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  • Original/Copy
  • Alea Henle

original, copy, print, replication, reproduction, reprint, manuscript, facsimile, material text, transcription, Jared Sparks, William Hill, Ebenezer Hazard

Original and copy appear to be simple concepts. At first blush, copies refer to the multiple reproduced derivations of an original, presumed to be singular and to command a higher value. With respect to texts in an age of print and mass reproduction, however, the relationship between originals and copies became more complicated. The industrial revolution contributed to the multiplication of ways to copy material texts, including engravings, daguerreotypes, and printed replicas. As copies proliferated, in any given instance, people attributed higher value to originals or copies. In contrast to what one might think, copies could be, and were, intentional improvements over originals.

Commonsense assumptions about the superiority of the original over its copies may be traced to Enlightenment hierarchies of the arts. Early in the eighteenth century, the pioneering English art theorist Jonathan Richardson presented the terms as part of a hierarchical procession from nature wherein an “original is the Eccho of the Voice of Nature, a Coppy is the Eccho of that Eccho.” Richardson’s presumption was that original works based on nature were automatically inferior. Copies of originals, then, were that much more removed from their natural ideal. This attitude existed among Americans as well. Eighteenth-century American autograph collectors, for instance, preferred manuscript signatures to printed facsimiles. In 1784 the pioneering historical editor Ebenezer Hazard recommended that his fellow historian Jeremy Belknap present Washington with a copy of Belknap’s history of New Hampshire, as “it will produce a letter from him in his own handwriting which will be worth preserving,” implicitly emphasizing the importance of a material text with as close as possible a connection to Washington.1 [End Page 728]

In the world of material texts, however, differences in the copy were not always degradations. On the contrary, the differences introduced by copies were often intentional and frequently considered improvements. The Declaration of Independence offers an important example. The text achieved artifact status through reproductions particularly in facsimile format, though the manuscript inspiration for the facsimiles was largely overlooked and neglected for over a century. Ironically, the calligraphic Declaration currently venerated was itself a copy commissioned two weeks after the proclamation’s dissemination in print—after the New York Provincial Assembly allowed its delegates to vote in its favor. The calligraphic version differed from the print original in several respects; notably, the earlier printed “A Declaration” became “The Unanimous Declaration.” Fifty-six members of Congress signed the calligraphic version, but the printed version carried only three typographic signatures: John Hancock and Charles Thomson as president and secretary, and John Dunbar the printer. Although neither Thomson nor Dunbar signed the calligraphic Declaration, at least one scholar has noted an argument could be made to consider them as signers.2

Early American written culture also included extensive practices in which the lines between original and copy were blurred. Letter writers sometimes created multiple versions of letters, one to send and a draft or copy kept loose or in a letterbook. Inasmuch as multiple versions survive and contain differences, it is impossible to determine the “original” version, and modern historical editors grapple with the matter of which to include. Explorers, scientists, and government officials likewise kept field notes used to create official reports and narratives; the former documented original impressions but the latter could also be construed as original. Meriwether Lewis and [End Page 729] William Clark sent official reports back to President Jefferson in Washington, but Clark also sent copies, possibly drafts, to his brother Jonathan. Individuals also created commonplace books wholly or in part of copied materials; the contents might be copied, but each book as a whole potentially constituted an original reflecting its creator. People circulated essays, sermons, letters, and other materials through manuscript copies and in print. Newspaper and periodical editors exchanged issues and included copied articles in their publications, as editors rarely applied for copyright, which facilitated the practice. Many printed volumes were whole reprints of earlier editions out of copyright or contained extensive excerpts from other works.3

An incident in the life and work of Jared Sparks...


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