December 7, 2011

One of the nation's most valuable assets

His intention was to speak before Congress, but Mark Twain was not given the floor on December 7, 1906. Instead, he asked for the use of the office of the Speaker of the House, Joseph Gurney Cannon. There, surrounded by blue tobacco smoke, members of Congress visited Twain to hear him out. As he wrote in a letter that day, his desire was to "talk to the members, man by man, in behalf of the support, encouragement and protection of one of the nation's most valuable assets and industries — its literature." The subject in question was, more specifically, copyright.

Twain was part of a delegation of authors and publishers lobbying on behalf of a bill that would extend copyright on a published work beyond the lifetime of the author for another 50 years. It would have included protection not only of literary works but also of musical works.

Though he was not the head of the delegation, he was certainly among its most prominent members. Others included publisher Richard Rogers Bowker (vice-president of the American Copyright League), Edward Everett Hale (chaplain of the Senate, who noted his own work The Man Without a Country was already out of copyright while he was yet living), Thomas Nelson Page, and composer John Philip Sousa, among others.

Though Twain could not speak on the floor of Congress, he offered a statement supporting the bill to a committee. "I like that bill," he said, "...I think it is just. I think it is righteous, and I hope it will pass without reduction or amendment of any kind." He notes that a certain law dictates, "Thou shalt not steal." But, he wrote, "the laws of England and America do take away property from the owner."

The vote on the bill did not come up that session. Interestingly enough, it was during this trip to Washington, D.C. that Mark Twain debuted his now-iconic white suit. Newspaper reports focused not on Twain's lobbying, but his odd choice of winter apparel.


  1. Very interesting. Thank you. it is notable that even Mark Twain was not given a chance to address the Congress officially.

  2. Not too notable. It wasn't as if they considered Twain's request, mulled it over, and finally denied it. The Speaker of the House, Joseph Cannon, had changed the rules so that only elected officials could speak. It was that rule that excluded Twain, which is why Twain asked Cannon for the use of his office instead.