April 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 3
Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serions tilings. They are but improved means Io tin unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate … As if the main object were to talk last and not to talk sensibly. We are eager to tunnel under the Atlantic and bring llie Old World some weeks nearer to the New; but perchance the first news that will leak through into the broad, flapping American ear will be that the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough. —Henry Thoreau, WALDEN
A generation like ours, that feels itself in danger of being engulfed by the uncontrolled flow of mass communications, can appreciate Thoreau’s forewarning. But when Walden was first published in 1854, the Western world was celebrating the rapid spread of electric telegraphy as a consummate triumph of the human spirit. Those “talking sparks” would cut through the barriers of space and time and remove them forever from between the minds of men. Beyond everything the steamboats and railroads could provide, the telegraph promised a solution to the most immediate problem of our sprawling American democracy—the union of interests over vast distances.
When the first transatlantic messages were exchanged a few years later (no references to an ailing princess, just formal salutations between Oiiccn Victoria and President Kuchanan), devout men talked of the millennium. Among other widespread demonstrations of popular excitement, New York was illuminated with such extravagant zeal that City Hall almost burned clown. The London Times reported that “since the discovery ol Colimibus, nothing has been done in any degree comparable to the vast enlargement which has been given to the sphere ol human activity.” The ocean cable broke several times before it was finally settled into place in i8(i(i. But news ol that ultimate success tame as an anticlimax, at least in America, where the wonder-working wires had long since been strung over longer distances with prodigious results that were still beyond calculation.
In December, 1868, a banquet was held at Delmonico’s in New York to honor Samuel Finley Breese Morse for his invention of the apparatus that had opened this electrifying new phase in the history of human affairs. He was showered with such eulogies as few living men are privileged to hear spoken for them. Amid a deluge of other tributes, William Cullen Bryant pointed to his aging friend as the man who had taken the most terrible of the elements, “the great electric mass, which in its concentrated form becomes the thunderbolt,” tamed it, drawn it through slender wires, and commanded it to serve as an obedient messenger that carried the human language. This was, concluded another distinguished speaker, “the greatest wonder and the greatest benefit of the age.” And, as the President of the United States had pointed out to Congress earlier in the year, with these new facilities for intercommunication, the principles of free government could now be broadcast with lightning speed; the messianic role of American democracy would be announced with fresh authority throughout the civilized world.
Morse had become a legend in his own lifetime, his chest a veritable pincushion for medals and awards that had come to him from all over the Western world. It was not then forgotten that, thirty years before, this bearded patriarch had been one of America’s leading artists; but it was mentioned with sadness. Daniel Huntington, president of the National Academy of Design, and whilom pupil of Morse, recalled the grief with which he had seen the “beloved master’s” sketch remain unfinished on the easel while he strung those mysterious wires around the studio, turning his back forever on the art he had served so well. Huntington never could renounce the hope that his teacher remained at heart an artist. Thus he pictured him, thirty years after his death, in a memorial portrait that showed the aged inventor still clinging to the palette he had put aside so long before. During the intervening years Morse himself had occasionally thought and spoken of returning to his easel. Once he had mastered his “thunder and lightning ‘Jim crack/ ” he would again pursue the muse and overtake her with the speed of electricity itself. But he never did. With a show of modesty altogether becoming to the great man of the moment, he explained to his banquet audience that he was. after all, but an instrument of Providence. And Providence had dictated that he sacrifice his profession of painting to serve mankind in another way.
In whatever he did Morse was driven by the lofty assurance that he labored in this divinely-ordained service. As a sixth-generation Yankee Puritan, he was acutely aware of his responsibilities to God and man. From the very beginning the sense of personal mission lias run in a strong current throughout the course of American history: ami it has been inseparable horn the larger sense of a national destiny. At both levels that spirit grew more emphatic and more articulate during the first half of the last century, when faith in the American experiment in democracy took on the fervor of a state religion. There was nothing essentially or exclusively Puritanical about it, however. From William Penn and Thomas Jefferson as well, the nation inherited a conviction that in this New World, alone of all places, virtue would be substantially rewarded—that virtue and prosperity would be in fact interdependent. As the country fattened on its natural resources and its ever-expanding economy, it became increasingly difficult to separate the fortuitous and the providential elements in our success and prosperity. Only in very recent years, as our leadership has been challenged and our affluence decried, has there seemed to be reason to make any distinction in the matter.
