Biographies & Memoirs




AFTER ONLY A few days at home, Morse learned that the threat to his business interests was even deadlier than he had thought. Actions had been taken after the date of Kendall’s letter to him that all but ended his control over the future direction and organization of the American telegraph industry. As he lay bedridden in Plymouth harbor, he now learned, five major companies, including Western Union, had made a separate peace with Field’s American Telegraph. Meeting clandestinely, without notifying Amos Kendall, they agreed to purchase the Hughes patent from Field and form an alliance with his group.

The signatories to this so-called Six Nation Treaty, Morse learned, had large ambitions. As mutual owners of the Hughes telegraph they contemplated building a line from New York to Washington rivaling the inaugural Morse line. They also boasted of plans for new lines all the way to California. Each member of the North American Telegraph Association, as the group called itself, would be sovereign of the large area allotted to it. The Western Union Company, for example, would control rights to the Hughes telegraph in every state north of the Ohio River and parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and Kansas.

Kendall had obtained a copy of the treaty and read its provisions. He informed Morse that the treacherous Field and his new associates had simply parceled out the United States among themselves, monopolizing the country’s telegraph business. The treaty not only excluded Morse, he said, it made him disappear: “no one would know from the face of the paper itself, that such a man as Saml F. B. Morse ever existed.

Morse had had enough. He accepted what before he had only understood, that he must give up his part in the historic cable drama, however painful to quit: “I have contributed so much of my time, and made so much sacrifice.” His resolve was tested only a few weeks after his return home. Field asked him to make good his offer to write an endorsement for publication, particularly supporting Field’s appeal to Washington for the use once again of the naval frigate Niagara. In the circumstances, Morse bitterly resented Field’s request: “they who have made the arrangements for hostility to me and my invention,” he told Kendall, “ask me to aid them in their hostility to me.” He was being taken for a fool, “as willing to commit a sort of suicide, for their benefit. It is asking a little too much.” Kendall had his own plans for answering Field, and advised Morse to do nothing.

But before Morse could do or not do anything it was done to him. Atlantic Telegraph, Field’s British partner, declined to appoint him an “Honorary Director” of the second cable attempt. In doing so the company deprived him of more than another mark of distinction. It was precisely his standing as “Honorary Director” that had entitled him to join the official party aboard the Niagara. The decision banished him from the expedition.

Field explained that under British law only stockholders in a company qualified for directorships. Morse doubted this: after all, he had owned no shares in Atlantic Telegraph when it named him an Honorary Director for the first attempt. “If they really desired me to be present, as I was last year,” he told brother Sidney, “they could easily have found the means of making me an Honorary Director without violating the spirit of any rule.” He believed that Field had represented him to his London partners as hostile to their company. “I hope Mr. Field can exculpate himself … before the world and especially before his own conscience, for the course he has taken.”

Hurt and angry, Morse told Field he still wished the new expedition success. But he added that he had no part in attempts others might make to obstruct it. “I am not responsible for the schemes or plans of self-defence and self protection of those interested in the established lines,” he said; “I hear of plans, the details of which are not imparted to me, for I have shut my ears.” This was both quietly menacing and disingenuous. Morse well knew that Amos Kendall felt double-crossed by the Six Nation Treaty and was doing everything he could to undermine Field’s preparations: “I feel a zeal to punish this perfidy,” Kendall had told him, “even if my own interest suffer in the process.” Kendall was pressing his many influential friends in Washington to oppose Field’s request for further government aid. He also presented a formal “Memorial” to Congress, condemning Field’s cable enterprise as an enormous scheme of monopoly, “aiming to control the telegraph business of the two hemispheres for the purpose of securing, directly and indirectly, inordinate gains to a few individuals.” The memorial asked Congress to pass a law requiring the cable’s owners to offer connections on equal terms to all telegraph lines in the United States.

Morse companies excluded from the Six Nation Treaty shared Kendall’s outrage. They unanimously agreed, he said, to “ ‘carry the war into Africa.’” New Morse circuits began going up in the South and West in competition with lines of the Six Nations, and patent rights to the Morse system were sold in the seven-year-old state of California.

