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Abbé de l'Épée - The Atlantic

It was well said, by one who has himself been a leader in one of the great philanthropic enterprises of the day,[A] that, "if the truthful history of any invention were written, we should find concerned in it the thinker, who dreams, without reaching the means of putting his imaginings in practice,—the mathematician, who estimates justly the forces at command, in their relation to each other, but who forgets to proportion them to the resistance to be encountered,—and so on, through the thousand intermediates between the dream and the perfect idea, till one comes who combines the result of the labor of all his predecessors, and gives to the invention new life, and with it his name."

[Footnote A: M. Edouard Seguin.]

Such was the history of the movement for the education of deaf-mutes. There had been a host of dreamy thinkers, who had invented, on paper, processes for the instruction of these unfortunates, men like Cardan, Bonet, Amman, Dalgarno, and Lana-Terzi, whose theories, in after years, proved seeds of thought to more practical minds. There had been men who had experimented on the subject till they were satisfied that the deaf-mute could be taught, but who lacked the nerve, or the philanthropy, to apply the results they had attained to the general instruction of the deaf and dumb, or who carefully concealed their processes, that they might leave them as heir-looms to their families;—among the former may be reckoned Pedro de Ponce, Wallis, and Pietro da Castro; among the latter, Pereira and Braidwood.

Yet there was wanting the man of earnest philanthropic spirit and practical tact, who should glean from all these whatever of good there was in their theories, and apply it efficiently in the education of those who through all the generations since the flood had been dwellers in the silent land, cut off from intercourse with their fellow-men, and consigned alike by the philosopher's dictum and the theologian's decree to the idiot's life and the idiot's destiny.

It was to such a work that the Abbé de l'Épée consecrated his life. But he did more than this; he, too, was a discoverer, and to his mind was revealed, in all its fulness and force, that great principle which lies at the basis of the system of instruction which he initiated,—"that there is no more necessary or natural connection between abstract ideas and the articulate sounds which strike the ear, than there is between the same ideas and the written characters which address themselves to the eye." It was this principle, derided by the many, dimly perceived by the few, which led to the development of the sign-language, the means which God had appointed to unlock the darkened understanding of the deaf-mute, but which man, in his self-sufficiency and blindness, had over-looked.

It is interesting to trace the history of such a man,—to know something of his childhood,—to learn under what influences he was reared, to what temptations exposed,—to see the guiding hand of Providence shaping his course, subjecting him to the discipline of trial, thwarting his most cherished projects, crushing his fondest hopes, and all, that by these manifold crosses he may be the better prepared for the place for which God has destined him. We regret that so little is recorded of this truly great and good man, but we will lay that little before our readers.

Charles Michel de l'Épée was born at Versailles, November 5th, 1712. His father, who held the post of Architect to the King, in an age remarkable above any other in French history for the prevalence of immorality, which even the refinement and pretended sanctity of the court and nobility could not disguise, was a man of deep piety and purity of character. Amid the lust, selfishness, and hypocrisy of the age, he constantly sought to impress upon the minds of his children the importance of truthfulness, the moderation of desire, reverence for God, and love for their fellow-men.

To the young Charles Michel compliance with the behests of such a parent was no difficult task; naturally amiable and obedient, the instructions of his father sunk deep into his heart. At an early age, he manifested that love of goodness which made every form of vice utterly distasteful to him; and in after years, when he heard of the struggles of those who, with more violent passions or less careful parental training, sought to lead the Christian life, his own pure and peaceful experience seemed to him wanting in perfection, because he had so seldom been called to contend with temptation.

As manhood approached, and he was required to fix upon a profession, his heart instinctively turned toward a clerical life, not, as was the case with so many of the young priests of that day, for its honors, its power, or its emoluments, but because, in that profession, he might the better fulfil the earnest desire of his heart to do good to his fellow-men. He accordingly commenced the study of theology. Here all went well for a time; but when he sought admission to deacon's orders, he was met by unexpected opposition. To a pious mind, like that of young De l'Épée, the consistent and Scriptural views of the Jansenists, not less than their pure and virtuous lives, were highly attractive, and through the influence of a clerical friend, a nephew of the celebrated Bossuet, he had been led to examine and adopt them. The diocesan to whom he applied for deacon's orders was a Jesuit, and, before he would admit him, he required him to sign a formula of doctrine which was abhorrent alike to his reason and his conscience. He refused at once, and, on his refusal, his application was rejected; and though subsequently admitted to the diaconate, he was insultingly told by his superior, that he need not aspire to any higher order, for it should not be granted.

