Biographies & Memoirs


Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow! Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force

—Walt Whitman, “Beat! Beat! Drums!” (1861)

It is stated on good authority that the vintages of Los Angeles County will this year produce one million and a half gallons of wine.

—New York Times, December 20, 1868

Samuel F. B. Morse, at about seventy-two (The Library of Congress)


Is This Treason? Is This Conspiracy?


FOR SAMUEL F. B. MORSE, the Civil War was a surreal nightmare that transfigured fifty years of hope and belief. In the half century since his earliest trip to England, during the War of 1812, he had often written and spoken out passionately against the wishful view abroad that the United States, like all other republics, was inherently unstable and likely to break apart. But in the first months of 1861, he saw the states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana follow South Carolina out of the Union. Early in February, delegates of the seceding states met in Montgomery, Alabama, and formed a separate nation, the Confederate States of America, with its own president, Jefferson Davis. “We are now,” Morse lamented, “the scorn of the world.”

The breakdown of the Union left Morse with conflicting loyalties. He often said that he identified with no region, “an American who knows no North nor South nor East nor West, but who feels that every one within the United States is his fellow countryman.” But he had strong ties of kinship and memory with the South. Members of his mother’s family, the Finleys, had lived in Charleston; he had spent years there himself, as a painter. Sarah had lived in New Orleans, as her brother still did, the proprietor of a well-known sword-making company.

These connections and his loathing of the disruptive Abolitionists drew Morse’s sympathies to the South—“especially with the Christian Slaveholder,” he said. Mostly he hoped and believed that the “Almighty arm” would prevent war. Neither side could rejoice in shedding the blood of brethren: “There is something so unnatural and abhorrent in this outcry of arms, in our great family that I cannot believe it will come to a decision by the sword.”

To do what he could toward reconciling the sections, Morse hosted discussions at his town house, inviting ministers, missionaries, and other “warmhearted praying conscientious Christians.” With some New York friends he also formed an American Society for Promoting National Unity. There was much sympathy for the South in the city, whose port had flourished for years on the cotton-carrying trade. Morse’s Society aimed at showing Southerners that they still had allies in the North. It would do so by exposing the Abolitionists as crackbrained, the sole cause of America’s woes—“freedom-shriekers, Bible-spurners,” Morse called them, “fierce, implacable, headstrong, denunciatory, Constitution and Union haters, noisy, factious, breathing forth threatenings and slaughter.”

Morse’s group held meetings at the Bible Society building, printed up a constitution, and appointed him President. But it lasted only about three months, dissolving in a sense of futility after 4:30 a.m. on April 12, 1861. At that moment the Confederate army began a thirty-three-hour bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston harbor, forcing the federal garrison there to surrender. With many New Yorkers now turning against the South, recruitment for the Union army began at once. Regiments formed, tents and wooden barracks went up in Central Park. Morse felt no sympathy for the war fever on either side. He refused to contribute to a fund for equipping Union volunteers, horrified by the vision of America at its own throat: “No one can tell the agony of mind which deprives me of sleep at night, and happiness by day, caused by this most deplorable civil strife, this war among brethren.”

Morse’s agony deepened to despair as other Southern states seceded—Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee. Much as he believed the South had acted in torment, “maddened by the incessant outpouring of Abolition abuse,” he thought Secession rash and unjustifiable, a surrender of principle. Instead of trusting that the rightness of its cause would eventually triumph, the South had played into the hands of Northern fanatics, conceding to them all the cherished tokens and axioms of national honor: “the prestige of the flag of the Union, the war cry of liberty, the enthusiasm of Revolutionary recollections, the plausibility of defence of Government.”

Morse recalled bitterly that his pleasure in the honors lavished upon him had always come from the thought that not he but his country was being honored. So now his honors meant nothing: “I have no country; the dismembered limbs of a convulsed and dying body, do not constitute my country.” Having no country he might as well for his family’s safety settle in more peaceful Europe. He had once before thought of retiring permanently to the Continent, but the irony of the temptation now seemed excruciating: “to flee for refuge, from the world’s great city of refuge, to flee for safety from the boasted land of freedom, to despotic Europe! What a change! what an anomaly!”

Instead of fleeing, Morse entered more fully than ever into national politics, hoping to avert all-out war. He wished to personally confer with the governments at Washington and Richmond about ways of ending the conflict. Physically he did not feel up to carrying out such a mission. But he sent a paid representative (unnamed), who did manage to discuss the subject with both President Lincoln and President Jefferson Davis. Meanwhile he returned to political journalism. He tried to convince both sides that the calls to arms envenoming the country did not issue from “the American truly Christian heart.”

Morse first presented his case in a series of newspaper articles, soon republished as a forty-page pamphlet entitled The Present Attempt to Dissolve the American Union, A British Aristocratic Plot (1862). He revealed that the North and the South had been tricked, turned against each other by a scheme “long-concocted and skilfully planned” to weaken the country by stirring up sectional animosity. Among much other evidence, he cited the activities in America of George Thompson, a fire-eating British Abolitionist who allegedly was awarded a seat in Parliament for exhorting slaves to cut their masters’ throats. He also quoted damning speeches by British officials such as the Earl of Shaftesbury: “I, in common with almost every English statesman, sincerely desire the rupture of the American Union …. With a population of thirty millions, they will soon, if not checked, overshadow Great Britain.” (Shaftesbury denied having made the remark.) Morse called on Americans to forget their domestic quarrel and attend to the external danger that contrived it: “Where are the people? why do they sleep when incendiaries have fired the house?” Plenty of people evidently heard him, however. Distributed by the New York publisher Daniel Appleton, the pamphlet found enough readers to justify a second printing.

