January 12, 2014

Birth of Robert Underwood Johnson

Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a baby born on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. would grow up to become interested in federal politics. Such was the case with Robert Underwood Johnson, who was born on January 12, 1853, in the nation's capital. He was raised partly in that city, partly in the state of Indiana, the son of a prominent attorney and jurist. After graduating from Earlham College in 1871 (the institution gave him an honorary doctorate less than three decades later), he entered the publishing profession, and never left it. By his early 20s, he was associated with Scribner's Monthly, becoming associate editor (under Richard Watson Gilder) after its transformation into Century Magazine.

Many of Johnson's contributions to literature were published piecemeal in the form of essays and poems before collecting them into books here and there. More importantly to the literary community, Johnson became associated with the American Copyright League and similar organizations. Though many joined such clubs for their social aspects or for the acclaim that came with membership, Johnson worked hard for the Copyright League, petitioning Congress to find ways to protect authors' rights, serving on various committees, and holding the treasurer/secretary titles. When several like-minded groups came together to advocate for copyright, Johnson served on the executive committee.

His role in passing what became the International Copyright Act of 1891 was acknowledged worldwide. The government of France, for example, gave him the cross of the Legion of Honor, conferring him with the title of chevalier. Fellow copyright advocates in the United States presented him with a silver cup. However, there is perhaps no greater indication of his importance for copyright law than President Benjamin Harrison. A fellow Indiana resident, Harrison signed the bill into law using a quill made from an eagle feather which Johnson himself had made. Johnson was allowed to keep the historic pen after its use. With this in mind, here is his short poem "Luck and Work":

While one will search the season over
To find the magic four-leaved clover,
Another, with not half the trouble,
Will plant a crop to bear him double.


  1. Thank you for this entry. I have learned something new today which is the International Copyright Act of 1891.