James Madison Papers

To James Madison from Noah Webster, 5 July 1784

From Noah Webster

Hartford 5th July 1784.


From the small acquaintance I had with you at Philadelphia & the recommendation of Mr Jefferson, I take the liberty to address you on the subject of Literary property & securing to authors the copyright of their productions in the State of Virginia. The Grammatical Institute of the English Language1 is so much approved in the Northern States, that I wish to secure to myself the copy-right in all. General Laws for this purpose are passed in New England in New Jersey—& I believe also in New York and Pensylvania. In one of these States, the period mentioned is twenty years—in another twenty on[e], & in Connecticut, the right is secured to the author &c for the term of fourteen years & if the author should live beyond the first term, then the right returns to him & his heirs for another term of fourteen years; & all give the inhabitants of other States, the benefit of the laws, as soon as the States where the author is an inhabitant shall have passed a similar law.

It is my request Sir, that you would move for a law of this kind in your next Session of Assembly;2 & if the Legislature shall not think proper to pass a general law; be pleased to present a petition in my name, for a particular law securing to me & my heirs & assigns the exclusive right of publishing & vending the above mentioned works in the State of Virginia for the term of twenty years—or for such other term as the Legislature shall think proper. I shall endeavour to publish the Works in Virginia as soon as circumstances will permit; I therefore beg your assistanc[e] in this matter & shall take the earliest opportunity to make a suitable acknowledgment for the favour.

I am, Sir, with the highest respect Your most obedient most humble Servant

Noah Webster Jr

RC (DLC). Addressed to JM in Orange County, with cover endorsements that indicate it was forwarded from Fredericksburg by James Maury. Enclosed was Webster’s advertisement for a copy of William Stith’s History of Virginia “& some works containing the Charters, Constitutions, ancient Laws &c of the State—Also any Pamphlets or papers that throw light upon the Settlement & progress of the State to the Revolution.…”

1Noah Webster (1758–1843), the Connecticut lawyer-lexicographer, first published his famous spelling book as A Grammatical Institute, of the English Language,… at Hartford in 1783. His quest for a copyright led to many contacts with leading public men and so hastened the enactment of legislation that by the summer of 1786 every state except Delaware had a law to encourage and protect the production of literary property (Thorvald Solberg, comp., Copyright Enactments, 1783–1900,… [Washington, 1900], pp. 9–29). On 16 Oct. 1829 Webster wrote JM to recall their early association and reported that his “little books” had “sold in forty six years” almost ten million copies (DLC).

2As Webster knew, JM had in May 1783 been a member of a committee successfully moving that Congress recommend to the states the enactment of copyright laws (Emily Ellsworth Fowler Ford, comp., Notes on the Life of Noah Webster [2 vols.; New York, 1912], I, 57; JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXIV, 180, 211 n. 1, 326–27). JM responded to Webster’s request, but not until the session of Oct. 1785. See Act Securing the Copyright for Authors, 16 Nov. 1785.

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