It was with a saddened heart that he found himself thus compelled to forego long cherished hopes of usefulness. With that glowing imagination which characterized him even in old age, he had looked forward to the time when, as the curate of some retired parish, he might encourage the devout, reprove and control the erring, and, by his example, counsel, and prayers, so mould and influence the little community, that it should seem another Eden. But an overruling Providence had reserved for him a larger field of usefulness, a more extended mission of mercy, and it was through the path of trial that he was to be led to it.

Regarding it as his duty to employ his time, he at length determined to enter the legal profession. He passed with rapidity through the preliminary course of study, and was admitted to the bar. The practice of the law was not, at that time, in France, nor is it, indeed, now, invested with the high character attaching to it in England. Its codes and rules bore the impress of a barbarous age; and among its practitioners, fraud, artifice, and chicanery were the rule, and honesty the rare and generally unfortunate exception.

For such a profession the pure-minded De l'Épée found himself entirely unfitted, and, abandoning it with loathing, his eyes and heart were again directed toward the profession of his choice, and, this time, apparently not in vain. His early friend, M. de Bossuet, had been elevated to the see of Troyes, and, knowing his piety and zeal, offered him a canonry in his cathedral, and admitted him to priest's orders. The desire of his heart was now gratified, and he entered upon his new duties with the utmost ardor. "In all the diocese of Troyes," says one of his contemporaries, "there was not so faithful a priest."

But his hopes were soon to be blasted. Monseigneur de Bossuet died, and, as the Jansenist controversy was at its height, his old enemies, the Jesuits, exerted their influence with the Archbishop of Paris, and procured an interdict, prohibiting him from ever again exercising the functions of the priesthood.

A severer blow could scarcely have fallen upon him. He sought not for honor, he asked not for fame or worldly renown; he had only desired to be useful, to do good to his fellow-men; and now, just as his hopes were budding into fruition, just as some results of his faithful labors were beginning to appear, all were cut off by the keen breath of adversity.

It was while suffering from depression, at his unjust exclusion from the duties of his calling, that his attention was first directed to the unfortunate class to whom he was to be the future evangelist, or bringer of good tidings. Bébian thus relates the incident which led him to undertake the instruction of the deaf and dumb:—

"He happened one day to enter a house, where he found two young females engaged in needlework, which seemed to occupy their whole attention. He addressed them, but received no answer. Somewhat surprised at this, he repeated his question; but still there was no reply; they did not even lift their eyes from the work before them. In the midst of the Abbé's wonder at this apparent rudeness, their mother entered the room, and the mystery was at once explained. With tears she informed him that her daughters were deaf and dumb; that they had received, by means of pictures, a little instruction from Father Farnin, a benevolent ecclesiastic of the order of "Christian Brothers," in the neighborhood; but that he was now dead, and her poor children were left without any one to aid their intellectual progress.—'Believing,' said the Abbé, 'that these two unfortunates would live and die in ignorance of religion, if I made no effort to instruct them, my heart was filled with compassion, and I promised, that, if they were committed to my charge, I would do all for them that I was able.'"

It was in 1755 that the Abbé de l'Épée thus entered upon his great mission. Six years before, Jacob Rodriguez de Pereira had come from Spain, and exhibited some deaf and dumb pupils whom he had taught, before the Academy of Sciences. They were able to speak indifferently well, and had attained a moderate degree of scientific knowledge. Pereira himself was a man of great learning, of the most agreeable and fascinating manners, and possessed, in a high degree, that tact and address in which the Spanish Jews have never been surpassed. He soon made a very favorable impression upon the court, and led a pleasant life in the society of the literary men of the age. During his residence in France, he taught some five or six mutes of high rank to speak and to make considerable attainments in science,—charging for this service most princely fees, and at the same time binding his pupils to perfect secrecy in regard to his methods, which it was his intention to bequeathe to his family. This intention was thwarted, however, soon after his death, by a fire which destroyed nearly all his papers, and to this day his method has remained a secret, unknown even to his children. It is certain, however, that he made no use of the sign-language, though there is some evidence that he invented and practised a system of syllabic dactylology. Of this, the only successful effort which, up to that time, had been made in France, to teach deaf-mutes, it is obvious that De l'Épée could have known nothing, save the fact that it demonstrated the capacity of some of this class to receive instruction. It is, indeed, certain, from his own statements, that, at the time of commencing his labors, he had no knowledge of any works on the subject. He had somewhere picked up the manual alphabet invented by Bonet in 1620; and in subsequent years he derived some advantages from the works of Cardan, Bonet, Amman, Wallis, and Dalgarno.