Morse had always striven to emulate his father in forgiveness of enemies, but he too wanted to get even. “I would foil them with their own weapons … let there be another Atlantic Telegraph, which shall connect only with the excluded Morse lines.” He thought of forming a rival company to lay a transatlantic telegraph from the Azores, running to both the Continent and the United States. He asked Kendall to speak with the Portuguese minister in Washington about landing a submarine cable on the islands, in exchange for a grant of priority in sending government dispatches. As Morse viewed this wild-eyed undertaking it would both set back his enemies and realize his humanitarian hopes: “if this single point can be gained to me I shall have the means of holding these intriguants in check … but shall be carrying out my original plan of connecting the nations of the earth together, on a more enlarged and efficient scale.”

Field’s exact part in dumping Morse is unclear. Peter Cooper and other leaders in his companies were involved in making decisions, and probably had a say. They would not have been the first of Morse’s associates to be put off by his shifting moods of whining self-pity and imperiousness. However culpable or not, Field expressed surprised hurt at Morse’s unfriendliness. “I am totally unconscious of having deserved it,” he told Morse. He attributed their break to Kendall and Kendall’s cronies, “persons of more worldly cunning than enters into your own nature, and who have been glad to put forward your great and honored name for the advancement of mere selfish objects.”

Morse replied by recalling their discussion aboard the Arabia when returning to the United States. Field had assured him that negotiations between the American Telegraph Company and other Morse companies were “going on favorably.” Instead, on returning home he had found Field’s company promoting the Hughes telegraph and aiming at “the utter extermination of my system …. Do you say this is not so? Can you be so blind as not to perceive it?” He did not blame his expulsion from the cable project on Field, he said, but on Field’s allies: “Be this as it may, I was thrown out.” As happened twenty years earlier when Congress refused him a commission for the Capitol rotunda, the richest reward of his labor had again come in sight and been snatched away.

Hopeful news from France eased Morse’s distress. His agent Frederic Van den Broek informed him that, under the direction of the French government, representatives of ten European countries had met in Paris late in April to discuss compensation for their use of the Morse system. This unusual international gathering agreed to propose an indemnity of 400,000 francs, payable to Morse in four annuities, each country contributing in proportion to the number of Morse instruments it had in use. The delegates had returned home to present the recommendation to their governments, but would convene again that fall in Paris to report the decision.

“My faith in those who now rule the destinies of France has not been misplaced,” Morse said. He had in mind the éclat rather than the cash, which he thought small—about $80,000, of which a third would go to Van den Broek. Kendall had suggested an indemnity of at least half a million dollars, and considered the amount “niggardly”: “I know not how to express my contempt of the meanness of the European governments in the award they propose to make you as the inventor of the Telegraph.” But for Morse what mattered was that the brokers of his indemnity were not men of trade but Counts and Ministers Plenipotentiary. “I accept the gratuity,” he wrote, “with tenfold more gratification than could have been produced by a sum of money, however large, offered on the basis of a commercial negotiation.” The U.S. minister in France urged him to come to Paris when the delegates adjourned again in August. “My friend,” he wrote, “you are about to have awarded to you a higher honor than COLUMBUS lived to receive.”

Morse and Sarah sailed in July aboard the steamer Fulton. He planned to make a lengthy trip, including a visit in Puerto Rico with his daughter Susan and her family. He leased out Locust Grove and sent Finley, now thirty-four years old, to live with cousins in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Since the railway journey involved several train changes, he wrote a note for Finley to hand to conductors along the route, asking them to “see that he takes the right train.” Given the magnitude of the honor that might await him in Paris, he took along his two young sons, a nursemaid, his mother-in-law, and other members of Sarah’s family, making in all a celebratory entourage of fifteen people.

Morse had rarely traveled with his children, and a few weeks en famille in Switzerland drained him. “It was a great mistake I committed in bringing my family,” he wrote from Interlaken; “I have scarcely had one moment’s pleasure, and am almost worn out with anxieties and cares.” In heading for Paris, he left ten-year-old Arthur with Sarah’s mother in Geneva, to be educated by a tutor. “Children require to be early and sometimes frequently transplanted, like some plants,” he explained. He had after all been sent from home himself at the age of eight—a “judicious beginning.” Arthur had shown signs of rudeness, disobedience, and pleasure in low company, for which Morse had recommended a few days’ “severe discipline.” The boy evidently did not take well to being left in Switzerland, for Morse received from the tutor a report of new misbehavior. “I hope Mr. Binet has no occasion to punish you,” he wrote to Arthur, “but if there is occasion I hope for my sake and your good he will punish you …. I shall thank him.”