As Morse pointed out, The Present Attempt repeated what he had written in his tract Foreign Conspiracy (1835), and had often prophesied. “I have for thirty years watched these foreign intrigues … predicting that if the warning were not heeded, or was looked upon as a false alarm, the Union would be dissolved. It was nevertheless unheeded, it was ridiculed as visionary, and the event has occurred as I predicted.” His warnings took in French Infidelity and a more recent threat, German Transcendentalism. His focus on England of course reflects a lifetime of distrustfully contemptuous Anglophobia, intensified by the British government’s unwillingness to contribute to his indemnity. Although publicly sworn to work for peace, he suggested privately that the Union and the Confederacy might be reconciled by joining forces to fight England: “Deplorable as war is … yet when we are compelled to choose between two wars, we may be allowed to express our preference for a foreign over a domestic war.”

Morse’s alarums about the “British Aristocratic Plot” did not express mere personal vendetta. The notion that Abolitionists were pawns of British imperialism, that Great Britain promoted an end to slavery in order to cripple its commercial rivals, had been widespread in America since the 1830s. Nor should Morse’s warnings about foreign intrigue be seen as unfounded political paranoia. Anti-democratic elements in England and Europe did fear popular education, separation of church and state, and other forms of Americanization. And whatever Shaftesbury may or may not have said, the Earl of Shrewsbury did remark that “men now before me will live to see an aristocracy established in America.” News and rumors abounded of foreign designs to exploit the divisions within the United States—of France outfitting warships in response to a possible Union blockade of Southern ports, of Spain sending troops to the Gulf of Mexico, looking to reassert its position in the Americas. A Boston newspaper alerted its readers to the gathering of the European vultures: “The terror of the American name is gone, and the Powers of the Old World are flocking to the feast from which the scream of our eagle has hitherto scared them.”

Not surprisingly, for his efforts to bring North and South together against a common enemy Morse was seen by both as a turncoat. “I am charged by the administration with ‘Secession’ proclivities, and at the South with ‘abolition’ sentiments.” Of the two accusations, the Southern hurt more, deepened by a sense of betrayal. Morse learned that the Confederate government, under a sequestration law enacted by the Confederate Congress, had seized his investments throughout the region, identifying him as a resident of the United States of America, therefore an “Alien Enemy.” Some $40,000 of his stock in Southern telegraph companies was declared null and void, and transferred to the Confederate States of America. “I am no ‘alien enemy,’ ” Morse howled; “Is this the return for my confidence reposed in the honor of the South? Is this the return for my sympathy with Southern wrongs, and my efforts to stem the torrent of evils which threaten to involve all in a common ruin?”

The eruption of full-scale combat left Morse in stunned anguish: “two armies, more numerous each than have met face to face in all the European wars at least for a century, are at this moment opposite to each other … to enact the bloodiest battle that civilization (?) has ever witnessed.” Just how staggeringly bloody began making itself known after April 1862: 3500 killed, 16,500 wounded at Shiloh on the Tennessee River; 3100 killed, 16,000 wounded at the second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia; nearly 5000 killed and 20,000 wounded at Antietam Creek, Maryland; another 13,000 troops missing. To Morse the bloodbath seemed a delusional orgy of self-destruction, a communal madness he often compared to the Salem witchcraft crisis: “fight it out, kill, burn, devastate … misrepresent, exasperate, exaggerate, vituperate; fight the devil with fire, lie against lie … and gild the whole with the name of Patriotism.”

Morse told Kendall that he felt unusually depressed: “I see no hope of Union. We are two countries, and what is most deplorable two hostile countries. Oh how the nations with England at their head crow over us.” Foreign predators would find the torn corpse of the United States a helpless prey, too. American children now living might well grow into adulthood under the rule of a king or emperor: “I leave … this prophecy in black and white.”

For Morse as for millions of other Americans, a turning point in the war came on September 22, 1862, when President Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. On the first day of the new year, it said, all slaves in the rebellious states would be declared “forever free.” Morse regarded the Proclamation as both unconstitutional and fatal to the South. “I read it with astonishment,” he said; “I thought it infamous, and ridiculous if it were not so wicked.” Lincoln had seemed tolerable during his first days, prosecuting the war not to end slavery but to preserve the Union. But the war aims he now proposed were contradictory, Morse thought, “the one legitimate, the establishment of the authority of the Constitution, the other illegitimate, the emancipation of the negros.” Turning the fight against Secession into an Abolitionist crusade, the Proclamation was “outrageous,” a “mad scheme,” an “abominable hallucination.”

Unless, Morse thought, the President had acted with subtle shrewdness. He saw sense in the view of some nonabolitionists in the North who discounted the edict as a brutum fulmen, an impotent threat that “freed” only those slaves beyond the federal government’s reach. Lincoln, Morse surmised, had come under increasing pressure from ultra-abolitionists in his cabinet demanding that he end slavery. To head them off he made a show of yielding. “Look at it,” Morse told a friend. “It is only a proclamation of his intention, at a future day, of proclaiming emancipation. That day is the first of Jany. 1863. Now what is to happen before that date? The Elections.” Elections for Congress, that is, would be held in November, certain to purge the legislature of radicals from Lincoln’s Republican party. The President could then say that the people had declared their will against Abolition, and could withdraw the Proclamation.

Morse’s fantasy proved half right. The 1862 midterm elections produced heavy Republican losses that some blamed on Lincoln’s preliminary Proclamation. Just the same, shortly after noon on January 1, 1863, the President signed the final Proclamation, ending slavery in the United States. Portentously, the document also authorized the service of freed slaves in the United States Army. “Rabid bloodthirsty radicals,” Morse decided, “seem to have got into the places of power.”

