Beyond Industrial Policy: Patents, Invention, and Citizenship in the Early Republic

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Columbia 6 (Washington Hilton)
Kara W. Swanson, Northeastern University
When authorizing Congress “to promote the progress of the useful Arts,” the drafters of the United States Constitution imagined a patent system as an inexpensive way to promote industry in the new nation. This paper argues that patents rapidly acquired additional significance, as proof that the American people were inventive and thus well-qualified to meet the participatory demands of democracy. Examining the legislative histories and day-to-day functioning of the first Patent Acts (1790, 1793, 1836), this paper shows how Congress evolved the world’s first modern patent system as foundational to the United States as a modern democratic republic. In a departure from earlier European models, the United States’ system promoted widespread patenting. Congress monitored the numbers of patents granted to citizens and built a monumental patent office building as a tourist attraction, complete with a grand display of patent models open to the public.

Based on government documents, popular media, and archival research, this paper thus uncovers how the patent system came to be understood as at once fostering and demonstrating American inventiveness as a key quality of emerging nationhood. As the Founders intended, patents could form the basis of commercial enterprises, promoting economic growth and industrialization. In this way, American inventiveness supported the rise of the United States on the international stage. Patents also were property in ideas that Americans could use, like property in land, to achieve economic independence and accrue the republican virtue considered necessary for domestic political participation. By the 1830s, the link between inventiveness, patents, and democracy was so strong that imitative democracies, such as the Republic of Texas, copied the United States patent system as a necessary constituent. In subsequent decades, the patent system would become a political resource for women and African Americans as they sought full civil rights.

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