Morse and Sarah reached Paris about the first week in August. The international meeting on the indemnity was scheduled to convene in the city on the twenty-third, but meanwhile he and millions of others thrilled to breathtaking news. Using Morse instruments, Cyrus Field’s group had successfully flashed a telegraphic message 2500 miles through the Atlantic Ocean.

The miracle had not come easily. Earlier in the summer the Niagara, with revamped paying-out machinery, had again started out with its Anglo-American squadron to the mid-Atlantic. In fierce storms and forty-foot-high waves, the frigate nearly capsized, injuring some of the crew. The cable broke three times, with a loss of 540 miles of line. The Niagara and the Agamemnon had rendezvoused again late in July and successfully spliced their cable-ends together. Speeding apart from each other, they spooled out cable toward their appointed shores. The Niagara reached Newfoundland on the same day the Agamemnon reached Ireland, August 5.

After ten days of testing, the cable pulsed with the first official transatlantic message. In part it consisted of one of the two scriptural texts Morse had chosen for the failed expedition the year before: “Europe and America are united by telegraph. Glory to God in the highest, on earth peace, good will toward men.” Some days later, Queen Victoria and President James Buchanan electrically exchanged congratulations. On August 27 the New York Tribune reported the signing of a three-way peace treaty by China, England, and France, in a story headlined “The First News Dispatch by Ocean Telegraph.”

Americans greeted the event as a rebeginning of history, remaking the idea of human society. “A mighty though silent transformation in the conditions of human existence has just been effected,” the New York Tribune announced; “we have been thrown into the immediate intellectual neighborhood of the whole civilized and a large portion of the semi-barbarous world.” Mind could now be “Shot through the weltering pit of the salt sea,” Ralph Waldo Emerson exulted in a poem: “We have few moments in the longest life/Of such delight and wonder.” The delight broke out in festivities across the country: a torchlight procession in Detroit; barrels of tar set afire at every street corner of Cincinnati; a nighttime regatta in Pittsburgh; a 100-gun salute on Boston Common, the city’s bells rung for a full hour.

New Yorkers closed their businesses, put up triumphal arches, and enjoyed what the city’s noted diarist George Templeton Strong called an “orgasm of glorification.” Vessels in port flew the Stars and Stripes, Union Jack, and flags of all nations. Houses and shops were festooned and illuminated, some by special gas pipes laid for the occasion, Fifth Avenue’s Brevoort House by 1500 spermaceti candles. Strangers poured in from every direction off railroads and ferries. They jammed Broadway to watch a jubilant parade: kilted Highlanders, pioneers in bearskin shakos, butchers in snow-white aprons, veterans of the War of 1812 floats bearing a twelve-foot bottle of ink, a grand piano (being played), a model of the Niagara. Banners covered the city with catchwords and slogans, the front of the Astor House being lengthily inscribed: “The Atlantic Telegraph transmits the Lightning of Heaven, and binds together 60,000,000 of human beings.”

Morse was not forgotten. Despite his absence from the expedition, his name was widely invoked as its prophet and originator. Citizens of Poughkeepsie serenaded his house and raised a twenty-foot banner with the motto “Our own Morse forever.”Transparencies featured his likeness, such as the one displayed by a photographic supplies shop on Broadway:


The Christian evangelical press especially celebrated Morse as their own. As the Western Episcopalian put it, a humble Christian and man of God now held “the highest position ever attained by mortal man uninspired …. Kings and Emperors sink before him.”

In Paris, seventy-five members of the American community hosted a testimonial dinner for Morse: “filled with enthusiastic admiration,” the invitation read, “they desire to give to you some special mark of their exalted appreciation of your personal character, and of the achievements of your genius.” Speakers and guests at the Trois Frères Provençaux turned the rejoicing over the Atlantic cable into a Morse love-feast, engulfing him in adulation and prolonged deafening applause: “every figure of rhetoric was exhausted in his praise,” the New York Times reported; “no man ever received a greater ovation from his fellow-beings.” Morse himself spoke for a half hour or more. “My dream of twenty years is realized,” he said. He paid tribute to Franklin, Oersted, Steinheil, and others whose work had helped him during that time. Joseph Henry and Cyrus Field he left unmentioned, however, beyond observing that “at home there have been those in the past who, from whatever motive, have been disposed to harrass me.”