Out of this fact has stemmed much that is typical and curious about the American experience, from its giand assumption of a Manifest Destiny to the case of Henry Ford, who never was able to separate the Model T from his sense of an individual mission in the cause of human welfare. Samuel Morse was a man of changeable enthusiasms who sought fame and fortune in several very disparate ways, but his life was unified by a willingness to fit his own ambitions into the designs of Providence. At times the very stubbornness of his conviction led him into awkward difficulties and unworthy contentions; in the end it was the vital ingredient of his great success.
As youth, Morse had approached art in a spirit of consecration. The parsonage at Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he was born in 1791, was an unlikely background for one who would become a painter. But the lad had a “calling” that would not be denied. The urgent nature of that summons was not immediately apparent to his reverend father, Dr. Jedidiah Morse, who from a distance had observed young Finley at Yale painting likenesses of schoolmates to pay for the “seegars” and other frivolities he enjoyed as a student. But when Washington Allston, brother-in-law of William Ellery Channing and, although a painter, a man of unquestionably spiritual quality (“one of the purest, noblest, and intellectual beings” Washington living had ever met), endorsed young Finley’s aspirations, Jedidiah unbent. At some sacrifice, and with the pious hope that their son would “consecrate his acquisitions to the glory ol God and the best good of his fellow man,” the anxious elder Morses sent their son abroad with Allston to perfect his skill.
They need not have worried. Fin ley was dedicated to the noblest ideals of his chosen profession. “My ambition,” he wrote home, “is to be among those who shall reveal the splendor of the fifteenth century; to rival the genius of a Raphael, a Michelangelo, or a Titian; my ambition is to be enlisted in the constellation of genius now rising in this country; I wish to shine, not by a light borrowed from them, but to strive to shine the brightest.” To accomplish this he would eschew portraiture and landscape and devote himself to “the intellectual branch of the art,” by which he meant lie would be a historical painter. To this end, in whatever time he could spare from his easel, he read and studied the works of Spenser, Chaucer, Dante, Tasso, and others. By historical painting, in turn, he obviously meant pictures illustrating legends, anecdotes, and literary allusions, in March, 1814, he wrote a friend that he was still hard at his studies. “At present,” he continued, “i am preparing a picture for Somerset House exhibition, ‘Dorothea/ from Don Quixote. 1 think J shall not be able to see my native country for some years yet to come; 1 must return a painter .”
As a token of these high intentions Morse won a gold medal, oddly enough for his first and only sculpture, a modeled figure of the dying Hercules. Then, the large painting he had made from the model received extravagant praise when it was hung in the Royal Academy exhibition. Washington Allston, who spoke with oracular authority, thought his protege would have won further distinction with his next work, The Judgment of Jupiter , but the Morses were no longer able to support their son in London, and before the picture could be exhibited Finley had to return home to make his own living. “If he meets with encouragement,” Allston wrote to Jedidiah, “he will be a great painter.”
In the end Morse did not meet with the encouragement he felt he deserved. When they summoned him from England he had written to his parents that to return meant to throw away “the talents which Heaven has given me for the higher branches of art.” The cultural climate of America would drive him into being “a mere portrait painter.” The great majority of the hundreds of paintings he produced in the next thirty years were indeed portraits. John Adams once declared he would not give a fig for a Raphael, but even he sat for Morse when the young artist returned from abroad.
