The term mental retardation signifies the various ways that society defines and responds to human difference. For many people, mental retardation suggests incompetence: an individual's inability to achieve a score within an average range on an intelligence test and that individual's failure to meet established standards of behavior for a given age and a specified activity. People who think of mental retardation in terms of incompetence do so for a purpose: They require evidence to support an individual's eligibility for educational or vocational programs, public benefits, and medical care; or they might need documentation of incompetency to determine the need for oversight or guardianship or to qualify for leniency in matters of criminal law. Such practical considerations have frequently been the driving force to define mental retardation in ways that are measurable as well as descriptive. The language associated with mental retardation, however, means much more than this, especially for those who are outside the professions of medicine, the social sciences, and law (i.e., for most people in our society). In the ordinary give and take of conversation, the related language of mental retardation is more than clinical and purposeful, it is also metaphorical. The image of mental retardation extends meaning to other ideas and situations in order to enhance our understanding of them. In the transfer, mental retardation takes on new meaning as well. As a metaphor mental retardation has deep, extending roots that go far back in time and permeate every segment of society, including those same professions that define the contemporary experience.
A study of the history of mental retardation helps to explain how these multiple meanings have evolved and why they are important because the characteristics imputed to persons considered to have mental retardation have had far-reaching and often destructive consequences. According to Bogdan and Taylor (1994), “to be called retarded is to have one's moral worth and human value called into question. It is to be certified as ‘not one of us’” (p. 14). Historians search the past to examine the ways and to understand why persons with mental retardation have been consistently devalued and dehumanized. Part of their purpose is to determine the source of problems experienced by persons with mental retardation over time. Many historians locate these problems within the structures and institutions of society. With understanding, they hope to be able to bring about needed social change.
Historical research on mental retardation in the United States tends to focus on the institutional heritage that began in the early 1800s and continues into the present. Ferguson (1994), for example, has studied public policy and professional practice regarding persons with mental retardation in the period from about 1820 to 1920. Within that period, the author noted, society created a “context of failure” (p. 2), accompanied by images of hopelessness and “chronicity” to explain why individuals with severe mental retardation were consigned to custodial institutions. Trent (1994) was also concerned with the various ways that society has constructed meanings of mental retardation: “as a disorder of the senses, a moral flaw, a medical disease, a mental deficiency, a menace to the social fabric, and finally as mental retardation” (p. 2). He studied the definitions and treatment of mental retardation in postrevolutionary America as a way to understand the changing nature of the phenomenon and the impact that the social environment has had over time on those who have been declared to have mental retardation.
I adopt a similar point of view, in that I am interested in explaining “idiocy” as the early New England settlers may have understood and responded to it. My aim here is to explore the origins of our nation's approach to mental retardation within the colonies of North America, specifically in the colonies of New England. My expectation is that definitions of present-day problems concerning mental retardation may be found in the meanings attributed to idiocy in colonial Puritan society. In New England many colonists defined idiocy, the historical antecedent of mental retardation, in terms of religious institutions and beliefs. In fact, when New England was first settled, Puritan inhabitants approached most human issues with a theological frame of reference. They understood mankind in relation to a distant but merciful God and judged human behavior with standards of religious conformity. Socially situated within the orthodox Puritanism of the early 1600s, colonists constructed meanings of idiocy that were defined by their religious convictions, both for practical reasons and metaphorically.
To Miller (1954), Puritanism was “the most coherent and most powerful single factor in the early history of America” (p. viii). More than any other consideration, the pervasive reach of Puritanism and its intrusion into the lives of the inhabitants explain the situation of idiocy in Puritan New England. Most of the early settlers in the New World shared the beliefs of the Puritan faith brought from their homeland (Fischer, 1989). They carried their religion to New England with the express purpose of establishing a community devoted to the principles of Puritanism. Boorstin (1958) noted that of all the early American colonists, the Puritans were most successful applying the tenets of their faith to building a well-functioning community. They achieved this in part with a highly ordered society that separated devout believers from reprobates, authorized the rule of an elite class of educated men, and tolerated no dissension. If only within the 17th century, while New England retained its unique cohesiveness, the principles of Puritanism provided the foundation for the region's social structure and the behavior of its inhabitants.
The language and meanings ascribed to idiocy in Puritan New England originated in the English cities and countryside of the first settlers (e.g., Wright & Digby, 1996) and more distantly medieval Europe (e.g., Neaman, 1978). Scheerenberger (1983) has documented some of this history in his work on mental retardation, tracing evidence from early antiquity through the 1970s. Due to its constructed nature, scholars have tended to situate idiocy within the experience of certain societies and specific periods. Yet studies of idiocy in the colonial United States have failed to distinguish among possible regional differences, despite the widely disparate religious, political, and economic conditions among the colonies. What has been needed are a series of studies that examine idiocy within the unique experiences of the different colonial regions. In my work regarding the New England colonies, I am particularly interested in the influence of Puritan religious convictions to understand how the inhabitants may have interpreted idiocy and responded to those who were so named.
