Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Karin A Wulf

Committee Member

Cornelia H Dayton

Committee Member

Christopher Grasso

Committee Member

Charles McGovern

Committee Member

Brett Rushforth


“The Constitution of Disability” examines the creation and implementation of bureaucratic, legal, institutional, and cultural categories of disability in the Early American Republic. Scholarship in early American studies, disability studies, and the history of medicine has been slow to account for disability—and its status as a political, legal, and administrative classification in particular—during the period. This dissertation shows how disability became a meaningful designation in diverse venues, from the provision of federal and state pensions to wounded veterans and deaf and blind students to the restrictions imposed on those deemed to be cognitively disabled by state and federal courts. A wide range of sources underpin the study. Governmental and legal records demonstrate the role of political officials and judges in formulating and refining disability categories as well as how these constructs were negotiated by those who both claimed and rejected the designation. Institutional accounts, newspaper advertisements, patent documents, visual art, and material objects reveal how Americans developed and contested disability classifications in various sectors of the market economy. Writings by physicians expose the increasing medicalization of the category of disability. In addition, genealogical materials, such as census records and family histories, facilitate the recovery of the lives and experiences of many impaired and disabled people. Ultimately, the dissertation argues that Americans—bureaucrats, judges, institutional administrators, artists, inventors, producers, and consumers—struggled to determine what disability meant and therefore who should be entitled to the benefits and strictures associated with the classification. as a result, many turned to physicians to preside over the designation of disability. These emerging professionals used the specialized and seemingly impartial language of medicine to lend the category of disability greater shape, weight, and authority. They also used their newfound positions as adjudicators of disability to assert and claim professional status. By the mid-nineteenth century, disability was a more standardized, medicalized, and significant administrative, institutional, and cultural categorization and physicians were viewed as experts on disability policy and disabled people.



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