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What Samuel Wrought
To him, said Morse, art had been only “a cruel jilt.” Then Providence found other work for this complex, difficult Yankee
April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
The following months were a continuous nightmare for Morse. Letting the contracts and commandeering the materials proved complicated enough; but then the partners turned to squabbling, and, to cap the climax, when twenty-three thousand dollars of the appropriation had been exhausted on only a small part of the underground route and time was running out, Smith’s existing lines were found to be shoddy and defective. The job had to be redone with what money was left, and quickly. Morse felt he was on the brink of total disgrace. This was in February, 1844. He flew to Henry for advice and, reassured, returned to the task with redoubled determination. But without the major effort of Ezra Cornell, who had been appointed construction engineer and strung a much cheaper and faster line on poles, the whole project would have failed. By May, however, the work was done. On the twenty-fourth of that month, in a chamber of the Supreme Court in the Capitol, Morse dispatched the well-remembered message that formally demonstrated his accomplishment before the world: “What hath God wrought!” ∗
∗ That event was an anticlimax of sorts. Morse had already used the wires as work progressed to report to Washington on the Whig and Democratic conventions in Baltimore.
Whether Morse ever read Thoreau’s remarks or not, at the time they were written he might not have disagreed violently with them. He hoped to reserve this instrument that God had wrought through him only for communications of urgent importance; he felt it should not be used as a mere convenience. He feared the abuse of power by selfish men if his lightning communications were not controlled for the common good. He asked the government to assume jurisdiction.
Virtue, in this case, was not its own reward alone, for Morse’s partnership quickly mushroomed into a vast commercial enterprise. Both the telegraph and his own finances were soon entrusted to more competent advisers, so that the improvident Finley at last made his fortune. But the sunset of the story is no more purely golden than its noon, and, as before, many of the clouds were self-made. As the acknowledged inventor, Morse for years to come still had to protect the validity of his patents against the shrewdest and sharpest attacks. It was even more difficult to protect his reputation against the claims of those whose help in the past he now tended to dispute or ignore. These were not his most glorious moments. When the Civil War came, and his telegraph played a vital part in it, the aging Nativist seemed mainly preoccupied with his hatred for Lincoln. He agreed with those who thought slavery “divinely ordained,” and, if Lincoln were re-elected in 1864, he announced, Samuel F. B. Morse would leave the country.
Like so many pledges of the kind, this one was never carried out. Finley stayed. The reputation survived, for the great achievement cast its long, protective shadow over the errors. Even so fervent an abolitionist as the poet Bryant did not turn against him or fail, as we have seen, to do the old man honor. And the first formal words over the telegraph linger on through history, the unforgettable reminder not only of the mission accomplished but of the Puritan fulfilled. Providence at last had found him a worthy agent for its purposes.