Morse found some hope in a group of influential conservative Democrats. Early in February he accepted their invitation to chair an exclusive meeting at Delmonico’s, a posh Fifth Avenue restaurant that offered the latest in Paris cuisine (at a price, Harper’snoted, that could “support a soldier and his family for a good portion of the year”). The guest list consisted of twenty-four powerful New York business and professional men, including Horatio Seymour, the newly elected Democratic Governor of New York; the corporation lawyer Samuel Tilden; and Morse’s fellow Centurion August Belmont, head of the Democratic National Committee, who apparently called the meeting.

What drew these luminaries together was a desire to revoke the Emancipation Proclamation. They would work toward that end by appealing over the President’s head directly to The People, gathering Northern support for the idea of preserving the Union without making Unionism a vehicle for Abolition. A program would be devised and financed to educate the public about which powers and rights the Constitution granted to the federal government, and which to the people and the states. The group appointed a committee to draft its own constitution, and resolved to call itself the New-York Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge.

The wealth and prominence of Belmont, Morse, and the others involved made the Delmonico’s meeting headline news. William Cullen Bryant’s Evening Post, which had long urged immediate emancipation, sent or smuggled a reporter into the restaurant and published several accounts of what transpired. The paper shocked its readers by depicting a revolutionary cabal—a “reactionist conspiracy,” a “secret caucus,” a “brotherhood of Carbonari.” There on the “luxurious seats of parlor No. 4” were August Belmont, “a Hebrew from Germany,” and Samuel F. B. Morse, “artist and inventor, born at Charlestown, Massachusetts”—a traitor, the tag implied, to the patriotic heritage of New England.

The paper gave a sinister version of the Society’s aims: “The rich men of New York are to supply the money … for an active and unscrupulous campaign against the government of the nation, and in the behalf of a body of rebels now in arms.” A huge fund would be amassed, not to disseminate knowledge of constitutional principles but “to hand the government over, if they can, to the malignant slave-holding oligarchs who for nearly two years have been slaughtering our sons.” Many other papers picked up the story, including one in Poughkeepsie, which reported that the town’s leading citizen “figured among the infamous gang of conspirators,” meanwhile “making thousands out of the government through his telegraph.”

The Society convened again at Delmonico’s a week later and elected Morse its president. He took up his new role vigorously. Addressing the group, he observed that the press had charged the S.D.P.K. with disloyalty. He answered by restating in terms of democratic ideals its aim of appealing beyond the President and the legislatures directly to citizens of America. “Can we overlook the great truth that the very foundation of our governmental system is based on the sovereignty of the people?” he asked. “Is this treason? Is this conspiracy?” In working to realize the S.D.P.K.’s program, Morse hosted private brainstorming sessions in his library, and promoted the organization of auxiliary societies throughout the North and as far west as Iowa. He contributed $500 to maintain the publication of the Knickerbocker magazine, which the Society used as an outlet for writings by its members and supporters. He corresponded with many like-minded people, stressing that a peaceful reunion with the South could not be achieved before the Emancipation Proclamation was repealed: “We must first retract our own wrong, and show our respect for the Constitution ourselves.”

Morse also helped to oversee the Society’s major educational effort, the publication of Papers from the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge. This series of twenty pamphlets issued from the Society’s office at 13 Park Row in New York City, bearing the motto “READ—DISCUSS—DIFFUSE.” Several pamphlets dealt directly with Emancipation, others presented the views of conservative ministers and legislators on civil liberties, states’ rights, and related topics. Being “backed up by millionaires,” as Morse said, the Society could offer its Papers for fifty cents a thousand, distribute them in colleges, and publish some in German as well as English.

In trying to reach “the christian mind of the country” personally, Morse became an eminent propagandist and apologist for slavery. He read widely in the heaps of pro-slavery and Abolitionist literature of the day, and closely followed the debate as it unfolded in the press. He made his views known in a steady stream of articles, letters, introductions to such kindred works as the Reverend Thornton Stringfellow’s Slavery: Its Origin, Nature, and History (1861). He contributed to two of the S.D.P.K. pamphlets and wrote the whole of one himself, entitled An Argument on the Ethical Position of Slavery in the Social System, and its Relation to the Politics of the Day.

Morse wrote from experience. He had lived in a slave society while painting in Charleston, and black people had been a near presence in his youth. A black boy named Abraham had lived with the family in Charlestown, taking care of the horse and cow. Jedediah had ministered to the black population of Boston. He gave them a two-year course of weekly lectures and helped to start a black church and a school for black children. He condemned the slave trade, called for its abolition, and in some of his geographies denounced slavery as inconsistent with republican principles.

Morse himself had contributed money to the building of black churches and schools. But in looking back on his father’s views from the current political crisis, he thought them misguided, “benevolently intended, but even then not soundly based.” Moreover the Abolition monster had sprung into being since his father’s death. Jedediah would surely have seen it as the hideous progeny of religious liberalism, “that Apostacy from the faith against which he battled so nobly during his life.” Jedediah’s views mattered to Morse not only in being his father’s, but also because he regarded the religious issue as crucial. To save the country from destruction, what desperately needed confutation was the notion—a rallying cry of the Abolitionists—that Slavery Is Sin. “This monstrous heresy lies at the root of all the fanatical outbreaks … the definite settlement of that fundamental point is vital.”

Morse himself tried to settle the point. After much “careful and prayerful” study of the Bible he undertook an analysis of slavery not as politics but as Scripture and theology. His many writings on the subject are repetitious, inviting collective summary rather than individual treatment. But they all present slavery as ordained by God, sanctioned in the Old and New Testaments, justified by Nature, and beneficial to the slave.

As Morse explained, the key to understanding slavery as an essential feature of divine governance is The Fall. Man was created in the image of God, partaking of the Divine Nature, but by his first Disobedience assumed the image of Satan. To help restore man to his original state, God arranged society as a “system of restraints” on man’s proud will. He instituted four relationships: civil government, marriage, parenthood, and servility. Each relation consists of a superior and an inferior party: ruler and ruled, husband and wife, parent and child, master and slave. All four share “the one great central idea in Man’s Redemption, to wit, Obedience, the natural antidote to Disobedience.” The enslavement of blacks is no less legitimate or moral than marriage, a system of divinely decreed educational and disciplinary restraint: “God, in his wisdom and far-sighted benevolence, has ordained that despised and vilified relation as the means of bringing that race home to himself. This is the Bible theory.”