Although he enjoyed prosperous seasons and painted prominent people, including President James Monroe as well as Adams, the financial returns were not consistently ample. When he took a wife and sired a family, he found it all but impossible to keep a roof over their heads. He was never a provident sort. In 1822, at a time when his wife and children were obliged to move in with the elder Morses, Finley impulsively made a donation of five hundred dollars to the Yale library. For him, money was never simply an end in itself. It stood for the recognition of merit, the successful accomplishment of a mission, the reward of virtue—and fame, perhaps, if that were the will of God.
The climate of our booming democracy was not actually so harsh for artists. A number of Morse’s contemporaries enjoyed a very decent success with their landscapes and their genre pieces, not to mention their portraits. But Morse, guided by his own inner lights, set the terms on which he would accept recognition and admit success as an artist, and these his countrymen were not prepared to meet. In 1822 he completed the first of the only two large compositions he ever attempted, Congress Hall or The Old House of Representatives . With its eighty-odd miniature portraits, its solemn, dramatically lighted setting, and its skillful handling of perspective, the painting was a major accomplishment. But it was not a great imaginative vision such as he had dreamed of creating. It was a tour de force, a fine example of proficient reporting. By putting it on the road he hoped to match the success several of his fellow artists were enjoying with their large, traveling showpieces that “played” to big paying audiences. But when he unveiled his own attraction, the public seemed not to care. After a few trials, Congress Hall was rolled away for years, then sold for a mere thousand dollars and taken to England.
At one point in later life Morse expressed the wish that, except for a few he valued as family documents, his pictures might all be destroyed. He felt he had failed as an artist, and, for a few generations at least, posterity concurred by remembering him almost exclusively as the internationally renowned inventor. But his invention has long since become a commonplace convenience, an almost rudimentary survival in an age that relays its communications from satellites hurtling through outer space, and today it is much easier to judge Morse fairly as an artist. Not only can we see his work without the personal prejudices that led him to condemn it and without the blinding distraction of his fame in other fields, we can see it more clearly against the total accomplishment of his time. And we can find among his paintings some that are as fine as any by his American contemporaries. Indeed, in their combination of technical competence and perceptive rendering, his portraits of Judge Mitchell, Benjamin Silliman, and William Cullen Bryant—to name a few—have rarely if ever been excelled by an artist in this country.
In what he did do, Morse was a very successful painter, except that in the long run he could not make a decent living by his brush. It was in what he did not do, did not try to do, but felt he should do, that he failed in his own eyes. For a long time before he was willing to concede any incongruity in his personal concept of the true nature of art, Morse labored with the hope of educating the world around him to higher standards of taste. He would lead his fellow artists in the promotion of their own interest, call public attention to the dignity of their calling, and thus, perhaps, serve his country as well as by exercising his own heaven-sent talent. For, as he wrote his wife shortly before her early death, he was determined to do “something for the Arts in our country.”
With militant enthusiasm he helped form and, in 1826, assumed the presidency of the new National Academy of Design, an organization of working artists that would exhibit contemporary American art, offer instruction and awards, and set professional standards of excellence. As president, a position he continued to fill for the next nineteen years, Morse threw his greatest energies into Academy affairs. “Finley is well and in good spirits,” wrote one of his brothers at the time, “though not advancing very rapidly in his business. He is full of the Academy and of his lectures—can hardly talk on any other subject. I despair of ever seeing him rich or even at ease in his pecuniary circumstances from efforts of his own, though able to do it with so little effort.”
