Samuel F.B. Morse.

Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals In Two Volumes, Volume I online

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to do. Your situation and that of the family draw me to New Haven; the
state of my finances keeps me here. I will come, however, if, on the
whole, you think it best."

Again are the records silent as to whether the visit was paid or not, but
his anxiety was well founded, for his mother's appointed time had come,
and just ten days later, on the 28th of May, 1828, she died at the age of

Thus within the space of three years the hand of death had removed the
three beings whom Morse loved best. His mother, while, as we have seen,
stern and uncompromising in her Puritan principles, yet possessed the
faculty of winning the love as well as the respect of her family and
friends. Dr. Todd said of her home: "An orphan myself and never having a
home, I have gone away from Dr. Morse's house in tears, feeling that such
a home must be more like heaven than anything of which I could conceive."

Mr. Prime, in his biography of Morse, thus pays tribute to her: -

"Two persons more unlike in temperament, it is said, could not have been
united in love and marriage than the parents of Morse. The husband was
sanguine, impulsive, resolute, regardless of difficulties and danger. She
was calm, judicious, cautious, and reflecting. And she, too, had a will
of her own. One day she was expressing to one of the parish her intense
displeasure with the treatment her husband had received, when Dr. Morse
gently laid his hand upon her shoulder and said, 'My dear, you know we
must throw the mantle of charity over the imperfections of others.' And
she replied with becoming spirit, 'Mr. Morse, charity is not a fool.'"

In the summer of 1828, Morse spent some time in central New York,
visiting relatives and painting portraits when the occasion offered. He
thus describes a narrow escape from serious injury, or even death, in a
letter to his brother Sidney, dated Utica, August 17, 1828: -

"In coming from Whitesboro on Friday I met with an accident and a most
narrow escape with my life. The horse, which had been tackled into the
wagon, was a vicious horse and had several times run away, to the danger
of Mr. Dexter's life and others of the family. I was not aware of this or
I should not have consented to go with him, much less to drive him

"I was alone in the wagon with my baggage, and the horse went very well
for about a mile, when he gradually quickened his pace and then set out,
in spite of all check, on the full run. I kept him in the road,
determined to let him run himself tired as the only safe alternative; but
just as I came in sight of a piece of the road which had been concealed
by an angle, there was a heavy wagon which I must meet so soon that, in
order to avoid it, I must give it the whole road.

"This being very narrow, and the ditches and banks on each side very
rough, I instantly made up my mind to a serious accident. As well as the
velocity of the horse would allow me, however, I kept him on the side,
rough as it was, for about a quarter of a mile pretty steadily,
expecting, however, to upset every minute; when all at once I saw before
me an abrupt, narrow, deep gully into which the wheels on one side were
just upon the point of going down. It flashed across me in an instant
that, if I could throw the horse down into the ditch, the wheels of the
wagon might, perhaps, rest equipoised on each side, and, perhaps, break
the horse loose from the wagon.

"I pulled the rein and accomplished the object in part. The sudden plunge
of the horse into the gully broke him loose from the wagon, but it at the
same time turned one of the fore wheels into the gully, which upset the
wagon and threw me forwards at the moment when the horse threw up his
heels, just taking off my hat and leaving me in the bottom of the gully.
I fell on my left shoulder, and, although muddied from head to foot, I
escaped without any injury whatever; I was not even jarred painfully. I
found my shoulder a little bruised, my wrist very slightly scratched, and
yesterday was a little, and but very little, stiffened in my limbs, and
to-day have not the slightest feeling of bruise about me, but think I
feel better than I have for a long time. Indeed, my health is entirely
restored; the riding and country air have been the means of restoring me.
I have great cause of thankfulness for so much mercy and for such special
preserving care."

[Illustration: ELIZABETH A. MORSE
Painted by Morse]

The historian or the biographer who is earnestly desirous of presenting
an absolutely truthful picture of men and of events is aided in his task
by taking into account the character of the men who have made history. He
must ask the question: "Is it conceivable that this man could have acted
thus and so under such and such circumstances when his character, as
ultimately revealed through the perspective of time, has been
established? Could Washington and Lincoln, for example, have been
actuated by the motives attributed to them by their enemies?"

Like all men who have become shining marks in the annals of history,
Morse could not hope to escape calumny, and in later years he was accused
of actions, and motives were imputed to him, which it becomes the duty of
his biographer to disprove on the broad ground of moral impossibility.

