Shortly after I’d passed my comprehensive exams and begun working on my dissertation in earnest in the Fall of 2012, one of my committee members suggested that I look into the early Quaker abolitionist, Benjamin Lay, as a potential subject for one of my chapters.
At that point, I had the outlines of the dissertation and its focus: Quakers, their ideas about disability, and how those ideas influenced their reform activities. However, beyond a seminar paper I’d written about the Quakers’ Retreat at York—a groundbreaking insane asylum that used “moral treatment” and other more humane methods to treat those perceived as “insane”—I didn’t have a lot of clear areas for focus.
To help remedy this problem and gain some wider context about Quaker humanitarians in the eighteenth century, my advisor, Sarah Rose, suggested that I talk with one of her former graduate student colleagues who had studied Quakers of this era and who might have some good leads.
If you didn’t want to click that “published article” link above, let me entice you with a teaser image (courtesy the lovely and helpful archivists from the Smithsonian Institution) from the article below:
Part of what made researching Benjamin Lay so fun and so much of a challenge was that Michael Goode first presented him to me as an individual whose disability left some scholars skeptical. Because Lay served on a sailing vessel, those skeptics argued, he couldn’t have been disabled because such a job in the eighteenth century wouldn’t have been possible for an individual with such a striking bodily aberration (and its perceived limitations) as you see in the image above.
So, as I learned about Lay’s life in the eighteenth century and about how later abolitionists perceived and presented him in the nineteenth century, I was on a quest to piece together (from varied and fragmentary evidence) how disability, in fact, was present in (spoiler alert!!!: if not central to) Lay’s life, his advocacy, and his legacy.
My argument acquired a bit more intrigue when, in the summer of 2014, I had the privilege of presenting a focused version of my argument at the Conference of Quaker Historians and Archivists where one of the skeptics was in the audience! After my talk, that scholar asked a number of good questions and seemed persuaded by my overall assertion that Benjamin Lay did, in fact, make his disabled body a crucial part of his abolitionist advocacy. I got further feedback and support for my developing argument from Caleb McDaniel, a terrific historian of slavery and abolition at Rice University, when I presented my Benjamin Lay talk as a Pecha Kucha presentation at the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic conference later that same summer.
With those votes of confidence, I continued my revisions and work on these chapters about Benjamin Lay, submitting the one that was just published to the Disability Studies Quarterly journal shortly after passing my dissertation defense in February of this year.
So, feel free to click on to read the whole thing, or, as I promised, here’s the “tl; dr”:
Benjamin Lay was disabled and his disability proved central to his abolitionist advocacy during his lifetime in the eighteenth century. Lay actively used his non-conforming body to challenge the Quaker community to give up slaveholding and the slave trade and acknowledged how his aberrant body helped lead to him to his abolitionist views in his 1737 publication, All Slave-Keepers, Apostates. After his death, Lay’s disability became inextricably connected to his abolitionist work both in visual and written representations of Lay, his body, and his unconventional advocacy.
Now that this article has made it out into the world, I’d like to thank all those who’ve provided feedback, guidance, support, and encouragement over these past four-plus years as I’ve worked on this Benjamin Lay research and the rest of my dissertation. We’ll see where this work goes next, but in the meantime, it’s quite gratifying to send part of it out into the world.
If anyone does opt to read the non-“tl;dr” version of the article, I’d love to hear what you think!