Docket Clue to a Petition Spoof
By Diane DeBlois
Docket information often provides the identity of a correspondent (if the signature fails); the date of the receipt of the letter (which, if the postmark is illegible, or the dateline missing its year, is often valuable). And, sometimes, it provides a clue that helps interpret a piece of ephemera.
The piece at hand is a printed page on a sheet folded to 8.25 by 12.5 inches and then folded several times, sealed, and addressed to "Hon. E. Haley, H.R.U.S., Washington D.C." with postmarks indicating it was mailed at no cost from Philadelphia on February 23. There is no date but both the content and the docket "Citizens of Philadelphia Feb 23" indicate 1838.
In that year, both Houses of Congress were discussing a bill introduced by Henry Clay and sent to committee late in 1837 to establish an international copyright law. According to the Congressional Globe, the Senate began receiving memorials protesting the bill in February 1838, and in April there was a long session debating the bill -- with several petitions read into record in favor of this "general system for the community of nations, and for the literary class, who exercised a very great control over public sentiment." In May, four memorials were presented to the Senate protesting the bill, protest which heated up in June until the Committee on Patents made a report unfavorable to it. The House Committee similarly were against an international copyright law.
Our piece purports to be a double petition to both Houses in favor of the copyright law, one drafted by authors of Great Britain under the name of "Thomas Moore and others;" the other by manufacturers of Great Britain under "John Bull and others." The names, themselves, signal satire: Moore, the Irish poet, had just received a literary pension in 1835 after having written a life of Byron, edited his works, and destroyed his memoirs; John Bull was a fictional representation of Britain. The authors claim that if Walter Scott had had the benefit of royalties from his work distributed in America he would not have died in penury; the manufacturers claim the same for the inventor of the power loom Thomas [sic, it should be William] Radcliffe. Amongst the arguments that purport to show how Americans would benefit by the law while actually proving that Britain would, is one that touches on the potato famine: wealthy Americans are harmed by the lack of international copyright law "by the high rate of wages, by which every labouring man is enabled to eat meat daily, whereas under a different system he might be compelled to live upon potatoes to the great advantage of his superiors."
The docket shows that the Honorable Representative from Connecticut rightly recognized the spoof as something concocted by "Citizens of Philadelphia" who were vociferous against international copyright: most of the negative petitions recorded in the Congressional Globe were from that city. One stated "that thirty millions of dollars capital is employed in the book selling business of this country; and that if the law were passed it would prevent numerous persons engaged in that business from obtaining employment."
While simulating a petition, this piece was nonetheless mass mailed -- taking advantage of the Congressional right under postal law to receive all mail free. Presumably all Representatives and all Senators received this same spoof that subtly ridiculed their deliberations. While not entered into the formal record, the "petition" no doubt had a role in disparaging international copyright: a copyright convention with Great Britain was not signed until 1853, engineered by Edward Everett.
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