That this view of slavery did represent “the Bible theory,” Morse demonstrated by numerous citations of Scripture, and forays into philology and hermeneutics. For instance, against claims that the Bible spoke of “servants” but not of “slaves,” he argued that the Hebrew word ebed, often translated as “servant,” literally meant “bond slave.” So where the King James version of Genesis 25 rendered Noah’s words as “Cursed be Canaan, a servant of servants shall he be,” a more correct translation would read “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be.” In a typical bit of hermeneutics, Morse offered scriptural evidence implying that God ordained the continuance of slavery until the end of time. Regarding matrimony, one of the four “servile relations,” Jesus says in Mark 12:25: “when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage.” Since the New Testament foretells no end to matrimonial servility until the Resurrection, there is likewise no reason to suppose that God contemplates an end to the servility of slavery before the Last Day: “The time when this relation [marriage] is to cease may I think be assumed for all the others ‘when they shall rise from the dead.’”

Morse tried to account for the acceptance in America of quite contrary, unscriptural ideas of human government. Much of the ideological corruption he traced to the Infidelity that had muddled Western thought since the French Revolution, had been fought by his father, and continued at present to inspire antislavery Unitarians, Transcendentalists, and other religious liberals—“the Christ rejecting humanitarian, the Bible spurning infidel, the pseudo merciful universalist, and the nothingarian.” They all spoke and acted as if man were not a fallen, degenerate being, but still innocent and obedient to God’s will. Atheists at heart, they secularized and thus debased the scriptural understanding of freedom as Freedom from Sin, “giving freedom & liberty an earthly, low, civil & political sense, as if an indiscriminate social & political liberty of every human being were the scope and end of man’s redemption.”

Despite his devotion to the cult of George Washington, Morse did not exempt the Revolutionary generation itself from fostering “the miserable delusion of negro freedom.” Some of its members had been contaminated by the rampant godlessness of the age:

I cannot shut my eyes to the fact that the time, when that Declaration was made, favored the infidel views of some eminent minds who were parties to the promulgation of fundamental error …. The so styled self evident truths are not all truths. Some are self evident falsehoods.

The untruths included a supposedly inalienable right to liberty, which actually had been lost to man by the rebellion in Eden. “Slavery, the subjection of one’s will to the will of another, since the fall of man, is the rule, and not liberty.” And having introduced into American culture ideas inconsistent with Scripture, the Declaration had now become enthroned as an idol: “the Gospel of Peace has been cast out of its proper temples, to give place to a religion, whose Bible is the Declaration of Independence.” Indeed the present crisis might be God’s way of humbling the country for deifying Liberty instead of Him.

Nature as well as Scripture warranted slavery, Morse observed, blacks being a “weak and degraded race.” The opinion was not recent; his earlier papers contain many such slurs. Lecturing on art in 1826, for instance, he told his New York audience that on the chain of being, blacks ranked with beasts: “witness the negro, the ouran outan, the baboon, the monkey by gradual and downward steps blending the human face divine, with the unseemly visage of the brute.” Now he defended the “cornerstone doctrine,” named after some much-quoted remarks in an address by Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy. Stephens said that the “corner stone” of the new Southern nation was racial superiority, “the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.” Morse agreed. Divinely ordained physical differences, he said, dictated the domination of blacks by whites: “Nothing is clearer to my mind than that the status of the African in the compound of the Caucasian & the African, is that of subjection to the superior race, and this is best for both races.”

Morse emphasized this “best” in all his arguings, stressing the benefits of slavery to the slave. The institution had produced examples of domestic contentment rarely known in this fallen world: “Protection and judicious guidance and careful provision on the one part; cheerful obedience, affection, and confidence on the other.” The apostle Paul himself had advised a slave to prefer slavery to freedom, even given a chance to become free. And missionary experience confirmed the wisdom of Paul’s advice, Morse commented. After fifty years’ labor the American missionary churches overseas could count only about 44,500 conversions among free blacks. By contrast, churches in the South could boast more than 500,000 converts among enslaved blacks. The salutary message was dramatically clear: “CHRISTIANITY HAS BEEN MOST SUCCESSFULLY PROPAGATED AMONG A BARBAROUS RACE, WHEN THEY HAVE BEEN ENSLAVED TO A CHRISTIAN RACE. Slavery to them has been Salvation, and Freedom, ruin.”

Like Morse’s warnings of foreign conspiracy, his defense of slavery, summarized above, offered his readers few unfamiliar ideas. Pro-and anti-slavery writings of the time were a sort of community product, its authors taking different approaches but arriving at the same conclusions. Both sides cited Scripture. Pro-slavery biblicists often contended that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were slaveholders and that Paul in several of his epistles admonished slaves to obey their masters. Many writers also attacked the Declaration’s axioms about Liberty, antebellum experience having shown clearly enough that men were not born free and equal. And belief in the racial inferiority of blacks permeated American culture. It gained sanction from the claim of nineteenth-century ethnological pseudo-scientists that the various races constituted separate species, with blacks at the bottom of the scale.

What distinguishes Morse’s treatment of these common themes is his neo-Puritan vision of their historical connection and continuity, beginning with the rebellion in Eden. “My fundamental axiom,” he said, “is the degeneracy of man.” He had of course remained a pious Christian all his life. But the remark suggests that he steadied himself against the upheavals of war by embracing with new intensity the rigorous Calvinist-Federalist principles of his childhood. As he put it, “I have chosen to remain in the Sentiments of my early education.” From this vantage point he saw that fallen man’s impulse to resist divine government had been perpetuated in unchristian ideas of freedom among the founding fathers, aggravated by unceasing British and European designs to destabilize the country, and fatally preached as a gospel of individualism by liberals in the American churches. Begun in original sin, the train of misrule had brought the United States to its present moment of dissolution.

