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Letter from Joel Barlow to the Continental Congress (1783)

Source: The National Archives, Center for Legislative Archives: Papers of the Continental Congress, RG 360, 4: 369-373 (No. 78).

Letter from Joel Barlow to the Continental Congress (1783), Primary Sources on Copyright (1450-1900), eds L. Bently & M. Kretschmer, www.copyrighthistory.org

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Chapter 1 Page 1

Hartford 10th Jan 1783


      After having been honored by a slight
acquaintance with your Excellency in your
private capacity, & receiving marks of attention
which I bear in mind with gratitude, I take
the liberty of addressing you on a subject in
which I conceive the interest & honor of the
Public is very much concerned. I mean the
embarrassment which bears upon the interests
of literature & works of genius in the United
States. This embarrassment is natural to eve-
ry free Government; it is one of the evils of
society, which requires to be removed by posi-
tive statutes securing the copy-rights of Au-
thors, & in that way protecting a species of
property which is otherwise open to every in-
vader. It is a subject which, during the more
important affairs of the present revolution, we
could not expect to see attended to by any of the
Legislatures, but is now much thought of by many
individuals, & perhaps can not be too early pro-
posed to the attention of Congress & the several
      It would be needless to recall to your Excellen-
cy's mind, the encouragement that has been uni-
versally given in other countries to the exertions
of genius, in every way which might serve to
elevate the sentiments & dignify the manners
of a nation. The Historian, The Philosopher,
the Poet & the Orator have not only been con-
sidered among the first ornaments of the age
& country which produced them; but have been

Chapter 1 Page 2

secured in the profits arising from their labor,
and in that way received encouragement in some
proportion to their merit in advancing the hap-
piness of mankind.
      There is certainly no kind of property, in the nature
of things, so much his own, as the works which a person
originates from his own creative imagination: And
when he has spent great part of his life in study,
wasted his time, his fortune & perhaps his health
in improving his knowledge & correcting his taste,
it is a principle of natural justice that he
should be entitled to the profits arising from the
sale of his works as a compensation for his labor
in producing them, & his risque of reputation
in offering them to the Public. From these
considerations it is, that most of the civilized nati-
ons have removed the natural obstructions which
lie in the way of literary emulation, & given
the consequent encouragement to every species of
laudable ambition.
      America has convinced the world of her im-
portance in a political & military line by the
wisdom, energy & ardor for liberty which distinguish
the present era. A literary reputation is ne-
cessary in order to complete her national character; and she
ought to encourage that variety & independence
of genius, in which she is not excelled by any
nation in Europe. As we have few Gentlemen of
fortune sufficient to enable them to spend a
whole life in study, or enduce others to do it by
their patronage, it is more necessary, in this
country than in any other, that the rights of
authors should be secured by law. In England,
your Excellency is sensible that the copy-right
of any book or pamphlet is holden by the

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Author & his assigns for the term of fourteen years
from the time of its publication; &, if he is then
alive, for fourteen years longer. If the passing of
statutes similar to this were recommended by Con-
gress to the several States, the measure would be
undoubtedly adopted, & the consequences would be
extensively happy upon the spirit of the na-
tion, by giving a laudable direction to that en-
terprising ardor of genius which is natural to our
stage of society, & for which the Americans are
remarkable. Indeed we are not to expect to see
any works of considerable magnitude, (which
must always be works of time & labor), offer-
ed to the Public till such security be
given. There is now a Gentleman in Mas-
sachusetts who has written an Epic Poem,
entitled "The Conquest of Canaan",* a work of
great merit, & will certainly be an honor to his
country. It has lain by him, finished, these
six years, without seeing the light; because the
Author cannot risque the expences of the pub-
lication, sensible that some ungenerous Prin-
ter will immediately sieze upon his labors,
by making a mean & cheap improvision, in or-
der to undersell the Author & defraud him of
his property.
      This is already the case with the Author of
McFingal.** This work is now reprinted in an
incorrect, cheap edition; by which means the
Author's own impression lies upon his hands
& he not only loses the labor of writing, & the
expence of publishing, but suffers in his
reputation by having his work appear un-
der the disadvantages of typographical errors,


*) Rev. Timothy Dwight (1752-1817) was the author of The Conquest of
, a biblical allegory of the taking of Connecticut from the British.
It was not to be published until 1785.
**) McFingal, a mock epic poem by John Trumbull (1750-1831), had
originally been published in full in 1782.

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a bad paper, a mean letter & an uncouth page,
all which were necessary to the printer in order
to catch the Vulgar by a low price. The
same Gentleman has by him a number of
original Poems, of equal merit with those
he has already given to the Public; which can-
not be brought forward, for the above rea-
      These two instances may convince us that we
have arrived at that stage of improvement in
America which requires the attention of the
Legislatures to this subject; & I have reason
to hope, from the opinion of some Gentlemen
of Congress, & others with whom I have con-
versed upon it, that we shall shortly see
it in Effect, if your Excellency should think
it a matter worthy of your attention.
      The importance of the subject, & your well-
known attachment to the sciences are my
only apology for troubling you with so
long a letter.

      I have the honor to be, Sir, your
Excellency's most obliged
                                          & very humble Servant,

                                                Joel Barlow

      His Excellency
Elias Boudenot Esquire

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Letter from Joel Barlow
10th January 1783.

Acted on
May 2nd, 1783

Transcription by: Megan Wren


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