A week after Morse’s triumphant dinner, the extraordinary indemnity congress met again in Paris. All the governments involved, except the Netherlands, agreed to award him 400,000 francs. The contributors included Austria, Belgium, France, Piedmont, Russia, Sweden, Turkey, Tuscany—and the Vatican, one of the delegates being the nuncio of the Holy See. Their grants varied greatly in amount. France, with 462 Morse instruments in service, would give 144,000 francs; Tuscany, with only 14, would give 4400. England was not represented. The Board of Trade reasoned that since the British government owned no telegraph lines, it had no more reason to reward Morse than to reward any other inventor who had benefited the human race. Besides, if it gave Morse an indemnity, the like might justly be claimed by Wheatstone.

The homage paid him from on high moved Morse deeply. He sent thanks to the French government for its work on his behalf, “at a loss for language,” he said, “adequately to express to them my feelings of profound gratitude.” Promoted by Emperor Napoleon III, and conferred on him by representatives of ten continental countries, the award climaxed his long cultural-nationalist quest to gain European respect for his work as a product of American life. He ranked the indemnity as his grandest distinction, “an act of honor unprecedented in its lofty character, and extent of sympathy … specially conceived and carried into execution under the auspices of the highest dignitaries of the principle nations.”

A month later, Morse and millions of others again shared a memorable experience. This time they marveled at one of the epic letdowns of modern Western history. Signals tapped out over the transatlantic cable had grown gradually weaker, perhaps owing to defective manufacture, damaged insulation, or the use of very high intensity currents. Whatever the cause, on October 20, having transmitted 732 messages during three months, the wizardly copper wires connecting the Old World and the New went dead. The last word they sent was “forward.”

Rejoicing curdled into recrimination. A letter-writer to the Boston Courier called the venture a hoax: “reliable and unimpeachable evidence is wanting, that one solitary intelligible sentence ever passed upon the cable from either continent to the other.” An oceanic cable was not commercially viable, some said: “a little cool judgment might save us from many extravagancies.” Field was accused of staging a fake success in order to unload $375,000 worth of stock on a gullible market. Other scapegoats were named, other warnings issued, new proposals aired for different means of overseas telegraph communication.

The breakdown of the cable gave Morse the dismal satisfaction of feeling vindicated. He had prophesied that the cable could be laid and would work. “These points are successful,” he said. What went wrong had nothing to do with his invention or his thinking, but with the shabby motives and faithlessness of others. While abroad he learned that two Canadians had been named Honorary Directors of Atlantic Telegraph, neither of whom were stockholders—confirming his belief that he had been “ejected” from the expedition deliberately. His removal and the breakdown of the cable had the same meaning, and the same cause—the detestable mentality of trade that saw transatlantic telegraphy as a speculation, a “money matter.” Mere money-making “was the great and I might almost say exclusive motive of Mr. Field …. The hasty, and unfair means he used to grasp too much, have resulted in utter failure.”

Morse and Sarah spent the winter with Susan and her family in Arroyo, Puerto Rico. Enjoying the balmy weather, never in better health, he wore summer clothing in December and kept the windows open, chirped to sleep by crickets. The light pleased his painter’s eye, the sky of “richest Claude blue,” the spectacular sunsets “never exceeded in Italy for tender, rich & glowing tints.”

Morse was impressed by his son-in-law’s well-cultivated 1400 acres, rising two or three miles from the seashore to the mountains. And Edward’s estate seemed to him quite as well governed as some German principalities he had seen, including the small army of slaves who worked the sugar plantations and served the elegant mansion house. He thought the slaves superior physically to the white laborers of Europe, but not mentally: “In intellect they are indeed inferior and for that reason and their low tastes and passions, and besetting vices, require the wholesome restraints of a master.” Nor did he admire the Arroyanos, whom he found indulgent and profane: “No church privileges, no religion among the masses … the inhabitants of these rich hills, they are rather like the swine in their habits and enjoyments.”

The island’s commercial and political leaders treated Morse as a celebrity. The local Bolletin Mercantil reported his activities, and he passed an evening with the Governor of Puerto Rico. In February he organized and constructed a two-mile line between his son-in-law’s house and place of business—the island’s first telegraph. The government honored him with a public breakfast, attended by the American consul. A portrait of him was displayed, decorated with Spanish and American flags. Afterward the breakfasters, accompanied by a band of music, repaired to Don Eduardo’s office on the bay to witness the telegraph in operation.

