In a letter on Dec. 7, 1906, Mark Twain informed Danville’s Uncle Joe Cannon “it is imperatively necessary that I get on the floor (of Congress) for two or three hours and talk to the members, man to man, in behalf of the support, encouragement, and protection of one of the nation’s most valuable assets — its literature.” Twain and Cannon were good friends and the colorful author was attempting to get legislation passed to extend the copyright protection for writers. Uncle Joe was speaker of the House of Representatives in 1906.
He was an admirer of Twain’s work and noted, “Tom Sawyer is the most natural boy I ever met between the covers of a book.” He was also familiar with another of Twain’s creations, Colonel Sellers, whom he observed “is a daily visitor to the national capitol.” Colonel Sellers was a slick silver-tongued rogue lurking on the pages of The Gilded Age. Twain-co-wrote it with Charles Warner and it was the only book he wrote with a collaborator. The volume satirized corruption and greed in 19th century America.
In typical Twain fashion, the writer implored the speaker to get him on the floor, “By persuasion if you can, by violence if you must.” Uncle Joe couldn’t get Twain on the floor of the House, but he did the next best thing — he installed him in the private room he had at his disposal as speaker. He then had word passed to congressmen on both sides of the aisle that Mark Twain was receiving visitors in the speaker’s room.
Uncle Joe noted it wasn’t long until, “They were all crowding into the speaker’s private room to see Mark Twain and promise him to vote for his copyright bill.” Twain had informed Uncle Joe, “I have a barrel of arguments with me — also a barrel with liquid in it.”
In 1906, Uncle Joe was one of the most influential men in the nation. Theodore Roosevelt was president, but at times it seemed the speaker was running the nation. Letters addressed with the simple notation, “Uncle Joe’s Town,” found their way to his home on North Vermilion Street in Danville.
Mark Twain observed he and Uncle Joe were “true philosophers.” Perhaps he was right. Uncle Joe’s philosophy was it would be more productive to be “hoeing potatoes” than to be vice president of the United States. Many would agree with that observation
Meaningful copyright protection did not come until long after Twain’s death in 1910, but his humorous appeal to members of Congress is credited with laying the groundwork for the legislation.
Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.