by us, and placed on a cross as one of our triumphs.
"I believed many other droll and ridiculous things; but as one cannot recollect what passed in his infancy, I cannot describe them. I am sure that the deaf and dumb who are in your country, think as I once did. You must be so kind as to aid us to undeceive them. We shall cultivate their minds and form their hearts; but as the mind and heart cannot live without the body, you will have the goodness to charge yourselves, with your other countrymen, with the support of their bodies. In Europe, each nation, however small, has an institution for the deaf and dumb, and most of these institutions are at the expense of the government. Will America remain the only nation which is insensible to the cry of humanity? I hope not, gentlemen; I hope that you will busy yourselves with the same zeal as your neighbors, the good inhabitants of Connecticut. If the deaf and dumb become happy, it will be your joy to see that it is the effect of your generosity, and they will preserve the remembrance of it as long as they live, and your reward will be in heaven."
The next day (the 10th of September) we had another exhibition at one of the new court-house rooms for greater convenience. Here I delivered a complimentary address to the ladies, which was as follows:
"Ladies—Yesterday we invited the most respectable inhabitants of Boston to meet us at the Atheneum, in order to speak to them of the poor deaf and dumb who abound in your own country. A great many gentlemen attended. I had hoped also to see some of you there; but I saw none. I expressed my wonder, and at the same time, my regret. I am now fully indemnified. I see you; I look into your eyes, and by your eyes I can judge the bottom of your hearts. I feel it is good, tender and sensible. A tender and sensible heart is never inaccessible to the misfortune of others.
"There are more than two thousand unfortunate deaf and dumb in the United States without instruction and consequently without any knowledge whatever of the charms of society, of the benefits of God toward us all, and of a better happiness in the other world! While it lies in your power to contribute to render them happy here below, will you leave them to die in this sad state? I hope you will be too good to permit it. Behold, ladies, what I should desire to obtain from you. Mr. Gallaudet and I are in the design of raising those unfortunates from their nothingness. We propose to establish an institution in their favor, and to collect them there. This institution must be in the middle of your country, that the deaf and dumb may arrive there from all the states. The town of Hartford has seemed to us to be the most convenient place, and has consequently been chosen.
"The deaf and dumb whose parents or friends are rich, will pay their own board; those whose parents are indigent, will be at the expense of your liberality; and as they are the most numerous, the charity of all the citizens of America is indispensable. It is then to solicit that charity that we have come to Boston; and thence we intend to go to the other principal cities for the same purpose, and we have no doubt of its success. If you remark among your husbands, relations or friends, some who may be insensible to this action of benevolence, I beg you to change them into better dispositions. You have naturally great sensibility; you are endowed with the talent of causing the insensible to feel, and of subduing the inexorable. Thus my friends rely on you, kind ladies, and I place in the number of the obligations I shall owe to you, those which my companions in the same situation as myself, will owe to you; and when they are educated, they will doubtless themselves express their gratitude to you."
At the close of my address, many ladies came to me, and shook hands with me, and I answered a number of questions, to the satisfaction of the company. A number of generous donations were made to the institution, and the example was followed by all classes in the community to the amount of many thousand dollars.
Dr. Cogswell had left us a few days previous and returned home; and on the 27th of September, Mr. Gallaudet and myself went to Salem, where we obtained several subscriptions.
The address which I delivered at the court-house was published in the newspapers.
Early in October we returned to Hartford, and in a few days we started for New Haven, where the legislature was in session. We had an exhibition before the governor and both houses; at which time I delivered an address and answered numerous questions.
From New Haven we proceeded to New York, but we were not as successful there as we had been elsewhere. It was not that the New Yorkers were less benevolent than their fellow-citizens of New England, but the reason was that at the several meetings held at the City Hall, a majority of those who attended, wished to have an institution established in the city.