The activities of the new academy brought Morse into head-on collision with the earlier-established American Academy of Fine Arts, an organization controlled and patronized largely by public-spirited laymen, and its venerable president, Colonel John Trumbull. The principle that artists should and could operate in a union of professional interest in itself brought sharp criticism. Morse’s first address as president was immediately challenged by a broadside printed in the North American Review . Referring to the rise of science and industry in America and the booming activity of metropolitan New York, the anonymous commentator observed: “We are not prepared to see the American system, as it is called, extended to literature or the arts. It would be the worst policy for the artists. Painting and sculpture are not among the necessaries of life. Much as they improve and adorn society, a taste for them is not even the necessary accompaniment of a high degree of civilization.” And, in another blast: “We would not have the arts degraded even in favor of the artists … We can hardly hope that the masterpieces of ancient art are ever to be surpassed here or in Europe. The forms and occupations of society are growing every day less favorable to the highest efforts of the imagination. We live in an age of utility … In this cultivation of the reason, the imagination loses its power. Eloquence, poetry, painting, and sculpture, do not belong to such an age; they are already declining, and they must give way before the progress of popular education, science, and the useful arts. …” But these attacks only strengthened Morse’s stubborn determination to lead his academy to the high destiny he envisioned for it. He fought for his cause relentlessly over the years until, at last, he felt he could confidently transfer the leadership to younger men.
But neither the frustrations he had met in his own art nor the early struggles of the academy had yet killed off the aspirations of Morse’s youth. He still planned to return to Europe, to the continent, where he had never gone, “to rekindle my former ardor and renew my recollection of excellence in the art.” And in 1829, buttressed by a number of private commissions for copies and originals to be made in Italy and France, he left on his grand tour. In those more enlightened parts of the world, he felt with fresh conviction, he would execute some painting worthy of his ideals, a picture that would indeed do “something for the Arts in our country.” If all went well, it might also replenish his purse.
Morse’s tour lasted almost three years. Those were turbulent times in Europe. He witnessed the uprisings in the Papal States and saw them put down with the aid of Metternich’s Austrian troops. In Paris the radical movement, with Lafayette, patriarch of republican causes, at its head, had fizzled out after the July Revolution of 1830 when Louis Philippe was elevated to the throne. The liberal revolts in Poland were crushed, again with help from Metternich. Morse talked at length with Lafayette about the threats to human freedom from meddling autocracy and heard denunciations which he never forgot leveled at the farreaching authority of the pope.
During most of the last spring and summer, in 1832, he worked himself almost to the point of exhaustion on what was to be a “great work…—his painting of a gallery in the Louvre, with thirty-odd selected masterpieces represented as though they were hanging together on the walls of the Salon Carré. Morse learned much from this intimate, workaday contact with the old masters. James Fenimore Cooper, who was so constantly at his side in the gallery that, as he said, his face was as familiar in the Louvre as any Van Dyck, assured Morse that his picture “must take” with the American public. And unwittingly most damning, he wrote home from Paris that Morse “copies admirably.”
Somewhere along the line Morse’s early ambition had lost its bearings. He was revealing the splendors of the past great ages of painting, as he had once said he would do; he was taking Titian, Raphael, Leonardo, and the other masters to the American people in the hope they might be willing to look at copies of works they would probably never see in the originals; but he was not shining with his own light. He was dealing in second-hand goods.
Morse left France on the ship Sully in the fall of 1832 with his Louvre painting ready for finishing at home and his mind brimming with the conversations he had held with old Lafayette. There was also another excitement on the eve of his departure. He had seen the semaphores in Paris announcing the suppression of the Poles; it distressed him additionally that the news had come so slowly, so late, and he was soon excited about the practical possibilities of transmitting intelligence by electricity.
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.
During all this unhappy performance, Morse’s circumstances grew ever more urgent. He had exhausted his resources on his grand tour, and he desperately needed money simply to exist without charity, let alone provide a home for his now motherless children, who had been left with relatives. The Louvre picture was his most immediate money-making project, and he must find time to finish it. Now, in spite of gnawing poverty, the excitements of Nativism, and his dreams of a telegraph, during the five years following his return from Europe this strange and often confusing man painted some of his most brilliant portraits. He was at the full maturity of his powers as an artist, yet his commissions were few. He was paid sixty dollars for the Allegorical Landscape Showing New York University , a telling indication of how uncertain his brush became when he departed from the facts before his eyes and trusted to his imagination. It is a confused picture, although it provides a welcome reminder of the “fine Gothick building” on the east side of Washington Square, in one of whose leaking and drafty tower rooms he had taken up his quarters. He had been appointed to the faculty to teach sculpture and painting in the newly formed University of the City of New York—the first professorship of fine arts in any American college, and a very meager source of income.
