Samuel F. B. Morse although best known for his telegraph system was also noted as one of the influential American artists of his time as well as one of the influential political figure in New York during the period of his life. In his analysis of Morse’s life and works, Kenneth Silverman notes the manner in which Morse’s diverse elements of life were inscribed together in order to account for his religious faith and political beliefs. Silverman notes that both these aspects [religious faith and political beliefs] had a direct influence on Morse’ vision of himself as well as his nation (2004, p. 20).
In lieu of this, the task of this paper is two fold. The first part of the paper opts to consider the manner in which Moore’s works reflect the convergence of his views in relation to religion and nationhood. The second part of the paper, on the other hand, opts to present the manner in which such views affected the development of American history through the figure of Samuel FB Morse. Like his father Jedediah Morse, a prominent Massachusetts pastor best known for his books on American geography, Samuel Morse believed that Protestantism and American liberty were intertwined.
Silverman provides considerable insight into Morse’s experience as an art student in Britain and his experiences as a young artist struggling to create a distinctly American form of historical painting that focused on the great events and the political life of his young nation. His inspiration, however, came from the masterpieces of European art, and it was a younger generation, led by Thomas Cole, that created a distinct American school by drawing on the power of the American landscape.
Morse’s artistic ambitions were thwarted by the lack of patrons who could support the kind of painting he envisioned. To gain commissions, he had to settle for the life of an itinerant portrait painter. It is important to note, however, that at the onset of his career as a portrait, Morse emphasized the necessity to “pursue the intellectual branch” (qtd in Lipton, 1981, p. 36). The necessity of such lies in Morse’s desire “to rival the genius of a Raphael, a Michel Angel, or a Titian” (qtd in Lipton, 1981, p. 49).
Morse notes, “my ambition is to be enlisted in the constellation of genius…I wish to shine, not by a light borrowed from them, but to strive to shine the brightest” (qtd in Lipton, 1981, p. 49). However, such a desire was not attained by Morse through his first chosen field. Morse’s more lasting impact on American art came through his efforts in establishing the National Academy of Design, an organization run by artists that he deemed more appropriate to republican art than the American Academy established by John Trumbull and dominated by the very patrons and collectors who might have supported Morse’s artistic ambitions.
His failure to obtain a commission from Congress to paint one of the panels of the Capitol rotunda effectively marked the end of his career as a painter. Despite of this, as Morse’s artistic ambitions foundered in the 1830s, his effort to develop an electric telegraph offered another outlet for his ambition. However, it initially took a back seat to his desire to preserve his Protestant republic from the hordes of Catholic immigrants that were coming to America.
Silverman notes that Morse’s experiences during a visit to Rome confirmed his view of Catholicism as a coercive religion opposed to liberty (2004, p. 125). His first contribution to the debate on immigration was a series of articles on Catholicism that he subsequently collected under the title Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States. Morse’s anti-Catholicism subsequently led him into nativist politics and an unsuccessful candidacy for mayor of New York City.
At one point one may note that such a failure may be attributed to Morse’s naive views in relation to the real workings of American politics. Such a naivete was retained by Morse in the field of commerce. Nonetheless, he played well the role of American inventor, by portraying himself as both the single originator of the electric telegraph and as defender of America’s right to the invention against the claims of various European inventors. The telegraph refers to the “machine that sends letters in codes made up of dots and dashes” (Bunch & Hellemans, 1983, p. 42). Such an idea was later on named after Morse himself as single line telegraphy was referred to as Morse code. According to Silverman, the irony of Morse’s career is evident if one considers that he perceived the field of commerce as one of the least means in which one may pursue life. Silverman notes, “ironically…Morse’s claims for himself as an inventor rest most convincingly on the part of his work that he valued least, his dogged entrepreneurship” (2004, p. 322).
Despite of this, the importance of Morse’s work in his later life may be seen as mirroring the manner in which he steadfastly opted for the continuance of a creation of a national identity. Morse himself notes that the importance of such an invention is evident if one “foresaw that in the affairs of state and commerce rapid communication might mean the avoidance of war” (Morse, 2004, p. 11). His invention in this sense enabled the realization of his “great ambition (which) had always been to work some good for his fellow-men” (Morse, 2004, p. 11).
In lieu of this, one may note that the importance of Morse’s works lies not so much in the ideology nor in the philosophical underpinning, that enables it existence. It lies more on the manner in which his works enabled the formation of invention and hence innovation. If such is the case, Morse’s telegraph in this sense stands as an emblem that point to the crucial role played by those who bring together people with a variety of skills and talents to turn ideas into a commercial technology. Silverman notes that Morse was such an emblem [an emblem of invention and innovation (2004, p. 10).