Sidney Morse shared his brother’s thinking and echoed it. He published several pro-slavery articles and pamphlets, similarly affirming that the Bible sanctioned slavery, that slaveholding was as much a God-given right as government, that only infidels considered all men entitled to liberty: “Is not this deification of liberty, this apotheosis of the will of the negro, the most insulting of all violations of the first commandment of the decalogue?” Richard Morse, always a free spirit, announced that he intended to vote for the reelection of Lincoln. His brother Samuel tried to reason with him but gave up: “I pray you … may be delivered from the delusions which have pursued you.”

It gratified Morse that his defense of slavery reached a large and appreciative audience, “some of the most pious, as well as distinguished, intellectual minds in the country.” The West Virginia Intelligence, for instance, praised him as a communicator—first technological and now political:

There is a great fitness that the distinguished originator of the American Magnetic Telegraph, whose genius has chained the lightning and made it an obedient messenger to carry information with the rapidity of thought from end to end of the land, should be among the foremost to flash the light of political knowledge into the minds of his fellow countrymen.

His S.D.P.K. pamphlet on The Ethical Position of Slavery sold so well he was hard put to find extra copies, “to supply the constant demand upon me for them.”

But Morse’s writing also brought him much vituperative criticism. “Oh my Brother,” his former pastor wrote to him, “what a work of repentance, deep bitter repentance, have you made for yourself.” The New York Times mocked his views on human equality, not for holding that one body of men might be less able than another, but for deducing that in such a case “it is the right of the latter to rob, beat and sell the former.” The prestigious North American Review derided as “worthless and shallow” his treatment of slavery as merely a form of government, his endorsement of the cornerstone doctrine, his sneers at the Declaration. The journal attributed these and his other notions to “the self-conceit of a weak man.” A Boston newspaper recommended that he be imprisoned.

Morse did not comment on the fact, but within the whistling of bullets on American battlefields could be heard the click of his invention. Both armies extensively telegraphed military information. The Confederacy used private telegraph companies, the Union organized a Military Telegraph Department that transmitted some six and a half million dispatches. Over the course of the war a shortage of wire and other supplies silenced many of the South’s lines. Meanwhile the North strung 15,000 additional miles of wire and laid a twenty-mile submarine line across Chesapeake Bay, using a section of Cyrus Field’s abandoned 1858 Atlantic cable.

Morse’s telegraphs put strategic decisions in motion. The web of circuits allowed commanders to coordinate troop movement at a distance from their forces. Atop the chain of command, President Lincoln visited the telegraph office at the War Department several times a day to receive reports from the front and send orders to his generals, sometimes staying late at night. General U. S. Grant, during his final campaign, telegraphed daily orders from his headquarters to all the Union forces engaged over thousands of square miles. As the head of the Military Telegraph Department described the potent efficiency of Morse’s invention, “orders are given—armies are moved—battles are planned and fought, and victories won with the assistance of this simple, yet powerful aide-de-camp.” To this extent Morse had wrought a techno-utopian Frankenstein that far from promoting national community and peace, as he hoped, hardened division and facilitated bloodshed.

The blare of the war and war news obscured some momentous events in very long distance telegraphy. In the spring and early summer of 1861, telegraph work gangs and wagon trains set out toward each other east from Sacramento and west from Omaha. They planned to link up at Salt Lake City to form a transcontinental line stretching 5500 miles from San Francisco to St. John’s, Newfoundland. In just over four months they spanned the vast prairie and the Sierra Nevada mountains. On October 24 the Chief Justice of California sent the first transcontinental message, wiring Abraham Lincoln to express his state’s loyalty to the Union. Morse telegrammed his congratulations to California, rejoicing in a feat of “indomitable perseverance and consummate skill.”

Morse applauded a still more audacious plan by the Russian government, in cooperation with the Western Union Telegraph Company, to construct an overland line from Russia to the United States. The Russian superintendent of the project visited him at Locust Grove and gave him a map of the proposed route. It showed the line moving eastward from St. Petersburg through Siberia across the thirty-six-mile Bering Strait to Alaska, thence to San Francisco, where it could hook up with the transcontinental American line. Morse invested $30,000 in the venture and enthusiastically publicized it. By the spring of 1862 the Siberia-America line had already crossed the Ural Mountains. Its robust telegraph workers advanced on snowshoes, dogsleds, and sealskin-covered umiaks. For nourishment they survived on white rum, dried woodchucks, and Siberian Manyalla—frozen loaves of clotted reindeer blood.

The vastly long lines made actual what Morse had long ago envisioned: “Early in the History of the invention in forecasting its future, I was accustomed to predict with confidence, ‘it is destined to go round the world,’ but I confess I did not expect to live to see the prediction fulfilled.” A telegraph convention in Paris, attended by representatives of twenty governments, provisionally voted to adopt his apparatus for all international telegraphy. Against many competitors and with little modification, it pleased Morse to think, his system was coming into universal use, providing a single common world language of electrical communication.

As the war raged, Morse kept in touch with his American telegraph interests mostly through Amos Kendall. Now in his mid-seventies, Kendall wrote in a hand sometimes illegible for its trembling. And typhoid fever had taken his second wife and another son. As always he carried on: “It is my religion as well as my philosophy to submit to the dispensations of Providence without repining.” His political views essentially matched Morse’s: “We are both for the Union to the last,” he said. A former slaveowner, he detested Abolition, but had no sympathy with Secession either. He wrote to President Lincoln, urging him to punish the secessionists for the “pride of wealth and … lust for power” bred in them by the cotton monopoly. He proposed that as Union armies advanced in the South, the federal government should confiscate slaves abandoned by their masters, set them free, and surrender their masters’ lands to them for cultivation.

