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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 529

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This is the grave of Samuel Morse.

Born in 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Morse grew up in a strong Federalist neo-Puritan family. His father was a minister and while much of the old Puritanism had grown into an increasingly tolerant Congregationalism and even Unitarianism, for Morse’s father, old-school Puritanism was a way of life and the father believed that the Federalist Party itself upheld those values, such as the strict observance of the Sabbath. Morse was thus educated within this value system. He attended Philips Academy and then Yale, graduating in 1810.

Morse’s first love was painting and he started supporting himself through his art in college. His work was known as essentially Calvinist, drawing connections between the British and Americans through this history and British influence on American religion and government. In 1811, Morse’s work had gained the attention of the prominent artist Washington Allston, who invited Morse for a three-year trip to Britain to study art. Morse thus was there when the War of 1812 was on. He gained admittance to the Royal Academy. But interestingly, while he was there, Morse began turning against the British and the Federalists in the war. His more recent paintings began taking on a more pro-American tone, showing a vibrant republic. He had a good bit of success with his art, returning to the U.S. in 1815. He spent the next decade as one of the nation’s premier painters. Among other things, he painted a portrait of John Adams in 1816 and the Marquis de Lafayette on the latter’s triumphal return trip to the U.S. He slowly moved toward the anti-Calvinism of Unitarianism, while cultivating connections among America’s elite, including many of the leaders of the Charleston slave society, who used their wealth acquired through the blood of Africans to have lavish portraits painted of themselves. Morse returned to Europe between 1830 and 1832 to engage in more study of painting. He also helped bring photography to the United States, having met Louis Daguerre on that 1830s trip and then writing for American newspapers about it. Matthew Brady later studied photography with Morse before becoming the nation’s most famous photographer in the Civil War.

While Morse was initially known for his art, of course today, everybody knows him because he invented the telegraph. Supposedly, he was inspired to develop a long-distance form of communication because when his wife died in 1825, as he was working on his Lafayette portrait, he did not get news in time to return home to see her before her death. In any case, he developed the idea for the telegraph on his return from France in 1832 after a conversation on the boat with Charles Thomas Jackson, who had done experiments in electromagnetism. As is usual for inventions, Morse was not the only person working on this. It’s true that he got the original patent in 1833, but he did not develop the commercially successful version. William Cooke and Charles Wheatstone did this in 1837 and were the first people to make money off it when they sold it to a railroad. But Morse fought hard to be seen as the only inventor and accused everyone else of ripping him off. In any case, he was to get rich of it because his version proved to be cheaper, the only thing that really mattered to anyone buying it. He and his partner Leonard Gale made the first public display of the instrument in 1838 and they continued to work out the kinks, getting Congress to appropriate $30,000 to develop an experimental telegraph line between Washington and Baltimore in 1843. It opened in 1844, with Morse’s message “What hath God wrought?” Morse responded to his fame by returning to Europe. By 1851, his device was the standard version of the telegraph used in Europe. In 1858, he visited Puerto Rico and established it in Latin America. He still had to fight for his whole life over his patent claims. An 1853 case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, where Roger Taney wrote a decision that gave him most, but not all, of the credit. And while understanding either the complexity of patent law or that of communication technology is a bit beyond my bailiwick and more work than I am willing to do, evidently this decision became highly relevant against in the patent law for computers. And of course, there is the Morse Code used to communicate via the telegraph, which given that it is mostly useless today, it’s surprising that he is still so well-known for it.

All of this money gave time for Morse to engage in his other passion: nativism. Morse really hated the Irish. He was one of the biggest racists to ever live in this country, and that is saying a lot. In 1836, he had run for mayor of New York on the anti-immigrant Nativist Party ticket, receiving a little more than 1,000 votes. He wanted to forbid Catholics from holding political office and to stop all immigration from Catholic countries. In language that except for style would resonate with Donald Trump and Stephen Miller and other modern Republicans, Morse wrote, “We must first stop the leak in the ship through which muddy waters from without threaten to sink us.” In his book, Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States, Morse wrote:

Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion. They will be deeply impressed with the truth, that Popery is a political as well as a religious system; that in this respect it differs totally from all other sects, from all other forms of religion in the country.

In another diatribe, Morse spewed:

I exposed in my last chapter the remarkable coincidence of the tenets of Popery with the principles of despotic government, in this respect so opposite to the tenets of Protestantism; Popery, from its very nature, favoring despotism, and Protestantism, from its very nature, favoring liberty. Is it not then perfectly natural that the Austrian government should be active in supporting Catholic missions in this country? Is it not clear that the cause of Popery is the cause of despotism?

No?

Will it surprise you that a man who hated Catholics this much also would hate other groups of people? It should not. Morse became one of the North’s most vehement defenders of slavery. He essentially picked up the entirety of the southern elite’s antebellum defense of slavery as a “positive good” to borrow from John C. Calhoun. In his essay “An Argument on the Ethical Position on Slavery,” he wrote, “My creed on the subject of slavery is short. Slavery per se is not sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom. The mere holding of slaves, therefore, is a condition having per se nothing of moral character in it, any more than the being a parent, or employer, or ruler.” Morse seems nice. He died in 1872, receiving a lot of honors from European nations especially late in life and with a bank account that would make him a millionaire in modern money many times over.

Samuel Morse is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York.

If you would like this series to visit other inventors, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Alexander Graham Bell is on his estate in Nova Scotia and Garrett Morgan is in Cleveland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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