In November, the legislature of New York being in session at Albany, we went there, and a few days afterward we had an exhibition at the capital, where I delivered a long address, of which I regret I have not preserved any copy. We obtained something handsome from private gentlemen, but nothing from the legislature. We came back to New York city and made another attempt, but did not succeed any better. We then went to Philadelphia, where we gave an exhibition at Washington Hall, in Third street. The meeting was much crowded, especially with pretty Quaker ladies; but as the Asylum was not to be located there, we did not receive as much as we had anticipated. I called several times on my countryman, Stephen Girard, Esq. I found him very eccentric: once he said he would give something, and the next day he would give nothing, on account of the school not being in Philadelphia, and said the people of New England were rich enough to support the institution. He was very local in his charity.
We returned north by way of Burlington, N. J., and received some very liberal donations.
On the 15th of April, 1817, our school was opened with seven pupils, in the south part of the building now the City Hotel, and on the 20th, Mr. Gallaudet delivered an appropriate sermon on the occasion in the Rev. Dr. Strong's church.
In January, 1818, I visited Washington city with the late Mr. Henry Hudson, to ascertain whether we could hope to obtain something from Congress for our Asylum. I attended the House of Representatives, and the Hon. Henry Clay, who was the speaker, politely offered me a seat beside him. There was a recess of half an hour, and I conversed with several members of Congress, both in English and French. Afterward I visited the Senate chamber. The next day I had the honor of being introduced to President Monroe at the White House, by Mr. Hyde de Neuville, the French ambassador, for whom I had a letter of recommendation from the Duke Mathieu de Montmorency.
The President received me with much affability and bade me "welcome to America," and said among other things, that he hoped I would receive great honor and much gratitude by doing good to the deaf and dumb. I carefully preserved the paper containing our conversation, but have mislaid it. I attended one of the levees with the ambassador and Mr. Hudson, and holding a paper and pencil in my hands, I had the pleasure of conversing with gentlemen and ladies.
In the session of 1819-20, thanks to the exertions of both our Connecticut senators and representatives, Congress granted us a township located in the state of Alabama, and President Monroe, with the benevolence which characterized him, readily sanctioned the act with his signature.
In May, 1818, I prepared an address, and on the 28th, it was delivered, at my request, by Mr. Gallaudet, in the Center Congregational Church, before Gov. Wolcott and both houses of the legislature.
On the 3d of May, 1819, at the house of her uncle, Benjamin Prescott, Esq., at Cohoes Falls, near Waterford, N. Y., I was married to Miss Eliza Crocker Boardman, a very beautiful and intelligent young lady, and one of our earliest pupils, by the Rev. Mr. Butler, then rector of the Episcopal church at Troy, and the father of the Rev. Dr. Butler, the present chaplain of the Senate of the United States at Washington. The grooms were Lewis Weld, Esq., and Hermann Bleecker, Esq., and the bride-maids Miss Prescott and Miss Butler, and the witnesses were Mr. and Mrs. Theodore Sedgwick, the Rev. Mr. Eaton and two or three other gentlemen of Albany.
Toward the close of April, 1820, that is, about a month after the birth of my oldest daughter, Elizabeth Victoria, (now Mrs. George W. Beers,) I sailed for France on a visit to my friends, and returned to Hartford in a year. We have now four living children, viz: two sons and two daughters, having lost two, viz: a girl and a boy, each at about two years old. My daughter Mrs. Beers has a son, and my younger daughter, Mrs. Henry C. Deming, has also one. My oldest son, Rev. Francis Joseph Clerc, rector of St. John's church, in St. Louis, Mo., is also married and has two children, a daughter and a son, so that I have now four grandchildren, all blessed with the sense of hearing, as well as their parents. My younger son, Charles Michael Clerc, is not yet married; he is at New York city, in a wholesale store.
These instructions were given, not for a price, but in obedience to the precept of our Lord Jesus Christ, who said: "Freely you have received, freely give." In 1830, Mr. Gallaudet resigned his situation as Principal, notwithstanding my supplications that he would not. We had been so intimate, so harmonious, so much attached to each other; we had labored together so many years; that I parted with him with unspeakable grief.
In April, 1885, I again visited my friends in France, with my older son Francis, whom I left there about three years, to perfect himself in his knowledge of the French language. This was my second absence. The third and last took place in May, 1846, and I took with me my younger son Charles, who also remained there three years for the purpose of learning to speak French and to acquire some knowledge of the manufacture of silk.