Morse and Kendall kept particularly close watch on the consolidation movement, which had continued actively despite the war. The aggressive directors of the Western Union Telegraph Company strove to overtake Cyrus Field’s American Telegraph and seize control of all the major American telegraph associations. They scooped up several independent companies in which Morse had large investments. Such mergers, according to the New York Tribune, were making telegraphy “the most profitable business in the country.”

Wealthy already, Morse became wealthier. He owned 7500 shares in Western Union, as the powerhouse more simply became known. This and his other holdings of telegraph stock and government bonds became so valuable that he employed a New York stockbroker to look after them. He had daily price reports telegraphed to him, using a word-number code in which “fire,” for example, might mean 9: “You wish to tell me that W.U. stock is 185, you therefore send me the words, ‘home, mat, run.’ ” As the price of Western Union zoomed, in one case rising 25 percent over a few days, he sold off hundreds of his shares. Having money to spare—the Tribune spoke of his “regal income”—he invested in a petroleum company, an insurance company, western copper mines, California gold mines. Always generous when he could afford to be, he subscribed $10,000 toward erecting a Theological Hall at Yale. He also sent money to aid Philadelphia’s deaf mutes, build hospitals, and help out strangers in financial distress because of the war.

To Morse’s delight, the wealth produced by his telegraph also enabled others to carry out large philanthropic works. Kendall gave money and land to create the famed Columbia Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Washington, D.C., the world’s only college for deaf mutes. Ezra Cornell had returned to farming in Ithaca, New York, but kept his telegraph stock. He became the largest stockholder in Western Union. His telegraph income allowed him to donate a half-million dollars plus three hundred acres of land to build and endow a nonsectarian school in Ithaca—Cornell University. “I have viewed his course with great gratification,” Morse said, “as the evidence of God’s blessing on what He hath wrought.”

At the time Southern troops fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, Morse was seventy years old, the father of seven children ranging in age from four to forty-two. The youngest and most recent was named Edward Lind Morse, in honor of his son-in-law, the Puerto Rico planter Edward Lind. Of his three other children with Sarah he confessed feeling some special warmth toward Lela (Cornelia) because of the “artlessness” natural to her sex. But he meant to give all of them the benefits of his wealth and what he called “the position I hold before the world.”

Morse sent his sons Arthur and Willie to Newport for schooling, got them French lessons, treated them to a terrier and a pony. In return for his generosity he demanded submission, gratitude, and achievement, as Jedediah had demanded of him: “you must remember you are a Morse and that your grandfather was the Father of American Geography.” He covered his lengthy letters to the boys with Jedediah-like instructions and maxims—diligence in studies, kindness to others, control of temper: “When you write, fill your paper …. be strictly obedient to all the directions of your teachers … guard against Slang.” Above all, he expected his children to be prayerful Christians, to follow “the old orthodox paths” in asking God to guide them through life and direct their way. It saddened him to think he would not live to know them as adults, but there would be time enough in the afterlife: “Then shall we meet,” he told them, “where we shall know each other forever.”

Morse’s adult children were entering middle age, each in a different way blighted. That does not seem surprising, given the early death of their mother, and their abandonment to relatives, family friends, and paid caretakers as their father struggled to become a famous history painter. Approaching forty, Finley remained childlike. He now permanently lived in the Adirondack Mountains, where he passed the time gardening and fishing, looked after by Morse’s cousins, the Davises. Morse paid for his upkeep, but found one excuse after another not to write to him, and asked the Davises to explain: “Please say to Finley that I received his letter, and would have replied … but the truth is I am so overwhelmed with cares just now.” At least once, he himself tried to explain:

My dear Son,

Perhaps you think it strange that I have not written you, but the truth is, that unless I have something very important to say, I am obliged to employ my pen from morning till night on matters which require my whole attention ….

Morse may have found Finley’s mental incompetence too distressing to face, much less manage. He told himself and others that his son was the happiest member of the family despite his “unfortunate” condition—“catches sometimes a dozen fish in a day as long as your finger, and is as happy as if they were whales.”

Susan, now in her mid-forties, stayed at Locust Grove during the summers and for other periods as well. Frail, she slept poorly, suffered from fevers, and had taken several falls that may have injured her spine. While at Locust Grove she underwent some unspecified “treatment,” seemingly an early form of psychotherapy for what Morse termed her “mental condition,” her “nervousness.” The decline of her husband’s sugar business in Puerto Rico because of the war deeply worried her. Morse loaned Edward $14,000 to help him out of debt, and tried to persuade him to quit his plantation and join Susan in Poughkeepsie, perhaps permanently. Otherwise, he said, “we fear her health if not her life may seriously suffer.”

Charles, too, was now in his forties, and in Morse’s eyes could do nothing right. Charles had gone west to work with a federal surveying party among the Sioux nation. He came back financially ruined, “the victim of dishonest sharpers,” Morse said, “who owe him money and will not or can not pay him.” He scolded Charles for having remained gullible in business dealings—a shortcoming in which Charles resembled no one so much as himself, although he did not say so. Instead he attributed Charles’ too-trusting nature to idiocy. “I sometimes think there must be a constitutional mental defect in you, in some respects like that of your brother Finley’s.”

Charles was much discouraged, unable to pay his rent or feed his family. Morse helped him out financially, giving him over four or five years some $30,000—along with a barrage of criticism: “You are too easy and good natured …. you should put on a bolder attitude …. you act upon very loose principles of disbursement.” He provided a hundred-dollar-a-month allowance for Charles’ wife, Manette, when Charles headed west again, this time for Central City, Colorado, to find work in local mining operations. A gifted writer, Charles sent home vivid descriptions of dust-begrimed bull-whackers, charred bodies of teamsters massacred by Indians, carcasses of oxen putrefying in the sun.

