It is said that the incumbency of the office of Commissioner of Patents by Joseph Holt was a minor incident in a notable career. And it might well be added that the selection of Judge Holt was a chance of party politics, as a number of such selections have been in the history of the Patent Office. The events leading up to his appointment are controversial and steeped in politics.
Of the 87 years of Judge Holt's life, only about 21 of them were active years spent under public notice. Born in Kentucky on January 6, 1807, he marked the fifth generation of American Holts. He was educated through college, studied law, and then began practice, all in his native state of Kentucky. From 1833 to 1835 he served as Commonwealth's attorney, and then moved to Mississippi. There he made a reputation for himself through his effective opposition to one of the greatest lawyers of the time, Seargent Smith Prentiss. Holt began to take a part in politics and attracted much attention by his oratory in defence of Richard M. Johnson (afterwards Vice President of the United States) in the Democratic convention of 1835.
He followed the profession of law with notable success in Mississippi until 1842, when he retired completely from practice and resumed his residence in his native state, apparently living a life of quiet and foreign travel for fifteen years during which he lost his wife and married a second time.
When Holt came to Washington to take up his residence in the spring of 1857 he said that he had long given up the practice of law, that he did not attempt to resume practice, and had no thought whatever of doing so; but nevertheless, he was appointed Commissioner of Patents by President Buchanan, Sept. 10, 1857. The appointment is said to be in part a friendly gesture and partly a political reward for Holt's support in the presidential campaign.
Brought by the accident of his new office to a contemplation of the bearing of the faculty of invention, he enthusiastically extolled inventors, foresaw their benefactions bestowed in geometrical ratio with the advances of time, and he did not fail to note defects in the artificial system created for their encouragement and protection. However, the judicial mind of the Commissioner caught at once the fundamental notion that the patent system is for the benefit primarily, of the people rather than of the inventor and consistently with that notion, he promptly recommended that the high discriminatory fees charged to foreigners applying for patents here be reduced to an equality with the fees charged to citizens; that the law be amended so as to permit slaves to make application for patent; and also to permit the first to introduce an invention hitherto unpublished and unknown in this country, to receive a patent.
He also urged a permanent board of appeals, the issuance of the writ of subpoena in Patent Office cases, and the retention of fees paid in cases which had been rejected. Like other Commissioners before and since, Commissioner Holt appealed vainly for appropriations adequate to the efficient conduct of the business of the Patent Office.
On the 14th of March, 1859, Holt formally severed his connections with the Patent Office, having been commissioned that same day Postmaster General to succeed Aaron V. Browne, deceased. Far greater than his administration of the Post Office Department was his service to his country as an adviser of the President as the clouds of secession were gathering, prior to the civil war. The cabinet was divided, and the President was charged with weakness and even with sympathy for the secession movement. Ever ready in his defense, Holt, at least, was one who was neither weak, disloyal nor supine. It is said that neutrality and lukewarmness were incompatible with Holt's nature. When Secretary of War Floyd left the cabinet on Dec. 31, 1860, to take part in the secession movement, Holt was called upon to take up the duties of that office, his appointment being confirmed on the 18th of January, 1861.
On March 10, 1861, Simon Cameron was commissioned Secretary of War by the new President, Lincoln, and Judge Holt became again a private citizen. Though he had opposed Lincoln's election campaign, he did his utmost to sustain the new president, and delivered speeches for the Union in the border states. On Sept. 3, 1862, President Lincoln appointed him Judge Advocate General of the Army, a position in which he found the great work of his life for the Nation—a place of great responsibility at that time, and one in which he was subjected to the bitterest attacks. In the very nature of the case, his duties aroused vast resentments and even today the storms of protest of his judgments and opinions are not wholly quieted. The inflexible performance of the duties of the position in which circumstances found him at that time, increased the number of his already numerous enemies and made him the object of rancorous attacks that continued until his death.
As evidence of the respect and esteem of President Lincoln for Judge Holt, it is noted that Holt was commissioned Attorney-General on December 1, 1864, but declined to serve, suggesting James Speed, of Kentucky, in his stead, a suggestion that was at once adopted. It is also said, on good authority, that at one time in 1864 Lincoln wished to have Holt nominated on the ticket with himself as a representative war democrat but under advice accepted Andrew Johnson instead.
Joseph Holt was a stormy petrel, crossing men's field of vision in tempestuous weather. In the quieter period following the Civil War he directed the judicial business of the Army without coming prominently into public notice. After retirement from active service he dwelt in seclusion at his home on New Jersey Avenue, on the site of the present office building of the House of Representatives, until the hour of his death on August 1, 1894.
*Republished with permission of the Patent and Trademark Office Society from the article Biographical Sketches of the Commissioners of Patents, 18 J.P.O.S. 145 (1936). The United States Patent and Trademark Office is grateful for the Society’s assistance.