He also managed to finish his Exhibition Gallery of the Louvre and with high hopes put it up for public exhibition in August, 1833. Yet for all Cooper’s predictions and some glowing effusions that appeared in the New York press, it was another dismal financial failure. Even that was not enough to kill his aspirations. The worst blow of all came four years later when, after a long period of intermittent great expectations, a very highly recommended proposal that he be commissioned to paint a historical scene for one of the four undecorated panels in the rotunda of the Capitol was flatly rejected by Congress. Yet, when his influential and wealthy friends rallied round after that humiliation and commissioned him to paint any historical scene he chose, for three thousand dollars, he never did get around to it. He had been seduced by a new mistress whose claims on his interests were irresistible. To the consternation of most of his respectful students and colleagues, he was everlastingly preoccupied with wires and batteries and magnets.
Some years later Morse observed that he had not abandoned art, but that art had abandoned him. Painting may have been a smiling mistress to many, he wrote his old friend Cooper, “but she has been a cruel jilt to me … my idea of that profession was perhaps too exalted; I may say is too exalted. I leave it to others, more worthy to fill the niches of art.” If there is room for error in such matters, it might as well be said that Providence had miscast him as an artist. Or had he misunderstood the “call” that had come to him a quarter of a century earlier? Morse had spent a full half of his life before he put down his brushes. But in his canvases he had never realized the mood of magic that now filled his dreams of telegraphy. Actually, since his student days he had never tried to climb to “the higher branches of art,” because no one offered him enough money to make it worth his while. He did, in fact, almost starve in a garret, but, unlike the starving genius of romance, he did not improve his time by creating masterpieces the world might one day come to recognize. He waited for the big commissions that would release his spirit, and they did not come; he suffered, but at length turned to other things.
For a while Morse continued to think of his invention as a way of making enough money to free himself at last for the full pursuit of his muse, without the crass consideration of commissions, as in youth he had thought of a fire-pump apparatus he had invented with his brother and, later, of an idea for a marblecutting machine. But in the spring and summer of 1837 news from England reported that substantial advances were being made in telegraphy overseas. If he did not quickly stake a firm claim in the field, he would be beaten to the goal; everything he had done so far would be wasted and his hopes gone.
In Morse’s new role the most obdurate circumstances were not enough to thwart his purpose. The need to work fast converted his interest into an obsession, and out of this emerged a new sense of exaltation that he needed to satisfy his own soul. “God knows me better than I know myself … ,” he wrote one of his brothers. “I shall therefore be sustained in all events.”
Sustained or not, he was off to a late start. Morse was almost blissfully unaware of his own ignorance. He lacked adequate scientific knowledge; he seems not to have known of Henry’s crucial experiments. He lacked the mechanical skill to make his own materials with any professional finesse. He lacked money to promote his scheme. And, in general, he faced a chilling skepticism in the world about him. His friends spoke sadly of the “miserable delusion” that had seized this warmly admired teacher and artist. If not at the start, however, Morse in the end got the help he needed from many sources, so many that he was never sure just where it had come from. Sometimes in stubborn pride he refused to concede that some of the most constructive suggestions were anything but his own earlier discoveries.