To Morse’s displeasure, Charles’ grim picture of frontier life upset Manette, suggesting that her husband was unhappy with his situation. “I do hope you will not give way to any weak longings for home,” Morse wrote to him. “Love to your wife and family can be better shown by persevering effort to provide for them, and be an independent man, even if you have to be absent for years …. You must be more manly.” But Charles became ill and depressed in Colorado and soon declared bankruptcy: “all I have done for him,” Morse brooded, “seems to be like throwing it into the sea.”

Both Charles and his sister Susan had presented Morse with grandchildren. Charles and Manette’s son Bleecker sometimes stayed at Locust Grove, “quite a favorite with us,” Morse said. With Charles away in Colorado, Morse inquired after Bleecker’s “standing and moral character” at school, and with “real joy” attended his formal admission to communion in a Brooklyn church. Susan’s son, also named Charles, came with her when she visited Locust Grove and as a teenager remained in the United States to enroll at Union College, Schenectady. Proud of his grandson’s unmistakable talent for painting, Morse paid for his education and looked forward to his someday setting up professionally in New York City. “Artists are now in high esteem,” he told the boy, “and their general character both as to talent and moral elevation is of a vastly superior type compared with that which belonged to them when I first came to New York.” He wrote off to Puerto Rico urging Edward Lind to allow Charles to study painting in Europe.

It may have been his grandson’s promise that stirred old longings in Morse, “many yearnings,” he confided to a friend, “towards painting & sculpture.” When he tried to draw, however, he found that his perpendicular lines went awry: “I could place no confidence in my eyes.” In the spring of 1861, Asher B. Durand, W. S. Mount, Albert Bierstadt, and other leaders of the National Academy of Design asked him to serve once again as president, as he had for eighteen years. His long absence from the art world made him reluctant to do so, but many members told him that vital interests of the Academy were at stake. He gave in partway, agreeing to act as president until the next annual election: “the feeling of paternity is strongly revived in my heart, and I cannot forget the early travail with my honored associates, which brought into existence the National Academy of Design.”

Morse’s duties apparently amounted to little more than lending the N.A.D. his lustrous name. But during his term and over the next few years he also served as a benefactor. He contributed $500 toward purchasing for the Academy Charles Leslie’s portrait of Washington Allston, “my Master in Art.” For $7000 he bought as a gift to the Yale Art Gallery Allston’s seven-by-eight-foot Jeremiah Dictating His Prophecy of the Destruction of Jerusalem (1820). And recalling the “darkness and desolateness” of his own early painting career he donated shares of telegraph stock to the Artists’ Fund Society: “I still have an Artist’s heart, while deprived by long disuse of an Artist’s skill.”

On Independence Day 1863, telegraphed accounts appeared in New York City newspapers of the third and last day of hellish combat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Times did not exaggerate in calling the battle “sanguinary in the extreme.” Of about 150,000 troops engaged, some 33,000 were killed or wounded. Hundreds of the survivors streamed into New York’s hospitals.

Scarcely ten days later, the city itself became a killing ground. A wild mob took to the streets on July 13 to protest the National Conscription Act, passed by Congress to draft troops for the Union army. Over three days of the worst rioting in the nation’s history, the horde broke into gun-shops to arm themselves, tore out railroad tracks and telegraph poles, sacked Fifth Avenue mansions, and beat up policemen and soldiers, the agents of federal power. Especially they hunted the black population. With cries of “Burn the niggers nest,” a mostly Irish pack of hundreds stormed the Colored Orphan Asylum, looted it, and torched the building. Black men were hanged from lampposts or drowned, the bodies burned or mutilated.

Spending the summer as usual at Locust Grove, Morse anxiously stayed informed about the battles in both Manhattan and Gettysburg. The anti-draft riots brought him down to the city in July to check the security of his town house. In the Pennsylvania fighting he saw an aspect of hope. General Robert E. Lee’s “fatal mistake” of leading his army into Pennsylvania—seen by many other Northerners as the great Union victory at Gettysburg—might hasten negotiations to end the war. Morse’s hope vanished when President Lincoln repulsed a peace feeler from Jefferson Davis. He found every occasion to revile the President as “illiterate,” “inhuman,” “wicked,” above all “irreligious”—“a coarse, vulgar, uncultivated man, an inventor or re-teller of stories so low and obscene, that no decent man can listen to them without disgust.” The great barrier to restoring peace was the administration in Washington. Nothing it did showed statesmanship, justice, or humanity, least of all magnanimity: “What can be expected of a President without brains.”

The country’s one hope of peace, Morse believed, lay in preventing Lincoln’s reelection in 1864. His candidate, favored by most members of the Society for the Diffusion of Political Knowledge, was General George B. McClellan. The “Little Napoleon,” as his admirers called him, was only thirty-seven years old and had no political experience. But as commander of the Army of the Potomac he had gained a national military reputation in September 1862 by turning back Lee’s army at Antietam. Lincoln otherwise thought him indecisive and slow to act, and later the same year removed him from command.

Morse backed McClellan because the general promised to seek peace on the basis of Union not Abolition, readmitting the Southern states with slavery unchanged. Morse had reservations about electing a military man. But there was Washington, of course, and McClellan’s martial spirit seemed well disciplined, “under the control of a Christian heart, a heart devoted to God, and so restrained within proper bounds.” Besides, military reputation appealed to the masses and would win votes: “I see no reason why we should not have the help of hero worshippers to put one in office whom we respect & honor for his Christian humility & devotion.” What mattered was to get rid of Lincoln, “putting out of power, the present imbecile, & bloodthirsty administration.” To aid McClellan’s campaign, the S.D.P.K. voted to merge its operations with those of the Democratic National Committee. Morse contributed a thousand dollars toward the work of this hybrid organization and was appointed to the executive committee.