Morse viewed the line as a first step, the inauguration of a new enterprise in which he had become interested while in Paris. Outdoing his earlier fantasy of a cable from the Azores—and surpassing the ambitions of Cyrus Field—a transoceanic telegraph would be constructed uniting America with Europe by a South Atlantic route. The cable would pass from Madeira to the Canary Islands to the coast of Africa, thence by way of several islands to Brazil, island-hopping from there across the West Indies to Puerto Rico, and from there to Cuba and at last to Florida—a distance of nearly 7000 miles. The scheme had been gotten up in London, and some $2 million of the required $5 million had already been raised. Morse allowed his name to be used in a petition to the Spanish Queen as one of the projectors.

Morse and Sarah returned home in May to a surprise gala reception. Citizens of Poughkeepsie had not had the opportunity to express their pride in his contribution to the first oceanic transmission and his indemnity from the nations of Europe. They did so now. Hundreds of cheering townspeople met him and Sarah at the railroad station and followed them in carriages and on foot through town, amid ringing bells, waving flags, and schoolchildren let out for the day. As the procession reached the flower-wreathed gateways of Locust Grove, a band struck up “Sweet Home” and “Auld Lang Syne.”

After Morse’s ten-month absence, the house needed painting and puttying to become livable again, and a huge unanswered correspondence had accumulated. Feeling at first rather overwhelmed, he remained aglow over the indemnity, and even brightened as unexpected honors arrived from Europe. The Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences presented him with a diploma; the Portuguese government bestowed on him both its Cross of the Order of Christ and its Ancient and Noble Order of the Tower and Sword; the Queen of Spain made him Knight Commander (Cavaliero Commandador)of the 1st Class of the Order of Isabel the Catholic(!). He wrote to Madrid inquiring whether the form of address appropriate to the Order was “Your Excellence.”

Homage poured in from America, too. Morse was made an honorary member of the New-York Historical Society, the Irving Literary Institute, the National Photographic Association, and the Washington Art Association. The New York Institution for the Deaf and Dumb, where Sarah had been a pupil, appointed him an Honorary Director; the Century Club elected him to membership, alongside John Jacob Astor, Jr., and the financier August Belmont. His patronage in great demand, he was sought for the presidency of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, asked to help organize a National Gallery of Art in Washington, invited to speak before the American Institute of Architects, as “a pioneer in the cause of Art Education.” In at least one case, he again learned that his honors attracted not only do-gooders but also exploiters. Having agreed to serve as titular president of the Morse Insurance Company, he detected “suspicious doings” among his colleagues and hastily resigned.

Morse’s $80,000 indemnity also beckoned. To his horror and disbelief, F. O. J. Smith claimed a contractual five-sixteenths interest in the amount, a third of which had already gone to the Paris agent Van den Broek. In Morse’s view the money represented not payment but a gratuity, an award bestowed particularly on him, personally, “as a mark of Honor.” Although accustomed to Smith’s outrageous demands, this new one for some $16,000 startled him. “I cannot think you serious,” he wrote to Smith. “I do not consider you either legally or equitably entitled to any share in any Testimonial.” Smith at least agreed to have the issue arbitrated. Once again Morse collected documents and drew up lengthy briefs to support his case. “I have no apprehensions of the result,” he told Kendall; “no intelligent just men could give a judgment against me, or in his favor.”

The arbitration hearing, held in Boston, turned on the meaning of “otherwise.” According to their 1838 contract, Smith would share in any profits that Morse earned in Europe by the sale of patent rights or “otherwise.” The three referees judged Morse’s indemnity an “otherwise.” They awarded Smith five-sixteenths, after deducting Morse’s expenses and payment to Van den Broek. Even so, Smith quibbled with Morse over the deductions and demanded interest on the award for the time it had been withheld from him. Morse scoffed at the decision as based on a legal technicality: “I ought, perhaps, with my experience to learn for the first time that Law and Justice are not synonyms.” In the end, he paid Smith about $7000.

