Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) inventor, political activist

2011-02-22 11:53:32

Best remembered for developing the Morse code and the first working telegraph, Morse was also one of the leading anti-Catholic activists of his day. Because of his public prominence, his opinion carried considerable public weight, reinforcing nativist tendencies in the United States.
The son of a Calvinist minister, Morse attended Phillips Academy in Massachusetts and Yale University in Connecticut. In order to develop his craft as a professional artist, Morse traveled widely in Europe between 1829 and 1832. On his return trip to the United States, he began work on what would become his code and telegraph. Before he earned a government commission to build a telegraph line between Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in 1843, Morse was often in financial difficulty. This led him to study the new photographic techniques of Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre while in France and to become one of the pioneers of photography in the United States. He was a founder and president of the National Academy of Design (1826–45, 1861–62) and was long associated with New York University (1832–71).
During a stay in Rome, Morse became intensely anti-Catholic. His native suspicion of papal authoritarianism was reenforced when a common soldier, seeing that Morse’s head remained covered during a Catholic procession, used his bayonet to knock Morse’s hat from his head. He carried this animosity back to the United States, making it part of his political creed. Shortly before making an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he wrote letters to the New York Observer that were collected and published as A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States (1834). The letters were aimed at the Leopold Association of Vienna, a Catholic missionary organization whose purpose was the proselytization of the United States. In the following year, Morse published Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration and Present State of the Naturalization Laws. Morse’s particular brand of nativism was aimed predominantly at Catholics and especially the Irish. In Imminent Dangers he railed against what he termed a “naturalized foreigner” who professed to “become an American” but “talks (for example) of Ireland as ‘his home,’ as ‘his beloved country,’ resents anything said against the Irish as said against him, glories in being Irish, forms and cherishes an Irish interest, brings hither Irish local feuds, and forgets, in short, all his new obligations as an American, and retains both a name and a feeling and a practice in regard to his adopted country at war with propriety, with decency, with gratitude, and with true patriotism.” During the Civil War (1861–65), Morse increasingly viewed immigrants as a prop to the stability of the Union, rather than a potential source of destruction.