What Samuel Wrought

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Morse’s idea of instantaneous communication was hardly a new one. More than eighty years earlier Benjamin Franklin had, among his other electrical experiments, fired spirits with a spark sent from the opposite side of the Schuylkill to entertain his friends. He was concerned that nothing more useful to mankind could be developed out of such a “magical” trick; but it was, in fact, a visual electrical semaphore of sorts. In 1753 an anonymous letter in the Scots Magazine had proposed sending alphabetized messages through insulated wires charged by batteries. Twenty-one years later a very primitive sort of electric telegraph had actually been operated in Geneva by Lesage; and over the decades that followed, every advance in the understanding of electricity had generated new proposals for “lightning” communication. Even while Morse was abroad, his compatriot Joseph Henry had rung bells from a distance—or, rather, over a mile-length of wire strung about a room—by means of his powerful “intensity” battery and electromagnet.

Others were attacking the question in similar and in different ways, but at the start Morse was largely unaware of the extent or the significance of their explorations. He approached the problem as if it were his alone to master. Although he was far from being abreast of the advanced studies that were paving the way from various directions, he was not altogether unprepared for this foray into applied science. At Yale, as a youngster, he had heard lectures on electricity by Benjamin Silliman and Jeremiah Day and had witnessed their demonstrations. Before leaving for Europe he had attended the courses in electricity given at the New York Athenaeum by James Freeman Dana. That was enough, in any case, to feed his interest, and during the six weeks’ crossing on the Sully , Morse quickly and brilliantly thrashed out in his imagination his own concept of a recording telegraph. He sketched out his ideas in a notebook, showing a single circuit of wire contrived to carry a coded message—essentially dots, dashes, and spaces—and a device for recording these intervals by electromagnetic action on a moving strip of paper. The scheme he outlined was pitifully far from being an actual working plan. It ignored, or rather did not envision, a maze of practical difficulties that would have to be faced. But however naively, it projected the principles of his ultimate invention with remarkable prescience.

When Morse disembarked from the Sully at New York in November, 1832, his mind was burning with his new project, but he returned to distractions that he could not—and some that he would not—avoid. He had come home to witness the great rising tide of Jacksonian democracy. Into this social ferment was being poured each year in increasing numbers, swarming shiploads of immigrants. They were being funneled into New York by the tens and hundreds of thousands. For Morse these alien hordes represented a menace to his native land. There would follow an inevitable leveling down from those ideals he felt so strongly must never be relaxed. It was a threat that neither education nor traditional religion could meet, he believed, since so many of the newcomers clung to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church.

As Emerson remarked, a national faith thrives best when its prophets have a fallacy to expose, a subversion to combat, an ogre to demolish. Over the years leading to mid-century, self-appointed guardians of democracy found in Catholicism the public enemy that called forth their gravest apprehensions. Morse was not offended by the religious practices of Catholics, as were so many of his rabid compatriots. But in this alien and autocratic organization he saw a plot, engineered from Europe in the manner of Metternich and the pope that prince had supported, to undermine the free institutions of his own beloved country. Years before Jedidiah Morse had preached vehement sermons against the Society of the Illuminati, supposedly a radical branch of Freemasonry, in whose separate oaths and secret ceremonies he saw the subversion of a free society. It raised an old and perplexing problem that has never been answered because it never can be: how free can a free society afford to be without endangering its freedom? Now Jedidiah’s son found the same conspiratorial menace in Catholicism; Lafayette would have agreed with him. Morse joined the crusade to stem the tide.

In books and pamphlets, the painter-turned-politician cried out his warnings against the “conspiracy.” His anxieties led him into the most hysterical forms of witch-hunting. The anti-Catholic press, exploiting a bonanza, put out lurid fictions of lust and murder in convents and monasteries. The best seller of all was Maria Monk’s Awful Disclosures … in Hôtel Dieu Nunnery at Montreal , a fairy tale littered with the most titillating obscenities. Maria ultimately died in prison, where she had been lodged after picking the pocket of a sister prostitute. But while her “revelations” were fresh, Morse accepted them with sympathy and fervor.

These were troubled years in Morse’s life. He squandered precious energy in his defense of democracy as he treasured it. In 1836 he felt it was his bounden duty to run for mayor of New York on the ticket of the Native American Democratic Association. Fortunately for everyone, including himself, he received less than fifteen hundred votes. It was not the end of his political involvements, but it should have been.