Morse saw in the situation, however, his best-ever chance, after so many best chances, to rid himself of Smith forever. He gave Smith an additional $500 for agreeing to sign a “General Release.” Seemingly comprehensive, the document resolved all unsettled claims between them—“all manner of actions, causes of action, suits, debts, dues, sums of money, accounts, reckonings, promises, variances, trespasses, damages, judgments, decrees, executions, claims and demands what-soever.” Morse rejoiced in at last escaping from his tormented captivity to Smith, “bound hand and foot… to a corpus mortuum, to a body not merely dead but corrupted.” The release ended, he said, “twenty two years of apprehension, like that of being in a den of rattlesnakes.”

The much-reduced indemnity shrank some more as the family of Alfred Vail also claimed part of it. While in Puerto Rico, Morse had received news of his former student’s death, at the age of fifty-two. He had worked closely if uncomfortably with Vail for a dozen years, experiencing with him such awesome breakthroughs as the construction of the original Baltimore-Washington line. Saddened by the news, he praised Vail as a pious if sometimes cranky Christian: “his intentions were good, and his faults were the result more of ill-health, a dyspeptic habit, than of his heart.”

Vail died poor, having remarried and sold most of his telegraph stock in struggling to support his family. Before dying, however, he told his brother George that the Vails were contractually entitled to one-eighth of the indemnity. Morse paid over some $5000 to Vail’s widow, Amanda, saying he had always intended to give her husband a portion. Anxious nevertheless to cut loose from the Vails as well as from Smith, he worked out a similar “General Release” with Amanda Vail and with Vail’s brother. This release—to look ahead—also gave no release.

The various settlements left Morse with less than half the amount of the indemnity, plus of course the honor. But that, too, suffered new indignities. The first came when he applied for a seven-year extension of the 1846 patent covering his receiving magnet, the part of his system that actuated registers at telegraph stations along the main line. His onetime associate Charles Page printed up and issued what Page called a “manifesto,” proclaiming that credit for the receiving magnet—the “life and soul” of Morse’s system, he said—belonged to Charles Wheatstone, Joseph Henry, and himself: “the Invention claimed under the Patent of 1846 is not Morses and … he is entitled to no credit whatever in this connection.”

Astonished, Morse added Page to his long list of traitors, having counted him a friend. Not only that, Page’s assault represented an inexplicable change of opinion: when serving as an examiner in the Patent Office in 1846, he had approved Morse’s application. What motivated Page to now challenge the very same patent is unclear. An inventor himself, he had helped Morse to miniaturize the cumbersome receiving magnet. But he had been paid for the work and had sought no further recognition for it. As Morse put it, Page may simply have “had some ‘human nature’ in him,” envious that Morse had become world famous as an inventor. Morse protested to him the many misstatements in the manifesto, particularly the spurious charge that he had brought from abroad and put into use one of Wheatstone’s receiving magnets. Another avenging angel also reappeared—Henry O’Reilly, informing Morse that he too planned to oppose the extension. And Morse suspected that the supposedly vanquished F. O. J. Smith had joined the campaign—as Smith had.

Morse went to Washington in April 1860 for the hearing on his case. In a thirty-two-page decision, the Patent Commissioner ruled that his receiving magnet differed utterly from Wheatstone’s, and that its “combination of devices” was unique, “not to be found in any patent, or invention, or in any printed publication, or in public use, prior to its date; but that Morse is the original and first inventor thereof.” The Patent Office granted the extension.

But then there was Joseph Henry. Morse’s quarrel with him had erupted afresh every few years for a decade. And he heard that after four years of silence Henry would soon reply to his free-swinging ninety-page Defence (“Attack!”). Among other affronts, Morse’s tract denied Henry any part in developing the Morse system and questioned his originality and credibility. Deeply offended, Henry damned the work as “wanton foolish and libellous” and privately called Morse a coward. To deflect the blow when it came, Morse suggested to brother Sidney that the Observer mention his diploma from the Swedish Academy of Sciences and his gold medals for science from the King of Prussia and the Emperor of Austria.

But Henry replied on a scale Morse had not imagined. He submitted his case to the Regents of the Smithsonian Institution, asking them to investigate and issue a report: “regard to my own memory, to my family, and to the truth of history,” he explained, “demands that I should lay this matter before you.” To evaluate the many letters and documents Henry presented, the Regents appointed a committee of inquiry that included two U.S. senators and the president of Harvard College.

