Not much is known about idiocy in colonial America. A state equivalent to psychological retardation, idiocy has been abandoned in studies of the American colonies partially because of the scarcity of documentation and partly because of the unconcern of scholars. Those studies, which do touch on idiocy, leave disjointed, unfinished, and, sometimes, inexact impressions of the ways colonists thought about and reacted to the condition. In 1983 Richard Scheerenberger, in his account of cerebral retardation, created the only text, which studies idiocy in the colonial period in deepness. According to Scheerenberger, the colonists in America were originally liberal of idiocy. They extended to idiots the same supplies they did to all others who were poor and without family members and they imposed the same limitations upon them.
When the colonies were first established, the author says, the towns sometimes provided relief for their care. But beneficence toward idiots steadily worn and kindness altered to unfriendliness. While in the beginning, such efforts may well have been generous and gracious in intention; spiritually retarded people soon were perceived as naturally inferior and without rights and self-esteem and, in common, were treated with dislike rather than understanding or sympathy. Any problems arising from cerebral retardation were typically handled under laws planned for paupers: the “sick poor, old poor, able-bodied poor, child poor, insane, and feeble-minded- all were joined together under the same labels, paupers, and all were treated in much the equal way.” Modern historians of cerebral retardation tend to accept this account of idiocy in the colonial period in the absence of revised interpretations, yet it is unfinished at best and imprecise otherwise. It brings to mind a number of problems that obscure the meaning of idiocy in colonial America. In the first place, it affects the myth that colonists thought of idiocy as a limited condition with fixed dimensions.
The American colonists came from a variety of backgrounds. There were the English, who were running away from religious persecution, the Dutch, who reputedly bought Manhattan for a string of beads. The French Huguenots, who were Protestants fleeing from prosecution in a Catholic country. The Quakers, fleeing from harrassments of the Anglican establishment, the church of England, and Germans from ...
It supposes that all colonists had a unitary concept of idiocy. Second, it suggests the colonists’ views of idiocy changed over time from benign tolerance to deliberate hostility. Such a transformation, it is alleged, occurred uniformly across the colonies starting in the mid 1600s. Third, idiocy is usually identified with all the difficulties poor people experienced; there was no audible difference between idiocy and other afflictions. Most particularly scholars often fail to differentiate mental retardation from cerebral illness in their studies of colonial America. Fourth, idiocy is portrayed chiefly as a problem of communal welfare in the evolution of deprived relief. Absent are examinations of technical commentary recorded by colonial scholars or fictional allusions provided by Puritan preachers. Such an extraordinary approach incorporating these numerous myths ignores the compound nature of idiocy in the varied cultures of colonial America and fails to detain the many factors that contributed to a communally constructed understanding of idiocy. The problem with this approach is that it assumes more information about idiocy than the learning qualities.
In the lack of documentation, some historians have extrapolated interpretations of idiocy from the more considerable proof regarding poverty, madness, and physical illness. Moreover, most historians have simply avoided altogether an study into idiocy in the colonial period. The study tries to address some of these problems of scholarship. It questions the ancient myths and provides a more complete and precise picture of idiocy in colonial Massachusetts..