So little evidence remains to describe the situation of idiocy in the early colonies of New England that it is impossible to explain it definitively. To complicate matters further, the documentation that survives contains language that is unfamiliar and ambiguous. Despite these difficulties, the term idiocy surfaces within the earliest New England colonial laws and arises in the texts of Puritan preachers, in particular Cotton Mather, who chronicled many events of a scientific nature. The word idiocy seems to have been used mostly by well-educated persons who wrote in a formalized style for readers of a scholarly bent. Other terms such as incapashous, simplish, and natural fool, which appeared in the colonies' records, suggest the ways New Englanders may have spoken about idiocy in their homes and on the streets. More confusing words such as weak and impotent probably referred to persons who were older or physically ill and/or had disabilities. In most cases the language that applied to “madness” was quite clear: Crazy or distracted, for example, referred to the disorder that we currently call “mental illness.” Distempered seems to have been used indiscriminately for a wide variety of ailments. Ignorant, foolish, and imbecillic were words applied by Puritan clerics to insult the morally reprehensible and spiritually reprobate.
Despite the confusion of language, there is no question that the New England colonists were well-acquainted with idiocy and that its meanings were numerous and sometimes contradictory. Within New England law, idiocy first appeared in two entries in the Body of Liberties, the first set of laws of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, printed in 1641 (Colonial Laws of Massachusetts, 1889). The first, Liberty 14, legitimated the transfer of property by idiots and other subordinated persons, and the second, Liberty 52, provided exemptions for idiots and certain others who committed capital crimes. The predecessor for the insanity defense, this law recognized that some individuals, due to incompetence or extraordinary circumstances, could not be held responsible for behavior that violated the social and legal norms of colonial society. In 1647, Rhode Island adopted a similar law that qualified the penalty for manslaughter: “This Law extends not to a natural foole that hath not knowledge of good or evill; nor a felonious intent” (Records of the Colony of Rhode Island, 1856, p. 164).
In 1693, the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed An Act for the Relief of Ideots and Distracted Persons, the first such law in the colonies to authorize public officials to provide for idiots in the absence of responsible relatives. This act stipulated that provisions would be made
when and so often as it should happen any person to be naturally wanting of understanding, so as to be uncapable to provide for him or her self; Or by the Providence of God, shall fall into Distraction, and become Non compos mentis; and no Relations appear that will undertake the care of providing for them. (p. 79)
The Selectmen or Overseers of the Poor were to take responsibility for procuring their care, at public expense (Massachusetts Province Laws, 1978, p. 79). The Act of 1693 extended the poor laws of 1676 that pertained to distracted persons and distinguished between the two conditions, howsoever broadly and ambiguously. Other colonies modeled similar laws on Massachusetts' Act of 1693 at a later time.
Protection under these laws required a determination of incompetency, one that was most likely achieved through informal methods. Testimony given in court indicates some of the ways that persons may have demonstrated their deficiencies—in learning, at work, caring for themselves, tending their personal property. One man was deemed “. . . soe unfit for larning & any work in which was needfull to haue discresion used” (Records and Files, 1914, p. 219). Mighill Smith was exonerated from “his puting in of three beanes at once for one mans election, it being done in simplicity, & he being pore & of an harmles disposition (Records of the Governor, 1853, p. 189). Mary Phips was deemed “void of common reason and understanding that is in other children of her age [and]. . . next to a mere naturall in her intellectuals” (Thompson, 1986, p. 138). In all of these reports the narrator, while confirming the defendant's inabilities, adopted a benevolent attitude toward their pitiable conditions.
Records of law, however, tell only part of the story of idiocy in colonial New England. Among the third generation settlers was the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather, descendent of a line of prominent ministers. Mather, brilliant but eccentric and self-serving, has been described as the first New England Puritan to take an active interest in matters of science and medicine. A prolific writer, he recorded observations of natural phenomena, appropriated the reports of others, and wrote numerous treatises, including some that knitted Puritan doctrine with medical commentary (Silverman, 1985). It is Mather who provides us with the only coherent understanding of idiocy in the spiritual and scientific environs of colonial New England. His writings about idiocy represent a composite of scientific observation and religious condemnation. To Mather, idiocy was mostly a curiosity. Like other Puritans in the early 18th century, he was fascinated with the extraordinary and the supernatural. In letters addressed to the Royal Society in London, Mather reported monstrous births, wondrous recoveries from apparently mortal wounds, and remarkable remedies for near-fatal illnesses. Among these accounts the author included the case of two “uncommon Idiots” who lived with their paralytic father in the town of Dunstable. At the conclusion of a detailed description of the case, Mather remarked, “Was idiocy ever seen so miserable!” (Mather, 1971, p. 139).