At the beginning, a university colleague, Professor Leonard Gale, called Morse’s attention to Henry’s studies and publications; and from that point on Henry himself gave Morse generous encouragement and indispensable advice, including the idea for the relays which would renew and sustain faint signals over many miles of wire. Before this priceless tip, the impulse was too feeble to travel any important distance. In September, 1837, now working with the intensity battery Henry had demonstrated years ago, Morse succeeded in sending a message through seventeen hundred feet of wire that he had strung about one of the university rooms. His recording apparatus had been assembled out of oddments that came to hand—the works of dismantled clocks, an old table, a stretcher from one of the canvases he would never paint—but the success of that crude contrivance brought Morse the financial aid and the skilled mechanical help he had to have to carry on. Stephen Vail, prosperous owner of the Speedwell Iron Works in New Jersey, offered to manufacture a more refined and practical version of Morse’s device that could be shown to “the powers that be” in Washington. Vail’s son Alfred, an accomplished mechanic in his own right, entered a formal partnership with Gale and Morse that same month. According to its terms, any contributions to the success of their enterprise would be credited to and patented in Morse’s name as inventor, an agreement that ultimately obscured the magnitude of the constructive advice and practical service Alfred Vail gave to the project.
When the improved instrument was shown in Washington early in 1838, it evoked excited interest but won no tangible support. The demonstration did, however, add a fourth partner to Morse’s groupFrancis Ormond Jonathan Smith, “Fog” Smith, who as chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, sublimely indifferent to any conflict of interest in promoting the cause of the partnership in government circles, asked Congress for an appropriation of thirty thousand dollars. With Smith as companion, Morse went abroad to secure foreign patent protection for his invention there, pending more promising developments in America. He returned home in a few months empty-handed (and without having gone near the Louvre). Europe was developing its own plans for telegraphy—some were already in action—and Morse’s proposals were rejected.
Morse had to wait six more years for the success he felt must be his, six lean years during which his discouraged partners drifted away from their common objective, and Morse himself at times went hungry. But his determination was now fixed and inflexible. He continued to seek and get the advice of Henry; he went on tinkering, sending submarine messages from the Battery in New York to Governor’s Island (and prophesying the Atlantic cable)—and waiting doggedly for Congress to act.
He was still president of the National Academy, but he did not turn to painting to provide for his wants. What he did resort to was another new invention, daguerreotypy. He had met Daguerre on his last visit to Paris, had admired the new method of “drawing” invented by the French artist, and had enthusiastically and successfully proposed him as an honorary member of the National Academy. Here was a device, Morse pointed out to the academicians, that would put an end to the “sketchy, slovenly daubs” of artists who had neither the intelligence nor the skill to master details in their renderings; here, indeed, was “Rembrandt perfected.”
Such remarks sparked an immediate controversy, of course, and one that was long in subsiding, if indeed it ever has. If you listened to that sort of theory, Thomas Cole wrote a friend in 1840, “you would be led to suppose that the poor craft of painting was knocked in the head by this new machinery for making Nature take her own likeness, and we [artists] nothing to do but give up the ghost … the art of painting is creative, as well as an imitative art, and is in no danger of being superseded by any mechanical contrivance.” The irony is inescapable; Morse himself had given up the ghost concerning what he had once considered the inspired image. There was no turning back.
His efforts in daguerreotypy were successful enough, but they involved him in still another controversy. Charges of plagiarism, claims of prior developments, and other difficulties with competitors and counterclaimants arose. As a financial venture his career with a camera was a failure, but Morse is still referred to with respect as the father of American photography.
In the spring of 1843 a bid to finance a test line of telegraph started on its tortuous way through Congress. All but abandoned by his partners, though still heartily supported by Henry, Morse had continued to press his interests in Washington and in December had demonstrated his improved equipment. The bid was subjected to disparaging jokes and even crude ridicule on the floor of Congress. Morse was ready to give up all hope, pack his bags, and return to New York; he had just enough money to get there. But by what seemed almost a greater miracle than the telegraph itself, at a late hour of the last day of its session, Congress appropriated the thirty thousand dollars that Fog Smith had asked for in 1838.
The test line was to run forty-one miles between Baltimore and Washington. Smith awarded himself the contract for the construction, and Morse borrowed fifty dollars from a former pupil to buy a new hat and a new pair of pants. The partnership suddenly came to life again, and work was started.
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.