1838 One Hundred And Fifty Years Ago

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Tennessee’s tippling houses were abolished on January 26, when legislators enacted a law that revoked saloon licenses and prohibited the sale of liquor in volumes of less than a quart. Enforcing the law was as difficult as the federal government found it some eighty years later, and within a decade the “Quart Law” was repealed. Anti-liquor forces remained prominent in Tennessee’s politics well into the next century.

On February 16, Kentucky became the first state on record to extend limited suffrage to women. On that day, widows living in rural areas who had school-aged children were granted the right to vote in school-board elections. This “school suffrage” was slowly adopted by other states, until by 1890 widows in nineteen states who fit the criteria could elect their school officials. Not until 1920 would the Nineteenth Amendment give women complete suffrage rights.

Congressmen, dignitaries, and scientists came and went from the rooms of the House Committee on Commerce in mid-February, muttering to themselves. “The world is coming to an end,” moaned one. “Time and space are now annihilated!” grieved another. Within the rooms, Samuel F. B. Morse and his assistant Alfred Vail were operating their electric telegraph, sending messages to each other through great loops of wire. On February 21, Morse repeated his performance for President Van Buren and his cabinet. The purpose of these exhibitions was to persuade the government to purchase the telegraph; Morse worried that his invention might otherwise fall into the hands of speculators. But at the time the government didn’t see the wisdom of controlling the telegraph, and the poverty-stricken Morse was soon obliged to sell patent rights to the speculators he feared.

“The condition of an inventor is, indeed, not enviable,” Morse wrote. “While maturing his invention, he has the comfort of reflection, in all the various discouragements he meets with from petty failures, that, should he by any means fail in the grand result, he subjects himself rather to the ridicule than the sympathy of his acquaintances, who will not be slow in attributing his failure to a want of that common sense in which, by implication, they so much abound, and which preserves them from the consequences of any such delusions.

“But you will, perhaps, think that there is an offset in the honors and emoluments that await the successful inventor, ” Morse continued. “This is not so. Trials of another kind are ready for him after the appropriate difficulties of his task are over. Many stand ready to snatch the prize, or at least to claim a share, so soon as the success of an invention seems certain. …”