What Hath Morse Wrought?
“Neither pony expresses, flying Childers*, carrier-doves, nor swiftest iron horse are longer valued for speed in bearing news. A still swifter steed has been captured from its elemental freedom, bitted, bridled, and reined up, as our message-bearer. As long as his wiry track vibrates to his silent tread, will the fame of Morse be proclaimed with the lightning’s tongue.” [Gleason’s Pictorial Drawing- Room Companion, August 16, 1851; for footnote see below.]
The pole-strung wires or sub-aqueous cables of Samuel Finley Breese Morse (1791-1872) tingle no longer with the electromagnetic messages of the world. Western Union is now in the business of helping distressed individuals short of funds for rent or bail; American Telephone and Telegraph was so embarrassed by the 120-year-old brand’s reference to its reasons for founding that it changed its name, formally, to its initials. But the Victorian Internet, as Morse’s telegraph may aptly be called, changed the world more profoundly than any new means of locomotion or message delivery. As the invention of an unusually fertile mind, it stands only behind Edison’s light bulb as the mechanical invention that most transformed daily life..
Morse had been famous long before the day, in 1844 at age 53, he sent the coded words “What hath God wrought?” (Numbers, 23:23) over 40 miles of wire strung from Washington, DC to Baltimore. He had been the leading organizer of the artists who formed the National Academy of Design in 1825 as a rival to the established New York Academy of the Fine Arts, which was driven by individuals of means and sustained by the notion that patronage was the essence of art. He was a passable poet, an essayist and lecturer, a candidate for Mayor of New York City, the man who created the first photograph in America, and a portrait painter of the first rank.
Yet this trade in likenesses Morse scorned, dreaming like his colleague John Vanderlyn of the historical scenes he could paint if only the public taste were elevated sufficiently to permit recompense for his efforts. In 1832 he painted Gallery at the Louvre, hoping to attract admission-paying viewers. When his entrepreneurial effort failed, just as Vanderlyn’s panoramic exhibition space at his self-built Rotunda had in the mid-1820s, Morse resolved to put aside his brushes. Yet 150 years later his mastery was validated, as his huge canvas (6 feet by 9 feet) sold at auction for $3.25 million, a new record for an American painting, exceeding the one established by Frederic Church’s Icebergs in 1979.
This American Leonardo, who may rightly share the accolade only with Benjamin Franklin, was a product of an age that, unlike ours, honored broad leaning and distrusted narrow specialization. An education in the liberal arts and sciences was the mark of a cultured individual, a gentleman, a man useful to his country and countrymen; such an education and temperament would ward off sudden and intemperate enthusiasms, would moderate America’s otherwise relentless drive for the dollar or expansion or might.
Our subject’s father, Jedediah Morse, was an American Congregational clergyman of conservative ideals and dour mien. He tended to neglect his clerical duties for the pleasures of mapmaking: he produced a series of textbooks whose popularity caused him to be called the “father of American geography.” He was also interested in improving the lot of Native Americans and his 1822 Report to the Secretary of War was reprinted as recently as May of last year. Despite his own evident distractability, the elder Morse encouraged his ten-year-old son, then in his fourth year (!) at Phillips Academy, to do as he said rather than as he did:
CHARLESTOWN, February 21, 1801.
Your natural disposition, my dear son, renders it proper for me earnestly to recommend to you to attend to one thing at a time. It is impossible that you can do two things well at the same time, and I would, therefore, never have you attempt it. Never undertake to do what ought not to be done, and then, whatever you undertake, endeavor to do it in the best manner....
Your affectionate parent, J. MORSE.
The advice did not take, as the young Morse determined to fulfill his destiny in a roundabout way at both Phillips and Yale. He did not know precisely what he wished to do all his life long, but he knew he wished fame. He may have been drawn to fame’s promise of immortality by his father’s abounding piety and the constant presence of death in his home. The following letter to his brothers was written while he was temporarily called home at age 14:
CHARLESTOWN, March 15, 1805.
MY DEAR BROTHERS,−−I now write you again to inform you that mama had a baby, but it was born dead and has just been buried. Now you have three brothers and three sisters in heaven and I hope you and I will meet them there at our death. It is uncertain when we shall die, but we ought to be prepared for it, and I hope you and I shall.
I read a question in Davie’s “Sermons” the last Sunday which was this:−− Suppose a bird should take one dust of this earth and carry it away once in a thousand years, and you was to take your choice either to be miserable in that time and happy hereafter, or happy in that time and miserable hereafter, which would you choose? Write me an answer to this in your next letter....
I enclose you a little book called the “Christian Pilgrim.” It is for both of you.
We are all tolerable well except mama, though she is more comfortable now than she was. We all send a great deal of love to you. I must now bid you adieu.
I remain your affectionate brother,
The classic admonition is Live not as though you would not die, and die not as though you had not lived. Samuel Morse was raised in accordance with the first half of that dictum, but to the other half he struggled to find a clear path. After graduating from Yale in 1810 he studied painting in England under Washington Allston and exhibited evident promise, notably in his Dying Hercules of 1812. Upon his return to the United States he worked demeaningly, as he saw it, as an itinerant portraitist in New Hampshire, then relocated briefly to Charleston, South Carolina, before returning north in 1818. In October of that year he married Lucretia Pickering Walker of Concord, to whom he had become engaged two years earlier.
In the brief span of their marriage, the amiable Lucretia was to bear him three children who survived infancy. She died suddenly of an incurable “affection of the heart,” as her father-in-law described it, on February 7, 1825 at their home in New Haven, less than three weeks after having given birth to a son. Her husband was in Washington, commencing work on the most glorious commission of his career: a full-length portrait of the General Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the Revolution only recently returned to these shores.
In a letter to his wife on February 10, not yet knowing of her death given the four-day period for a letter to travel from Connecticut to the capital, the painter wrote:
I am making progress with the General ... and do not doubt but I shall succeed entirely, if I am allowed the requisite number of sittings. The General is very agreeable. He introduced me to his son by saying: “This is Mr. Morse, the painter, the son of the geographer; he has come to Washington to take the topography of my face.” He thinks of visiting New Haven again when he returns from Boston....
I have left but little room in this letter to express my affection for my dearly loved wife and children; but of that I need not assure them. I long to hear from you, but direct your letters next to New York, as I shall probably be there by the end of next week, or the beginning of the succeeding one.
Love to all the family and friends and neighbors. Your affectionate husband, as ever.
His father’s letter to him of February 8, received on February 12, added, “I expect this will reach you on Saturday [the 12th], the day after the one we have appointed for the funeral....” Traveling as fast as he could, he arrived home the following week. His wife had been buried before he even learned of her death. In America in 1825, messages could be conveyed as fast as a coach or a man on a horse could carry them.
That was about to change. Next week, Morse the inventor.
* Flying Childers is the name of the first thoroughbred racehorse champion, born in 1714 and bred by Colonel Leonard Childers of Cantley Hall, Doncaster in Yorkshire. Its speed also inspired the name of a new clipper ship built in Boston that, emblematic of her name, bore the figurehead of a racehorse.