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Lightning ManThe Accursed Life of Samuel F. B. Morse
By Kenneth Silverman
Da Capo PressCopyright © 2003 Kenneth Silverman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneGeography (1789-1811)
On April 30, 1789, Jedediah Morse was installed as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts. The occasion was triply significant to him. Twenty-seven years old, he had come to his vocation by study at Yale and graduate work in theology. He felt eager to promote the interests of religion but awed to contemplate the degenerate state of his fellow mortals, who every day crucified their Redeemer anew. The labor now to be undertaken by him was worthy but daunting, "a good work," he said, "but alas who is sufficient for these things."
The place mattered to Jedediah no less than the occasion. The First Church was one of the oldest in America, a fit pulpit for a man whose ancestors had emigrated to the New World in 1635, among the first settlers of Puritan New England. The church stood, too, in the shadow of Bunker's Hill. Just fourteen years earlier, armed provincials had defended the hill against three assaults by British infantry and marines.
And for Jedediah, the date was no less symbolic than the place. On the same day, on the balcony of New York City's Federal Hall, George Washington was inaugurated as the first President of the United States andcalled on the new nation to preserve "the sacred fire of liberty." Jedediah revered him as an epitome of republican virtue-self-sacrificing, pious, restrained, great because he was good, indeed, Jedediah said, "the greatest Man alive."
Two weeks after the momentous day of his settlement, Jedediah married twenty-three-year-old Elizabeth Finley, a granddaughter of the president of Princeton College. In appearance they were unlike, to judge from a later family portrait: Jedediah tall, slender, old-fashioned -looking in his knee breeches and black silk stockings; Elizabeth stoutish, buxom, jowly-"no dwarf," she said of herself. Their personalities differed, too. Jedediah's well-bred manner and sweet voice set him off from his wife's no-nonsense practicality and tart wit. Just the same they made a close, affectionate couple. In letters home he addressed her as "My dearest Life & Love." He borrowed the salutation, he explained, from a letter of George Washington to Martha Washington: "as he is an excellent pattern in almost everything, so in this I would imitate him, believing that my Love for you is as great as his for Mrs. W."
On April 27, 1791, two years after marrying, the couple had their first child, a son whom they named after Elizabeth's father and grandfather: Samuel Finley Breese Morse. Finley, as the family called him, spent his first seven years in the parsonage, a two-story wooden building near the First Church. The household included a pious Baptist servant-nurse, Nancy Shepherd. For a time, a black boy named Abraham also lived with the family, tending the horse and cow. Jedediah ministered to the black population of nearby Boston and publicly condemned the slave trade as inconsistent with republican principles.
Few details of Finley's early childhood remain. When about a year and a half old he contracted smallpox during an epidemic that struck a thousand people in Boston. At the age of four he began attending a dame school near the parsonage. Nancy Shepherd sometimes took him to Bunker's Hill and recounted its historic battle, which she had witnessed.
During the first ten years of their marriage Jedediah and Elizabeth had six more children. Only two survived, Finley's younger brothers Richard and Sidney. In the same period Jedediah became a national figure. While writing sermons and preaching about mankind's fallen state, he issued atlases, school texts, and travel guides with such titles as The American Universal Geography (1793) and The American Gazeteer (1797). He put the books to press, arranged for British editions, looked after sales and distribution, each year publishing a new geography or revision of some earlier one.
Jedediah's geographies became second in popularity only to Noah Webster's spelling books and the Bible. Producing them put him in touch with notable men at home and abroad. He dined in Philadelphia with Benjamin Franklin and at Mount Vernon with George and Martha Washington. His many, far-flung correspondents included John Adams; the Bishop of London; and the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, who also visited him in Charlestown. His publications brought him an honorary degree from the University of Edinburgh and fame as America's pre-eminent geographer. He did not hide his renown. On the title page of American Universal Geography he identified himself as a Doctor of Divinity, Fellow of the American Antiquarian Society, and Fellow of the Historical Society-as "Jedediah Morse, D.D.F.A.A.S.H.S."
