The emergent historical field of early American disability studies has catalyzed discussion on the mental and physical impairments that contributed to America’s cultural, medical, social, and economic foundations. How can historians tell an accurate story of mental illness, grounded in the narrative of America’s founding, and situate mental illness within disability studies? Literary and linguistic categories of analysis, presented in this thesis, can help historians begin to unpack disability in early modern New England.
The New England Puritan welfare model formed a basis of American disability ideology, a framework that persisted well until the 1800s. This article seeks to dispel the myths that Puritans attributed every case of mental illness to demonic possession or that Puritans incarcerated their ill. Contrarily, Puritans tried to implement a rhetoric of community reciprocity, founded in Protestant virtue and a pervasive welfare ethic, demonstrating a high level of care. Systems of oppression, however, dictated that Puritans with mental illness often received unequal access to these social supports.
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