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Jefferson's position on the granting of patents [1]changed through the years. In his article "Godfather of American Invention," Silvio Bedini notes that in 1787 Jefferson's opposition to monopoly in any form led him to oppose patents.[2] But by 1789, Jefferson's firm opposition had weakened. Writing to James Madison, Jefferson said he approved the Bill of Rights as far as it went, but would like to see the addition of an article specifying that "Monopolies may be allowed to person for their own productions in literature, and their own inventions in the arts, for a term not exceeding --- years, but for no longer term and for no other purpose."[3] Also in 1789, while Jefferson was still in Paris, the first patent act was introduced during the first session of Congress and enacted into law April 10, 1790. Under the new law, the Secretaries of War and State and the Attorney General constituted a three-man review board, with the Secretary of State (Jefferson), playing the leading role. Two months after the law was passed, Jefferson remarked it had "given a spring to invention beyond his conception."[4]

Despite this enthusiasm for the flourishing of American genius, Jefferson found that the administration of patent requests became the most time-consuming of his domestic duties.[5] Three patents were granted in 1790, the first to Samuel Hopkins for making pot and pearl ashes. In 1791, Jefferson's office granted 33 patents; in 1792, 11; and in 1793, 20.[6] While the number of patents granted was relatively small, there were certainly many more applications, each of which received Jefferson's close attention. Jacob Isaacks, for example, had devised a process for turning salt water into fresh water, but was ultimately denied a patent.

By 1791, Jefferson had drafted a bill to relieve himself of all but nominal functions, but when introduced in Congress February 7, 1791, the bill was voted down.[7] Jefferson continued to perform his patent office duties until the patent act of February 21, 1793 accomplished the end he had in view in his own bill of 1791. In fact the new law made the granting of patents almost entirely an automatic matter; the three-man review board was replaced by an administrative structure. In 1802, Secretary of State James Madison created a separate patent office for handling all claims. In 1836, the patent law was completely rewritten, effecting a compromise of sorts between the strictness of Jefferson's tenure and the free-wheeling acceptance of all patent claims during the intervening years. The 1836 law is still in effect today.

Guiding Jefferson while patents came to him for review was the belief that patents should be given to particular machines, not to all possible applications or uses of them; that mere change in material or form gave no claim; and that exclusive rights of an invention must always be considered in terms of its social benefit.[8]

Primary Source References

1790 June 27. (Jefferson to Benjamin Vaughan). "An act of Congress authorising the issuing patents for new discoveries has given a spring to invention beyond my conception. Being an instrument in granting the patents, I am acquainted with their discoveries. Many of them indeed are trifling, but there are some of great consequence which have been proved by practice, and others which if they stand the same proof will produce great effect."[9]


  1. This article is based on RLM, Monticello Research Report, April 1989.
  2. Silvio Bedini, "Godfather of American Invention," Smithsonian Book of Invention," (Washington, D.C.: 1978), 83.
  3. Jefferson to James Madison, August 28, 1789, PTJ, 15:368.
  4. Edward T. Martin, Thomas Jefferson: Scientist, Emory University Quarterly, (8(1952): 43.
  5. Malone, Jefferson, 2: 281.
  6. Bedini, "Man of Science," Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, (New York: Scribner's Sons, 1986), 269.
  7. Malone, 2:285; Ford, 5:278-280.
  8. Malone, 2:284.
  9. PTJ, 16:579.

Further Sources


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