The Smithsonian committee acquitted Henry of every failing and wrongdoing alleged in Morse’s Defence. They denounced the tract as nothing more than character assassination, “a disingenuous piece of sophisticated argument, such as an unscrupulous advocate might employ to pervert the truth, misrepresent the facts, and misinterpret the language in which the facts belonging to the other side of the case are stated.” Carefully documented and widely cited, the Smithsonian report made its way overseas, too. A leading Paris scientific journal, it infuriated Morse to learn, took up Henry’s cause: “Morse is in effect the legal inventor [l’inventeur legal] of the electric Telegraph. The patents are in his name, the honors & rewards have fallen to him, but the real inventor [l’inventeur réal] is Professor Henry, director of the Smithsonian Institution of Washington.”

The detailed case that Henry presented to the Regents belongs to his biography rather than to Morse’s. It should be said, however, that it gave Morse no credit for the restless, thoughtful, continual tinkering and experiment by which he had devised and improved his telegraph. Morse viewed the report as snobbish and politically inspired. It placed Henry “in that superhuman class of men of mind, while I am treated as belonging to the mechanical class.” It issued, too, from a Washington clique composed of members of the Coast Survey, the Smithsonian, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, of which Henry had been president. Many talented men belonged to these organizations, to be sure, but also many “toadies and pretenders” who sought advancement by kowtowing to Henry. “Henry is King on the Smithsonian throne, and as I have committed treason in their eyes by daring to inculpate this Sovereign, I am to be decapitated.”

Morse began preparing an answer but put it aside, perhaps in frustration. One moment he was being singled out for exalted honors by “the highest scientific minds of Europe, and … the principal governments of the Old World.” The next moment his indemnity was being raided, his patents besieged, himself “arraigned, tried and condemned” by Regents and Senators. The sequence demonstrated once again how his life took shape as reversals and contradictions. Gain became loss, reward was punishment: “when any special and marked honor has been conferred upon me there has immediately succeeded, some event of the envious or sordid character.” Brooding on the matter, he speculated that it might be the moral equivalent of the physical law of equilibrium. Take for instance the antagonism between the opposite poles of a magnet: “if the positive be strengthened, the negative is also in an equal degree strengthened and visa [sic] versa.” Similarly, “If upon anyone reputation and honors increase, on the one hand, detraction and slander in an equal degree are sure to be found on the other.”

Morse reasoned that such physical and moral patterns could hardly be accidental. Events that seemed cursed, ultimately showed the workings of Providence. In his own case, Providence in its infinite wisdom was drawing him away from earthly honors to the enduring honor that comes only from God. “The mixed cup is best,” he concluded, “for then honor will not puff up.”

A business deal in the fall of 1859 changed Morse’s life dramatically. The six “nations” of the North American Telegraph Association had excluded “Magnetic Telegraph,” his first company, when they banded together a year and a half earlier. But they wanted to bring peace to the expensively contentious telegraph industry. In a turnaround, they now invited Magnetic Telegraph to consolidate with them.

Morse favored the idea, largely because his original telegraph patent (1840) and its seven-year extension had only about a year to run. After that, rivals would be free to build competing lines unrestrained, without fear of infringement: “in this view I would make much sacrifice, especially of feeling.” In just such a sacrifice, he tried—warily—to mend his broken relationship with Cyrus Field. Field was stubbornly resolved on making a third attempt to engineer a transatlantic telegraph, and offered him a place on the Advisory Committee in America. Morse accepted, but his wariness proved to be justified. All the experimental work on the cable and machinery, he discovered, was being performed in England; the American advisory committee amounted to window dressing. He soon resigned the non-position—preoccupied with other duties, he said.

Kendall handled the negotiations for union. Tortuously complex, the bargaining repeatedly broke down. The parties wrangled over pending litigation, the leasing of western lines, requests for representation by the Associated Press, the extortionate demand by F. O. J. Smith of over $300,000 for his patent rights and stocks. Still, the negotiations ended with a series of agreements in October 1859. Smith got his $300,000, mostly in interest-bearing bonds. “How the dog in the manger,” Morse jeered, “must relax his defiant display of teeth into a grin of delight.” Morse, Kendall, and their colleagues gave their unsold patent rights to the North American Telegraph Association in exchange for $107,000 of stock in Field’s American Telegraph Company. They also exchanged some $369,000 of Magnetic stock for $500,000 of American stock. And together with Kendall, Morse was seated on the board of directors of Field’s company, which now firmly controlled telegraph operations along the entire Atlantic seaboard from Newfoundland to New Orleans.

