Wednesday, September 15, 2021
Samuel Morse (1791-1872) is remembered as the inventor of the telegraph. Less well known is that Morse was an accomplished painter, perhaps the foremost American portraitist of his day. Retired presidents John Adams and James Monroe sat for him, as did the Marquis de Lafayette of Revolutionary War fame. All told, Morse completed more than 300 paintings. He was also a pioneer of photography and mentor of the great Civil War photographer, Matthew Brady.
Morse must also be remembered as a fervid opponent of immigration. His writings against America’s first mass influx of foreign-born were so influential that Morse might well be considered the Father of Nativism. In 1834, he inspired the fledgling anti-immigrant movement with a series of letters to the New York Observer. Writing under the pen name, "Brutus," Morse railed against "priest-ridden Irish" who came here, he believed, to advance a papal plot against American democracy. These letters were compiled and published in 1835 as Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States. They would later inform the political platform of the anti-immigration American Party also known as the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner or the Know-Nothings. It is ironic that a man of such wide intelligence as Morse could inspire men who embraced the nickname “Know-Nothings.” Sworn to secrecy when questioned about their party, they are supposed to have responded to questions about membership by claiming to “know nothing.”
The Know-Nothings’ strongest objection to immigration was not cultural. Nor was it economic. It was religious. In this, they took their cue from Morse, who was convinced that immigrants, notably the Irish and German Catholics then crowding cities of the eastern seaboard, were loyal to the Church of Rome (Nativists almost never said “Catholic Church.”). Their growing numbers, especially as naturalized citizens, would undermine America’s core principle, the separation of church and state. To Morse, the Irish were a particular danger because they naturalized in droves and the law allowed them to vote even before they had become full citizens. Their unquestioning obedience to the Catholic Church meant that they would cast their ballots as their priests dictated. Thus, these foreigners would sway elections and eventually deliver the country into the hands of the Roman pope.
All this may sound absurd now, but Morse passionately believed it. His biographers have pointed to his travel in Europe as critical in shaping his anti-Catholic convictions. Morse traveled abroad twice. As a young Yale graduate, he spent several years (1811-1815) in England. This sojourn allowed him to refine his technique as a painter but seems to have had little impact on his attitude toward Catholicism. In 1830, he embarked on a two-year tour of Italy, Switzerland, and France. This trip left a deep impression on his politics.
In Rome, Morse was fascinated by the art, architecture, and rituals of the Catholic Church. It was at one of these ceremonies that Morse’s disdain for Catholicism hardened into dread. Out for a walk on the holy day of Corpus Christi, Morse came upon an elaborate procession on the Via del Corso. He joined a crowd of spectators who watched as the Host, shielded by a canopy and ensconced in a monstrance, was solemnly borne through the street. Unlike those around him, the American did not remove his hat as the Host approached. Whether he deliberately refused to show deference to the sacred spectacle or absent-mindedly omitted the courtesy is not clear, but commentators have made much of this incident because of what happened next. As the procession passed, a soldier in the entourage knocked Morse’s hat from his head and may even have forced the American to the ground with a blow from the butt of his rifle. Threatening the stunned American with a bayonet, the soldier cursed Morse and called him “Il Diavolo” (Devil).
The incident is reminiscent of St. Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, as related in the Acts of the Apostles. Paul is not yet a saint, nor is he even Paul. Instead, he’s just workaday Saul the Pharisee, a Christian martyr-maker, intent on rounding up the followers of the false prophet Jesus and bringing them to summary justice. Galloping towards Damascus, where he expects to find a gaggle of early Christians, Saul is forced from his horse by a blinding light. Jesus appears to him and says, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” This vision marks a turning point in Saul’s life. Within days, he takes the new name Paul and becomes Jesus’s greatest advocate. An Evangelical Christian today might say that Paul was at that moment “born again.”
The Via Del Corso episode had a similar albeit less dramatic impact on Samuel Morse. It provided what he would later consider his deepest insight into Catholicism. Prior to his being assaulted, Morse was ambivalent about Roman Catholic ceremony. Yes, he thought it violated the simplicity of the Gospels, but the elaborate protocols, pomp, and regalia of the liturgical display intrigued the artist within him. One account of the Corpus Christi event has him scribbling down a wide-eyed description of the procession before he is blind-sided by the bullying soldier. Although Morse judges the soldier a “poltroon,” he holds his assailant less to blame for the assault than the clerics who ruled over the procession. It was they who had demanded that spectators be controlled. After all, Morse concluded, Roman Catholicism was “the religion of force.”
Not long after his return to America, Morse set about composing the Brutus letters. It is hard to say how much their preoccupation with “Popery” as a dangerous political force owed to Morse’s experience on the Via del Corso. St. Paul became a new man after being forced from his horse. Morse’s blow to the head did not change the trajectory of his life, but seems instead to have intensified a part of him that was already there, his antipathy towards “political Romanism.”
In a CSPAN interview on YouTube, biographer Kenneth Silverman claims that Morse never forgot the incident and mentioned it over and over in his speeches and political tracts. On August 10, 1834, just days after the publication of the Brutus letters, an anti-immigrant mob sacked and burned down the Ursuline convent school in Charlestown, Massachusetts, Morse’s hometown. Morse is said to have been appalled by the destruction, and in an age when communications were slow (His telegraph was not yet working), it seems unlikely that Morse’s writings could have prompted the attack. Yet, Morse’s followers would soon know all about the Il Diavolo episode, which became a symbol of the Old-World despotism that had no place in America. Over the next two decades, Catholic church burnings and anti-immigration riots became commonplace.
Today, when some Americans are predisposed to dethrone once-iconic heroes, Morse presents a quandary. He ranks among our finest artists and inventors. He also championed higher education for women and became in his later years a great philanthropist. Yet, in addition to his writing against immigration, Morse would go on to publish tracts in defense of slavery. In sum, Samuel Morse was a complicated man. His artistic and scientific accomplishments suggest the expansive genius of a polymath, while his convictions about immigrants and Blacks were bigoted and small-minded. Perhaps it is best that Morse’s technological genius has overshadowed other aspects of his personality. A quick Google search reveals that several American schools are named in his honor and his statue occupies a prominent place in Manhattan’s Central Park. Were his attitudes to be considered more important than his accomplishments, we might have to expunge his memory altogether.