It was well for the deaf and dumb that he entered upon his work thus untrammelled by any preconceived theory; for he was thus prepared to adopt, without prejudice, whatever might facilitate the great object for which he labored. "I have not," he said, in a letter to Pereira, in which he challenged an open comparison of their respective systems of instruction, promising to adopt his, should it prove to be better than his own,—"I have not the silly pride of desiring to be an inventor; I only wish to do something for the benefit of the deaf-mutes of all coming ages."

We have already adverted to the great principle which lay at the foundation of his system of instruction. The corollary deduced from this, that the idea was substantive, and had an existence separate from and independent of all words, written or spoken, was a startling proposition in those days, however harmless we may now regard it. But, convinced of its truth, De l'Épée set to himself the problem of discovering how this idea could be presented to the mind of the mute without words; and in their gestures and signs he found his problem solved. Henceforth, the way, though long and tedious, was plain before him. To extend, amplify, and systematize this language of signs was his task. How well he accomplished his work, the records of Deaf and Dumb Institutions, in Europe and America, testify. Others have entered into his labors and greatly enlarged the range of sign-expression,—modified and improved, perhaps, many of its forms; but, because Lord Rosse's telescope exceeds in power and range the little three-foot tube of Galileo Galilei, shall we therefore despise the Italian astronomer? To say that his work, or that of the Abbé De l'Épée, was not perfect, is only to say that they were mortals like ourselves.

But it is not only, or mainly, as a philosopher, that we would present the Abbé De l'Épée to our readers, he was far more than this; he was, in the highest sense of the word, a philanthropist. While Pereira, in the liberal compensation he received from French nobles for the instruction of their mute children, laid the foundation of that fortune by means of which his grandsons are now enabled to rank with the most eminent of French financiers, De l'Épée devoted his time and his entire patrimony to the education of indigent deaf-mutes. His school, which was soon quite large, was conducted solely at his own expense, and, as his fortune was but moderate, he was compelled to practise the most careful economy; yet he would never receive gifts from the wealthy, nor admit to his instructions their deaf and dumb children. "It is not to the rich," he would say, "that I have devoted myself; it is to the poor only. Had it not been for these, I should never have attempted the education of the deaf and dumb."

In 1780, he was waited upon by the ambassador of the Empress of Russia, who congratulated him on his success, and tendered him, in her name, valuable gifts. "Mr. Ambassador," was the reply of the noble old man, "I never receive money; but have the goodness to say to her Majesty, that, if my labors have seemed to her worthy of any consideration, I ask, as an especial favor, that she will send to me from her dominions some ignorant deaf and dumb child, that I may instruct him."

When Joseph II., of Austria, visited Paris, he sought out De l'Épée, and offered him the revenues of one of his estates. To this liberal proposition the Abbé replied: "Sire, I am now an old man. If your Majesty desires to confer any gift, upon the deaf and dumb, it is not my head, already bent towards the grave, that should receive it, but the good work itself. It is worthy of a great prince to preserve whatever is useful to mankind." The Emperor, acting upon his suggestion, soon after sent one of his ecclesiastics to Paris, who, on receiving the necessary instruction from De l'Épée, established at Vienna the first national institution for the deaf and dumb.

A still more striking instance of the self-denial to which his love for his little flock prompted him is related by Bébian. During the severe winter of 1788, the Abbé, already in his seventy-seventh year, denied himself a fire in his apartment, and refused to purchase fuel for this purpose, lest he should exceed the moderate sum which necessarily limited the annual expenditure of his establishment. All the remonstrances of his friends were unavailing; his pupils at length cast themselves at his feet, and with tears besought him to allow himself this indulgence, for their sake, if not for his own. Their importunities finally prevailed; but for a long time he manifested the greatest regret that he had yielded, often saying, mournfully, "My poor children, I have wronged you of a hundred crowns!"

That this deep and abiding affection was fully reciprocated by those whom he had rescued from a life of helpless wretchedness was often manifested. He always called them his children, and, indeed, his relation to them had more of the character of the parent than of the teacher. On one occasion, not long before his decease, in one of his familiar conversations with them, he let fall a remark which implied that his end might be approaching. Though he had often before spoken of death, yet the idea that he could thus be taken from them had never entered their minds, and a sudden cry of anguish told how terrible to them was the thought. Pressing around him, with sobs and wailing, they laid hold of his garments, as if to detain him from the last long journey. Himself affected to tears by these tokens of their love for him, the good Abbé succeeded, at length, in calming their grief; he spoke to them of death as being, to the good, only the gate which divides us from heaven; reminded them that the separation, if they were the friends of God, though painful, would be temporary; that he should go before them, and await their coming, and that, once reunited, no further separation would ever occur; while there the tongue would be unloosed, the ear unsealed, and they would be enabled to enjoy the music as well as the glories of heaven. Thus quieted, with chastened grief came holy aspiration; and it is not unreasonable to hope that the world of bliss, in after years, witnessed the meeting of many of these poor children with their sainted teacher.