To Mather idiocy was a curiosity, but it had organic causes and could be explained in terms of natural phenomena. In The Christian Philosopher (Solberg, 1994), Mather defined explicitly the organic genesis of idiocy, adopting a style familiar to scientists on the other side of the Atlantic:
A great Philosopher [N. Grew] observes and affirms, that the Clearness of our Fancy depends on the regular Structure of the Brain; by which it is fitted for the receiving and compounding of all Impressions with the more Regularity. In Fools the Brain is deformed. The Deformity is not easily noted in other People: But, no doubt, a smaller Difference than can be imagined, may alter the Symmetry of the Brain, and so the Perspicuity of the Fancy. (cited in Solberg, 1994, p. 251)
Although this entry serves as an important indicator of one Puritan's explanation of idiocy, Cotton Mather seems to be the exception among Puritans, for he was the only New England colonist who entertained even the slightest thought of idiocy as a human condition that could be explained by organic causes. Indeed, Mather, like other Puritan ministers, more commonly understood idiocy as a lively and pertinent metaphor. In his last book, The Angel of Bethesda (Jones, 1972), Mather presented a compendium of physical afflictions, religious diatribes, and both medical and spiritual remedies. Absent from the text is any reference to idiocy as a disease. Instead, Mather resorted to pious exhortations that attached idiocy to the calamity of epilepsy. If the agonies of epilepsy were extreme, the patient might “become a meer Ideot, which is often the unhappy Consequence of this Distemper, when it has Long Prevailed.” Addressing the patient directly, he warned, “Epileptic, Thou are already worse than an Ideot, if thou hast no Religious Thoughts, upon thy grievous Calamity” (Jones, 1972, p. 142). For Mather idiocy was not only the possible outcome of a near fatal illness, it was also a frightening spiritual situation that compromised the afflicted individual's hope for reconciliation with God. Among Puritan believers, a true understanding of religious commitment required learning and intellect in order to achieve salvation, a prospect idiots had no chance of obtaining.
Mather's contemporary, Samuel Parris, took spiritual matters a step further. In a sermon about the eligibility of communicants for the Lord's Supper, Parris wrote:
Fools & Idiots are not meet subjects for this ordinance. For those being void of Reason cannot examine themselves. There is a degree of knowledge, & a considerable degree of it required in all communicants. So much knowledge as to discerne the Lords body. I. Cor. II. 29. (Parris, 1993, p. 299)
For both Mather and Parris, competency extended into the church. Mather, malleable in his doctrine, avoided the outright exclusion of idiots, whereas the more conservative Parris took a condemnatory approach. Unable to demonstrate requisite understanding, idiots, according to Parris, were ineligible to participate in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper and, thereby, would forever be denied the opportunity to experience God's saving Grace.
Thomas Hooker, another prominent Puritan minister and one of the original settlers, took an altogether different, more positive view of idiocy. In a printed sermon Hooker (1638) drew an analogy between idiocy and the
poorest humbled sinner, of the meanest capacity, [who] doth know more of spirituall truths. . . than the most wise and learned in the world that are not humbled. . . . [He] that is almost a naturall foole, that soule knows and understands more of grace and mercy in Christ, than all the wisest and learnedst in the world. (p. 109)
The fool, like the most simple and innocent believer, Hooker implied, had not been corrupted by the sins of arrogance and the failures of conscience so often observed in those who were ostensibly wise and discerning. Hooker's optimism regarding the image of simplicity as well as his frequent use of analogy probably derived from his English preparation, because idiocy as a favorable figure of speech appears more frequently in the sermons of English Puritan preachers than in New England.
Mather too utilized images of idiocy for dramatic effect in his writings, but there was nothing complimentary about them. Rebuking the people of New England who opposed his visions for reform, he exclaimed: “They rave, they rail, they blaspheme; they talk not a little like Ideots but also like Franticks” (Mather, n.d., p. 632). In correspondence he employed a familiar figure of speech to describe the deplorable condition of Massachusetts, which was now governed by “idiots and fuddle-caps and men that love and make a lie” (Mather, 1971, p. 329). Similarly, in his patronizing and disparaging way, he concluded that the “people are seized with folly, and continue in the fancies and actions of natural fools” (Mather, 1971, p. 316). Thus, for Mather, idiocy was a curiosity, an organic problem with physical dimensions, a metaphor suggestive of physical and spiritual frailty, a station in life inhabited by the most unfortunately afflicted, and as a description of the most reprehensible, irresponsible “numbskulls.”
Although we must be cautious in drawing conclusions from the meager evidence, it seems quite likely that idiocy in the Puritan New England colonies was interpreted in a variety of ways. For practical purposes colonists defined idiocy in terms of incompetence in order to create a class of individuals who might qualify for protection under the laws. Before such laws were passed, there was probably no need to differentiate among those who were competent and those who were not. Although idiocy was emerging as a legally recognized status, Cotton Mather was exploring the scientific and medical dimensions of the condition. Furthermore, idiocy carried a metaphoric message, with moral and spiritual implications: Mather and Parris represented the dominant view of idiocy as the depth of spiritual desolation, whereas Thomas Hooker affirmed the goodness of the simple spirit, humbled by affliction. Cotton Mather was the only New England colonist to consider idiocy from the vantage point of science, yet as valuable as his scientific insights were, it is the spiritual imagery that remains fixed in our minds.
Author:Parnel Wickham, PhD, Associate Professor of Special Education, Dowling College. Send reprint requests to 107 Birchwood Dr., Ithaca, NY 14850. ( email@example.com)