Jedediah became prominent in political life as well. Like the rest of the Congregationalist clergy he allied himself with the Federalist party. Against the more liberal, capitalistic social order taking shape in the wake of the American Revolution, he upheld the Calvinistic faith of his New England forebears, whose piety and sense of human dependence on God he considered essential to republican life. He hoped that the new United States would be left to itself, "kept out of the Whirlpool of European Politicks." But there was no insulating the country from the long war for supremacy between Great Britain and Napoleon's France. As the eighteenth century closed, Jedediah like most other Federalists viewed with growing alarm French interference in American affairs: use of American seaports as bases for privateering, attempted bribes to American envoys, manipulation of the American press-especially the export to America of deism, skepticism, Voltairean atheism, and other forms of French Infidelity.
Such ominous political-religious issues brought out a combative side of Jedediah's personality, at odds with his usual mildness. He fought the French Antichrist from his historic pulpit, raging against France as the "destroyer of nations" that had enslaved millions and now menaced the independence of the United States. He sermonized against all the other enemies of Christian Republicanism as well: Masons, Illuminists, Roman Catholics-the last being not Christians but idolators, with a libertine priesthood. All were leagued with the French Imperium, Jedediah warned, in trying to foment revolution in America and ultimately seize the country.
Jedediah's fiery sermons had no political effect. As the new century opened he grimly watched the nation choose for its president the gallified Thomas Jefferson, a man unaccustomed to attending public worship, a professed Infidel: "Unhappy indeed must that Christian people be," Jedediah reflected, "whose Chief Magistrate is an Atheist." George Washington had mercifully not lived to see it all: "Ever since his death the clouds seem to have been gathering for a storm."
In 1799, as Jedediah thundered from his pulpit, Finley was sent from home for schooling. Now eight years old, he would spend most of the next decade living apart from his family. Jedediah enrolled him at Phillips Academy, in the isolated village of Andover, Massachusetts, some twenty miles from Charlestown. The well-regarded Academy had about sixty students. Its curriculum stressed classical languages, mathematics, and religious instruction suited to the sons of New England Congregationalists. The school's Overseers included Jedediah himself.
Concerned above all with Finley's growth in piety, Jedediah tried to board him with a prayerful family. He also wrote out a daily routine for his son to follow. It aimed at fashioning a Christian Gentleman-reverent, well mannered, and frugal, but aspiring to personal distinction:
1. Rise early in the morning-read a chapter in the Bible, & say your prayers-Read the Bible in course. The Old Testament in the morning. The New Testament at night-
2. After a serious performance of these religious duties,-comb your head & wash your face, hands & mouth-in cold water, not hastily & slightly but thoroughly-
Next came instructions for Finley's behavior at school:
3. Get your morning lesson well-Behave decently at breakfast. Go regularly & seasonably to the Academy-While there, in study hours, attend to your lesson, & get it thoroughly, & try to be the best scholar in your class.
4. In play hours, while at play, behave manly & honorably. Avoid every thing low, mean, indecent, or unfair-And endeavour to play in such a manner as that all may wish to have you on their side....
"Take care to read your rules every day & observe them strictly," Jedediah said.
Settled in the Academy's preparatory school, Finley hastened to show his father that he understood and would obey. Probably only weeks after arriving in Andover, he sent home a scrawled reply: "I retire always by my self and say my prayers. I learn a hymn every sabbath." Lest Finley forget his routine, Jedediah repeated the rules in nearly the same words week after week. And Elizabeth in her homelier voice repeated them, week after week: "make it your Daily business to obey your kind preceptors," she wrote; "and above all things remember your duty to God pray to him Night and morning and read your chapter in the bible as often and do not read trifling books.... be as carefull of all your clothes as possible." Jedediah directed Finley to fold the letters neatly after mastering their content, then tie them together and preserve them in his trunk.
The long-distance family discipline included detailed instructions to Finley on how, each week, he should respond: "You must write me long letters, & vary them as much as possible-avoid sameness," Jedediah said. "Pay great attention to your handwriting." His own letters could not be said to avoid sameness, and the hand was often crooked and blotchy. Nevertheless in letter after letter he insisted that his son reply pleasingly and by rule: "Avoid vulgar phrases.... Hold your pen properly and keep your elbow & arm in a right position.... Conclude your Letters in this way 'I am your affectionate & obedient Son S. F. B. Morse.'"