It is interesting to observe the humility of such a man. The praises lavished on him seemed not in any way to elate him; and he invariably refused any commendation for his labors: "He that planteth is nothing, neither he that watereth, but God, who giveth the increase," was his reply to one who congratulated him on the success which had attended his labors.

With one incident more we must close this "record of a good man's life." Some years after the opening of his school for deaf-mutes, a deaf and dumb boy, who had been found wandering in the streets of Paris, was brought to him. With that habitual piety which was characteristic of him, De l'Épée received the boy as a gift from Heaven, and accordingly named him Theodore. The new comer soon awakened an unusual interest in the mind of the good Abbé. Though dressed in rags when found, his manners and habits showed that he had been reared in refinement and luxury. But, until he had received some education, he could give no account of himself; and the Abbé, though satisfied that he had been the victim of some foul wrong, held his peace, till the mental development of his protégé should enable him to describe his early home. Years passed, and, as each added to his intelligence, young Theodore was able to call to mind more and more of the events of childhood. He remembered that his ancestral home had been one of great magnificence, in a large city, and that he had been taken thence, stripped of his rich apparel, clothed in rags, and left in the streets of Paris. The Abbé determined, at once, to attempt to restore his protégé to the rights of which he had been so cruelly defrauded; but, being himself too infirm to attempt the journey, he sent the youth, with his steward, and a fellow-pupil named Didier, to make the tour of all the cities of France till they should find the home of Theodore. Long and weary was their journey, and it was not till after having visited almost all of the larger cities, that they found that the young mute recognized in Toulouse the city of his birth. Each of its principal streets was evidently familiar to him, and at length, with a sudden cry, he pointed out a splendid mansion as his former home. It was found to be the palace of the Count de Solar. On subsequent inquiry, it appeared that the heir of the estate had been deaf and dumb; that some years before he had been taken to Paris, and was said to have died there. The dates corresponded exactly with the appearance of young Theodore in Paris. As soon as possible, the Abbé and the Duke de Penthièvre commenced a lawsuit, which resulted in the restoration of Theodore to his title and property. The defeated party appealed to the Parliament, and, by continuing the case till after the death of the Abbé and the Duke, succeeded in obtaining a reversal of the decision, and the declaration that the claimant was an impostor. Stung with disappointment at the blighting of his hopes, young Theodore enlisted in the army, and was slain in his first battle.

The Abbé de l'Épée died at Paris on the 23d of December, 1789, in the seventy-eighth year of his age. Had he been spared two years longer, he would have seen his school, the object of his fond cares, adopted by the government, and decreed a national support. But though this act, and the accompanying vote, which declared that it was "done in honor of Charles Michel de l'Épée, a man who deserved well of his country," were creditable to the National Assembly, and the people whom it represented, yet we cannot but remember the troublous times that followed,—times in which no public service, no private goodness, neither the veneration due to age, the delicacy of womanhood, nor the winsome helplessness of infancy, was any protection against the insensate vengeance of a maddened people; and remembering this, we cannot regret that he whose life had been so peaceful was laid in a quiet grave ere the coming of the tempest.

It is but justice, however, to the French people to say, that no name in their history is heard with more veneration, or with more profound demonstrations of love and gratitude, than that of the Abbé de l'Épée. In 1843, the citizens of Versailles, his birth-place, erected a bronze statue in his honor; and the highest dignitaries of the state, amid the acclamations of assembled thousands, eulogized his memory. In 1855, the centennial anniversary of the establishment of his school for deaf-mutes was celebrated at Paris, and was attended by delegations from most of the Deaf and Dumb Institutions of Europe.

But sixty-eight years have elapsed since the death of this noble philanthropist, and, already, more than two hundred institutions for the deaf and dumb have been established, on the system projected by him and improved by his successors; and tens of thousands of mutes throughout Christendom, in consequence of his generous and self-denying zeal, have been trained for usefulness in this life, and many of them, we hope, prepared for a blissful hereafter. To all these the name of the Abbé de l'Épée has been one cherished in their heart of hearts; and, through all the future, wherever the understanding of the deaf-mute shall be enlightened by instruction, his memory shall be blessed.