He looked ahead to the November elections uneasily. At times he felt certain that Lincoln had committed “political suicide” by insisting the South could purchase peace only by ending slavery: “He is politically dead, and … will certainly be defeated.” Other times he feared that the administration might beat McClellan by a “corrupt and reckless” use of its powers. A “marked man” himself, he heard, Morse believed that his mail was being inspected at the post office; some letters came to him “opened and sealed again in the most slovenly matter.” Having already invaded personal liberties—in some cases suspending habeas corpus—the administration might now try to control the votes of the troops under its command. The possibility of a second Lincoln term again raised for Morse the painful vision of fleeing his homeland for Europe. Better peaceable exile under an established despotism than continued turmoil under a despotism clawing its way into being, “fixing itself on its throne through years of anarchy & bloodshed, on the ruins of our Republic.”

As the election neared, Morse made himself highly visible in McClellan’s New York City campaign. On November 4 he presided over a Democratic rally at a crowded meeting hall on Thirty-fourth Street, introduced as “a gentleman who, by his scientific researches and discoveries, has made his fame and name immortal.” Addressing the party faithful, he warned of administration efforts to trample the Constitution and the liberties of the people. Next evening he escorted McClellan to the balcony of the Fifth Avenue Hotel and presented him to the assemblage in the square below—“a dense mass of heads, as far as the eye could reach in every direction.” A minutes-long shout went up, reminding him of the reception he had witnessed in London fifty years ago of European military leaders who had helped defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. With McClellan he watched the nearly three-hour torchlight parade up the avenue—banners, fireworks, hats tossed in the air. Afterward McClellan took his arm as they tried to maneuver through the crush in the hotel, as three policemen scarcely managed to make a way for them.

The hoopla came to nothing. As was a foregone conclusion, Lincoln lost New York City by a landslide, about 37,000 votes. But he solidly beat McClellan in the popular and electoral vote, and by about four to one in the military vote. Morse felt he had done what he could for the Democratic party. He retreated from politics, although with foreboding. “I retire from the conflict,” he announced, “leaving the responsibility on those who have re-elected an administration from whose acts I augur only a prolongation of our civil war.” He took up his Christian duty to now devote himself to relieving the misery the war continued to create, beginning with the “so called enemy.” He chaired an informal association to collect money for the relief of captured Confederate troops in Northern prisons and personally tried to send them cold-weather clothing and blankets.

As Union troops moved decisively toward and then into Atlanta, Savannah, and Richmond, Morse seems to have fallen silent. He joined two hundred fellow New Yorkers in protesting plans by the Common Council to celebrate recent victories of the Union army. But his surviving papers contain no comments on General Sherman’s march through Georgia, on newsboys shouting in the streets “Richmond Ours!,” or any of the other closing scenes of the war. One of his sons later recalled being taken in the spring of 1865 to the second floor of a stable his father kept, a few blocks from the town house. From there he witnessed six gray horses covered with black cloth drawing through the city’s streets the coffin of President Lincoln, shot in the head and killed a week after the Confederacy surrendered.

Morse grieved for the South in its defeat. He declined an invitation to take part in ceremonies at the Yale commencement honoring his alma mater’s New England graduates who had served in the Union army. “I should as soon think of applauding one of my children for his skilful shooting of his brothers in a family brawl,” he said. Mostly he wanted to erase the last four years from his own and the nation’s consciousness and from the record of American history: “the whole era of the war is one I wish not to remember. I would have no other memorial than a black cross like those over the graves of murdered travellers to cause a shudder whenever it is seen.”

But as Morse soon learned, the racial problems that had ignited the war survived it in new forms, terrible for him to contemplate. “The future of our country looks very dark,” he thought. The president of Vassar College was hinting that he would teach miscegenation, “that he will prepare his female pupils to resist their so called ‘prejudices’ of color, so as to be in readiness to receive graciously, the matrimonial offers of our ‘citizens of African descent.’” The “false philanthropy” that had inspired the Abolitionists was growing not less but more bold, pressing now for black suffrage. And once freed, blacks felt helpless and angry, threatened with annihilation. Even as a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery was being offered to the states for ratification, two thousand freed slaves in Jamaica, impoverished by emancipation there, had taken over the town of Morant Bay, killing about twenty white militia, officials, and planters. “We look for the same result here,” Morse said. “I fear it cannot be avoided.”

Morse decided to remove himself and his family from the ominous scene by going abroad, for an extended stay of nearly two years. The children could study music and learn French and German, and the whole family would all enjoy the International Exposition to be held in Paris. Intending to take along Sarah’s mother, a teenaged niece, a governess, a tutor, and ten or more trunks, he financed the recess by offering his town house for rent, at $6000 annually, and selling six hundred shares of his Western Union stock, for $35,475.

Before leaving, Morse sent a ten-page letter to Cyrus Field. A few months after the war ended, Field had tried again to lay a transatlantic cable, now using only one vessel—the 700-foot-long iron-sided Great Eastern, by far the largest ship afloat. Again the attempt failed. Leaving from Ireland, the Great Eastern was only about 600 miles from Newfoundland when the cable broke; 1200 miles of it were lost in the bottom of the sea. Unstoppable, Field planned to make still another attempt. Morse offered him a novel method of paying-out devised by Sidney Morse, and expressed the hope of meeting him abroad.

A week or so later, Morse received a letter from Finley. It asked permission to come down from the Adirondacks to see him and Sarah in the city before their departure. Once more he did not answer the boy-man. Instead he wrote to the Davises, Finley’s caretakers, sending money for him but pleading that he must put off making a decision: “We should be glad of course to see him but it would be adding greatly to our care in the midst of our preparations.”

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