Morse’s profit from the consolidation can only be estimated. But it provided material comfort and financial security for the rest of his life. The reorganized American Telegraph Company did well, netting in its first six months of operation over $100,000. Morse also continued to receive dividends from lines in the South and West, which were not included in the consolidation—sometimes a few dollars, sometimes a few thousand. His income tax returns for 1863, three years later, survive, and show earnings after taxes of $29,928—about $5000 more than the annual salary of the President of the United States.

However much Morse acquired in cash and property, and whatever his annual income from dividends, he thought it enough: “such a competence … as should satisfy the desires of any reasonable man.” At the same time, by consigning most of his interest in his patents he virtually ended his active participation in the telegraph business. Probably to his relief, for he was now nearing seventy, had once more lamed himself by spraining his foot, and felt burdened, “overloaded,” he said, “at a time of life when age is creeping on me with its train of incapacities physical and intellectual.”

Morse marked his new prosperity by purchasing a stylish town house in New York City. He planned to spend the winters there and return to Locust Grove on May 1. The city had become the dynamo of the northeastern United States. Huge amounts of money circulated through its many banks and insurance companies, its one million inhabitants supported 104 newspapers, its mass transit system carried more than 50 million passengers a year. Morse’s house and its two adjoining lots stood at No. 5 West 22nd Street, in the fashionable Gramercy Park section. One block away rose the brand-new Fifth Avenue Hotel, described by a British newspaperman as larger and handsomer than Buckingham Palace. Employing four hundred servants, it had its own telegraph office—one of fourteen American Telegraph Company stations now operating in the city.

Morse’s house was a four-story brownstone, its front matted by a Morse in his New York City study (The Library of Congress) spreading wisteria vine. The interior offered such comforts as a conservatory for plants, a library with bookcases of black walnut, and a top floor gymnasium. Morse bought a new piano and a burglar-proof safe. Although “no great connoisseur in wines, and no great consumer of them,” he admitted, he ordered six cases from a city merchant and sent to France for six cases of champagne. In the adjacent vacant lots he had a spacious study built for himself, and a story-high picture gallery.

Morse in his New York City study (The Library of Congress)

Morse continued to house Sarah’s mother; Sarah’s sister and her family had rooms in the neighborhood and called almost every evening. Richard and Sidney had recently sold the Observer, and to Morse’s great satisfaction they both lived nearby. Restless as ever, Richard had trekked to Canton, Macao, and Java, learning Portuguese and translating a history of French literature. Well aware that he had never settled down, he felt he had done the best he could, “an inglorious life, but yet a prosperous & happy one.” Morse joined his brothers in erecting a monument to their father in the New Haven cemetery, a twenty-foot granite shaft topped by a globe emblematic of The Geographer. Morse contributed most of the cost. In the past, when he was poor, his brothers had helped support him: “I am now, through the loving kindness and bounty of our Heavenly Father, in such circumstances that I can afford this small testimonial to their former fraternal kindness.”

With Morse’s fine house came standing in New York society. As a member of the upper crust he was elected to a committee appointed to arrange the social event of the year—a public banquet and ball honoring the visit of Queen Victoria’s nineteen-year-old son, the Prince of Wales. He extended a fulsome personal invitation for the “illustrious Prince” to stop by Locust Grove, to see American country life “as it were, en dishabille.” The offer was politely declined (“Every hour of our time is fully engaged”). But he apparently had a brief interview with the Prince in the New York University chapel, where he also delivered an address of welcome on behalf of the faculty.

With a momentous national election coming up in November 1860, friends tried to put Morse’s name forward as a possible candidate for the presidency. He appreciated the gesture but declined, citing his advancing age, his lack of qualification, and the thankless vexations the office brought with it. “I have no taste for its duties, and its honors have no attraction for me.” But the outcome of the election worried him. All eighteen free states except New Jersey—a majority of the electoral college—chose a possibly divisive candidate, Abraham Lincoln. And only six weeks later, the state of South Carolina voted in convention to secede from the Union. “The tea has been thrown overboard,” the Charleston Mercury announced, “the revolution of 1860 has been initiated.”

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