Dickens, Copyright and the US Civil War
August 8, 2020 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Charles Dickens the Copyright Confederate: If you talk about slavery and Charles Dickens, the first things people usually mention are American Notes for General circulation and Martin Chuzzlewit. In these books, he establishes himself as abolition-minded, a reputation that sticks today. Less well known is the way that his a frustration with American approach to copyright law eventually turned his sympathy and support towards the Confederacy during the war.

The turn in Dickens' sentiments were visible in the journal he edited, All the Year Round. Prior to 1861, it had published articles which were generally anti-slavery, if not explicitly pro-Union. However, in December 1861, the journal took a clear editorial turn for the South: ("An article about the English cotton supply called the war undoubtedly " a war of tariffs . . . slavery as its cause being a false issue and a Northern pretext," "). It is thought that Dickens' change of heart is partly attributable to the writings of a Liverpool author named James Spence.

James Spence was adamantly pro-Confederate and would actually attempt to rally the British working class behind the Southern Cause. His book
the American Union
(NYT review) pushed the view that both the North and the South hated Black americans and the only real difference between the two was that the Confederacy supported free trade. His influence extended far beyond Dickens.

Nor was this a simple misunderstanding. Pro-Southern business interests and journalists fed the myth that the war was over trade, not slavery – the better to win over people who might be appalled at siding with slave owners against the forces of abolition. On March 12, 1861, just 10 days after the Morrill Tariff had become law, The London Times gave editorial voice to the tariff lie. The newspaper pronounced that “Protection was quite as much a cause of the disruption of the Union as Slavery,” and remarked upon how the Morrill Tariff had “much changed the tone of public feeling” in favor of “the Secessionists.”

Dickens may have been predisposed to listen to Spence, since he was angry about what he saw as American copyright piracy cheating him out of money. The south offered full copyright protection.

Peter Baldwin discusses Dickens in his fine book about the history of Copyright wars

Charles Dickens was an abolitionist and wrote of his feeling of the uncanny when encountering his first slave, serving him dinner at his hotel in Baltimore in 1842. Yet, when senators from the slave states assured him of their support for international copyright, he warmed up. His intense dislike of the Northern publishers, who chiseled him out of his royalties, encouraged his eventual support for the Southern cause during the Civil War. One might have thought that the Southern states had more pressing concerns in 1861 than copyright (just as one might have thought this about the French revolutionaries in 1791). But the political implications of copyright were significant enough to justify such an investment by the rebel politicians. With few publishing interests the South stood to lose little to copyright. To distinguish itself from the North, cultivate an aristocratic and nonmercantile national identity, and appeal to the British, the Confederacy passed an international copyright law, protecting foreign authors whose governments extended reciprocal protection to Americans.

Other links:

Charles Dickens and the Civil War
Dickens and the Civil War (PDF download)
posted by frumiousb (5 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Fascinating! I’ve read American Notes many times, so this is a new angle to me. It stands to reason the Confederacy would try to minimize the whole slavery issue to the English.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:06 PM on August 8 [1 favorite]


"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice."

-'Great Expectations.'
posted by clavdivs at 11:16 PM on August 8 [4 favorites]


With few publishing interests the South stood to lose little to copyright. To distinguish itself from the North, cultivate an aristocratic and nonmercantile national identity, and appeal to the British, the Confederacy passed an international copyright law, protecting foreign authors whose governments extended reciprocal protection to Americans.

Note the copyright laws of many developing and elss-developed countries are often far stricter than those of rich countries. Copyright and other IP laws get signed as a bargaining chip for more pragmatic and relevant international agreements, and then those laws get largely disregarded until US or European industry decides they want to pressure those countries' markets, and start talking in very serious tones about "lack of enforcement of IP laws critical to the global economy" and "enforcement assistance" and so on and so forth.
posted by pykrete jungle at 6:19 AM on August 9 [7 favorites]


Note the copyright laws of many developing and elss-developed countries are often far stricter than those of rich countries. Copyright and other IP laws get signed as a bargaining chip for more pragmatic and relevant international agreements.

That has been the history of so-called "free trade" agreements of recent decades in which U.S. negotiates on behalf of the Apples and Disneys trading strict copyright and patent laws for lax enforcement of local labor laws and capital controls in foreign countries.

It is one of the ways the rich have rigged the agreements to transfer income and wealth from those at the bottom to those at the top.
posted by JackFlash at 6:59 AM on August 9 [10 favorites]


Later on, Mark Twain was also an advocate for better copyright protections. He testified both to the US Congress and the British House of Lords, suggesting perpetual copyright rather than any limited term. Basically his argument was, if a person builds a house or other structure, they and their heirs will own it and can profit from it forever, unless they sell it. But if that person writes a book, in those days they could only profit from it for 42 years, leaving their progeny in the lurch. On the US side, the reason for term-limited copyrights is that the Constitution says copyrights and patents need to be of limited duration. In Great Britain, Twain pointed to the Oxford University Press's perpetual copyright on the King James Bible and said that should be extended to all authors. As a practical matter, he said that at any given time only a handful of authors (himself included) would actually benefit from a copyright term longer than 42 years — for all the rest, their books would be long forgotten before the copyright expired. That's probably still true.
posted by beagle at 6:03 PM on August 9


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