The letters Finley received from home often came with longdistance kisses and concerns for his health, gifts of raisins or cake. But mostly they told him what to do and feel and think. At first, the all-seeing discipline did not take. He failed to write back. He got demerits in spelling and for whispering. A tutor reported that he had been idle and untruthful, and had ended up at the bottom of his class. "What a character, my son," Jedediah moaned to him; "if you persevere in this conduct, you will fill our hearts with sorrow." The sorrow was paternal but also personal, for Jedediah expected his children to reflect well on himself. He punished the boy by threatening to keep him at Andover during school vacations. Visits home were an "indulgence," he said, to be granted only when Finley proved "peculiarly attentive to his studies."
Jedediah rarely if ever enforced such threats, and Finley did often return to Charlestown at vacation times. But affairs at home were troubled. Angry party divisions had developed in the continued turmoil over American relations with France and England. Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans held separate Independence Day ceremonies in Charlestown, both claiming to be the true heirs of the American Revolution. Jedediah's affairs were troubled by more than politics. In many ways he enjoyed his situation in the First Church-a pleasant house and garden rent-free, just a mile from Boston. But the salary of only $11 a week was inadequate to support him and his family, and the congregation refused him a raise. "They are a people of a very peculiar character," he complained. The congregation complained, too. As new editions of Jedediah's geographical works appeared, they objected to the time he devoted to them and his frequent travel away from Charlestown to gather information. Their griping so wounded his feelings, and parish affairs became so disorganized, that he found it difficult to faithfully discharge his ministry. He seriously thought of leaving the place.
And Jedediah and Elizabeth lost another child, their fifth-a boy named Russell who died after a siege of dysentery. Finley learned of the event through a tutor at the Academy, who drew out for him the lesson: "Remember that good children only will hereafter meet in heaven to be forever happy. Earnestly endevour [sic] to be of that number that you may meet your little brother, and all good people in a better world."
Once Finley left the Phillips preparatory school and entered the Academy proper his studies improved, some. Reading the Greek New Testament and the Aeneid, he sent home letters in Latin. Jedediah was pleased but, as usual, not entirely: "Write your Latin letters first on a piece of waste paper & shew them to your preceptor, for correction, & then copy them & send them to me." Another time, Finley sent him a three-page summary in English of Plutarch's life of Demosthenes: "written very well for one of his age," Jedediah conceded. "He omitted an important circumstance, however."
And Finley's improvement turned out to be temporary, or worse. He soon wrote home asking Jedediah's permission to quit Greek and Latin, to study English instead. He could not remember the lessons, he said, and was often put back. Jedediah recommended greater application and perseverance: "All good scholars have found it laborious to acquire knowledge-the 'hills of science, is [sic] represented as steep & of difficult ascent.'"
Of Finley's improvement in piety there was less doubt. In the evenings he began reading about and summarizing the lives of Protestant martyrs, devout ministers who for their faith had been jailed, assassinated, burned at the stake. When his younger brothers Sidney and Richard entered the Academy, he read them religious works. Sometimes he adopted with them the godly manner of their pious elders. When Elizabeth again gave birth to a stillborn child-the sixth of her children to die-he told Sidney and Richard: "Now you have three brothers & three sisters in heaven, and I hope you & I will meet them there at our death. It is uncertain when we shall die, but we ought to be prepared for it." He presented them a copy of The Christian Pilgrim.
While becoming more learned and pious, as his parents wished, Finley also began finding his own way. In taking drawing as one of his academic subjects, at about the age of eleven, he discovered a talent for art. He sent samples of his work to Charlestown. The much-published Jedediah had his own share of worldly gentility, and boasted about his son's gift: "he is self taught-has had no instructions." He encouraged the boy, but reminded him that art should be "your amusement merely," and that his approval was not a given but a reward.
Excerpted from Lightning Man by Kenneth Silverman Copyright © 2003 by Kenneth Silverman. Excerpted by permission.
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