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How did knowledge drop in Early America?
July 25, 2009, 9:00 am
Filed under: Knowledge Droppings, Our Glorious National Heritage

Or, if a congressional report falls in the forest, can anyone find it?

Holiday

I ran across this letter today while poking through the correspondence of Caleb Cushing, a Massachusetts Congressman and semi-influential figure in Whig politics. On the surface, it’s a perfectly normal letter, but the more I started thinking about it, the weirder it seemed.

But first, here’s the text:

Dear Sir,

I had the honor to receive the documents relative to the northeastern boundaries, & I feel truly obliged to you for your very kind & polite attention in putting yourself to the trouble of procuring & forwarding it. Our public libraries which are entitled to a copy of the Congress documents, do not generally receive them till very late, & they are often permitted to lie for a long time boxed up at the State house, because the officers of the library do not call for them – With renewed thanks for your repeated courtesies,
I have the honor to be,
very respectfully, &c
J. G. Bradford

~J. G. Bradford to Caleb Cushing, Boston, 20 July 1839, Container 20, Caleb Cushing Papers, Mss Division, Library of Congress

Cushing has a ton of letters just like this — either requests for public documents or thanks for the same. The correspondence files of most other politicians, in fact, from the backbenchers to important national figures, is just the same; at times, such request for reports almost outnumber requests for patronage gigs.

So what struck me was not that Cushing was doing such distribution, but that Bradford expected that public libraries would obviate the need for a personal request. On the face of it, that sounds perfectly commonsensical; of course Congress would distribute documents that way! But then you think…to what public libraries? They didn’t exist yet (or at least I didn’t thinks so). And then as the sheer number of requests — even from areas wading in seas of cheap print, like urban New England – attests, the reality seems to be that these documents were fairly difficult to lay hands on. Or maybe I’m only getting exposure to the lazy / motivated people.

Before seeing this letter, I had assumed that either government officials (Congressmen, et al.) distributed their alloted copies themselves, especially to their favored newspapers (which commonly summarized important reports and speeches); or people read summaries of reports in other print media. But this bit about public libraries really makes me wonder…

So my question is: what was the legislation on this? How were these documents supposed to be distributed? How were the actually distributed? And what does the daylight between these two poles mean?

I’m going to do a bit of digging on this, but suggestions (or even better, facts) welcome.


Image cite: nacaseven, “Holiday!” Flickr, CC License

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[...] reading in Cushing’s papers gives us some info at least approaching an answer to this query: Dear [...]

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[...] Part I, Part II [...]

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