History : The revolte of 1830 



by Yves Delaporte (CNRS), translated by Rachel Hartig



This communication is dedicated to a considerable event in the history of the deaf, which, however, left no trace in the memory of the deaf. The abbé de l’Épée, Jean Massieu, Laurent Clerc, Ferdinand Berthier are honored as they deserve; the same is not true for the deaf students who dared, in 1830, oppose the first attack against sign language.



1. The Events which Preceded the Rebellion of 1830


From its creation in 1794 until 1822, Saint-Jacques was led by the abbé Sicard. Not knowing sign language, he is unable to communicate with his students. Saint-Jacques owes its reputation to Massieu and Clerc. But these two heros in deaf history never succeeded in abandoning an attitude of submission concerning Sicard. A good illustration of this attitude is Clerc’s refusal to teach his students in sign language, and his preference for « methodical signs », a form of signed French.


The death of the abbé Sicard in 1822 brought a period of uncertainty to Saint-Jacques. The leadership was given, successively, to three incompetent abbots, Goudelin, Périer and Borel. The attitude towards sign language is less favorable. In 1829, an administrative communication, which recognizes the usefulness of sign language at the beginning of instruction, plans to eliminate it a little bit at a time as the student becomes more advanced, in order not to block his/her training in speech. It is the beginnings of oralism.


In the first decades of the 19th Century, two personalities emerge at Saint-Jacques. First, the hearing Auguste Bébian. Godson of the abbé Sicard, Bébian associates very early with the students at Saint-Jacques and learns their language. He leaves the imprint of his strong personality on the institution. Although he is hearing, he is the first professor to use sign language rather than signed French in the education of deaf students. The uncompromising character of Bébian, who supports the deaf students and professors against all kinds of vexations and bad treatment, will bring about his dismissal from Saint-Jacques. Secondly, Ferdinand Berthier, student then professor at Saint-Jacques, and the friend of Bébian.


In 1830, Saint-Jacques consists of 6 teachers for the boys two of whom are deaf, Berthier and Lenoir ; and 4 hearing teachers for the girls. A third deaf man, Forestier, is a tutor.


The monumental entrance of the Institution des Jeunes Sourds of Paris


2. The Days of December 1830


With the dismissal of Bébian, the deaf lost their main supporter. When the Revolution of July 1830 occurs, bringing to power King Louis-Philippe, Berthier seizes the opportunity. On November 1, a delegation of the deaf, lead by him, appears before the new king with a text that demands Bébian’s return. Louis-Philippe receives the petition favorably.


The newspapers speak of this approach. On November 14, Berthier and Lenoir publish an article in The People’s Sentinel : « The Deaf Demand Their Teacher Bébian of King Louis Philippe ». In the administrative bodies of Saint-Jacques, there is amazement. The deaf dared to brave the hierarchy and address the king directly ! That had never before been done. Baron Degérando, president of the administrative counsel, sends a letter of protest to the Minister of the Interior. In a spirit of prudence, all is indicated in the conditional : some deaf people may have introduced themselves as delegates of the deaf. If this is true, the king should be informed that his goodness was deceived.


The response is immediate and stinging : the minister not only confirms that the king spoke to some former students from the institution, but he profits from this opportunity to criticize the administration of the institution, speaking of serious complaints that had reached him from the fathers of students.


The meeting of the deaf with the king had been a bad dream for the institution. But now it is a true nightmare that is going to begin : it is no longer only the deaf teachers who will attack the hierarchy, it is the students themselves.


On the 12th of December, a petition is sent to the Minister of the Interior. It is signed by 61 students. The director is attacked. He has « almost no merit nor talents ». He doesn’t know how to teach the students, is incompetent in sign language, and is too timid to be obeyed by the monitors and lazy teachers. One of the latter has not been giving classes for two years. Theft has become a habit and nepotism reigns on all levels. 

For all of these evils, there is only one remedy : the return of Bébian. He alone, by his merits, by his perfect knowledge of sign language, can help the institution regain its love of study. There is a postscript that reveals the fright of the institution since the meeting with the king and its fear that Bébian always inspired :


« The Director and the hearing teachers tormented us. They asked us if we like M. Bébian. We said yes. — Why? — Because he is very well educated, and he knows better than the director the art of teaching us. Now we hate the director and all the hearing teachers. »


The walls of Saint-Jacques are covered with inscriptions favorable to Bébian. Texts circulate, with satirical drawings against hearing professors. Three students, Contremoulin, Bézu and Imbert are sent away (the exclusion of Imbert is symbolic because his schooling is complete). On December 20th, a second petition signed by 53 students defends them. 


Finally, the reaction is not too severe, given the gravity of the situation. The ministry seems to limit itself to the charge of incompetence against Borel (in November 1831, he will be sent away for « inadequacy »). We are still in a period that gives importance to the deaf. The memory of the abbé de L’Épée remains alive ; that of Sicard, who succeeded in being named his worthy successor, is very recent. Perhaps there is a fear of having the deaf teachers intervene again directly with the king who gave them a favorable reception only a month before.


3. The Effect of the Days of December 1830 on the History of the Deaf:


– 1. A century and a half before the events at Gallaudet in 1988, we see the beginning of the construction of a deaf identity. For the first time, the deaf organize collectively. During the days of 1830, the solidarity between teachers and deaf students overpowered any other principle.


– 2. Among the students who participated in the rebellion by signing the two petitions, one discovers the names of several future personalities who left an imprint on the history of the deaf in the 19th century. Five of them will even be praised by the Minister of the Interior in 1879 (among them Bézu, sent away in 1830 !). Ackerman and Ryan will be teachers in Nancy. Allibert will be a teacher at Saint-Jacques. Jules Imbert, the other one sent away in 1830, will be proposed for membership in the Legion of Honor and will play an important role in the history of deaf associations. It is in the days of December 1830 that they forged their first weapons. 


– 3. Berthier will learn many lessons from the events of 1830 : within their institutions, the deaf are in an inferior position. They seem always to lose in their struggles. The deaf must, then, organize outside their institutions and garner support from the larger society. This will lead to the establishment of the Banquets of the Deaf in 1834 and the Central Society for the Deaf in 1838. These initiatives also allow for the development of a deep relationship with the press which always favorably views the demands of the deaf. It is a roundabout strategy that still operates well today in France. We see it in Emmanuelle Laborit’s mediation for she did more to promote the recognition of sign language than confrontations within institutions.


– 4. An important consequence of this series of events, in the course of which appears the notion of « deaf pride », is the first marriage between deaf people in Paris in 1844. In a few years, these marriages will become the norm. They will allow the appearance of deaf lineage which is at the heart of the constitution and transmission of deaf culture and identity.


 « Mechanical man » : caricature of a hearing teacher. December 1830.


(Archives of the Musée d’Histoire et de culture des Sourds)


 Signatures of the students who submitted the petition on December 20, 1830.

(Archives of the Musée d'Histoire et de Culture des Sourds)