Among his letters and papers are many rough drafts of thoughts and
observations on many subjects, interlined and annotated. Some were
afterwards elaborated into letters, articles, or lectures; others seem to
have been the thought of the moment, which he yet deemed worth writing
down, and which, perhaps better than anything else, reveal the true
character of the man.

The following was written by him in pencil on Sunday, September 6, 1829,
at Cooperstown, New York: -

"That temptations surround us at every moment is too evident to require
proof. If they cease from without they still act upon us from within
ourselves, and our most secret thoughts may as surely be drawn from the
path of duty by secret temptation, by the admission of evil suggestions,
and they will affect our characters as injuriously as those more palpable
and tangible temptations that attack our sense.

"This life is a state of discipline; a school in which to form character.
There is not an event that comes to our knowledge, not a sentence that we
read, not a person with whom we converse, not an act of our lives, in
short, not a thought which we conceive, but is acting upon and moulding
that character into a shape of good or evil; and, however unconscious we
may be of the fact, a thought, casually conceived in the solitariness and
silence and darkness of midnight, may so modify and change the current of
our future conduct that a blessing or a curse to millions may flow from

"All our thoughts are mysteriously connected with good or evil. Their
very habits, too, like the habits of our actions, are strengthened by
indulgence, and, according as we indulge the evil or the good, our
characters will partake of the moral character of each. But actions
proceed from thoughts; we act as we think. Why should we, then, so
cautiously guard our actions from impropriety while we give a loose rein
to our thoughts, which so certainly, sooner or later, produce their
fruits in our actions?

"God in his wisdom has separated at various distances sin and the
consequence of sin. In some instances we see a sin instantly followed by
its fruits, as of revenge by murder. In others we see weeks and months
and years, aye, and ages, too, elapse before the fruits of a single act,
the result, perhaps, of a single thought, are seen in all their varieties
of evil.

"How long ere the fruits of one sin in Paradise will cease to be visible
in the moral universe?

"If this reasoning is correct, I shall but cheat myself in preserving a
good moral outward appearance to others if every thought of the heart, in
the most secret retirement, is not carefully watched and checked and
guarded from evil; since the casual indulgence of a single evil thought
in secret may be followed, long after that thought is forgotten by me,
and when, perhaps, least expected, by overt acts of evil.

"Who, then, shall say that in those pleasures in which we indulge, and
which by many are called, and apparently are, innocent, there are not
laid the seeds of many a corrupt affection? Who shall say that my
innocent indulgence at the card table or at the theatre, were I inclined
to visit them, may not produce, if not in me a passion for gaming or for
low indulgence, yet in others may encourage these views to their ruin?

"Besides, 'Evil communications corrupt good manners,' and even places
less objectionable are studiously to be avoided. The soul is too precious
to be thus exposed.

"Where then is our remedy? In Christ alone. 'Cleanse thou me from secret
faults. Search me, O God, and know my thoughts; try me and know my ways
and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way which is

This is but one of many expressions of a similar character which are to
be found in the letters and notes, and which are illuminating.

Morse was now making ready for another trip to Europe. He had hoped, when
he returned home in 1815, to stay but a year or two on this side and then
to go back and continue his artistic education, which he by no means
considered complete, in France and Italy. We have seen how one
circumstance after another interfered to prevent the realization of this
plan, until now, after the lapse of fourteen years, he found it possible.
His wife and his parents were dead; his children were being carefully
cared for by relatives, the daughter Susan by her mother's sister, Mrs.
Pickering, in Concord, New Hampshire, and the boys by their uncle,
Richard C. Morse, who was then happily married and living in the family
home in New Haven.

The National Academy of Design was now established on a firm footing and
could spare his guiding hand for a few years. He had saved enough money
to defray his expenses on a strictly economical basis, but, to make
assurance doubly sure, he sought and received commissions from his
friends and patrons in America for copies of famous paintings, or for
original works of his own, so that he could sail with a clear conscience
as regarded his finances.

His friends were uniformly encouraging in furthering his plan, and he
received many letters of cordial good wishes and of introduction to
prominent men abroad. I shall include the following from John A. Dix, at
that time a captain in the army, but afterwards a general, and Governor
of New York, who, although he had been an unsuccessful suitor for the
hand of Miss Walker, Morse's wife, bore no ill-will towards his rival,
but remained his firm friend to the end: -

COOPERSTOWN, 27th October, 1829.

MY DEAR SIR, - I have only time to say that I have been absent in an
adjacent county and fear there is not time to procure a letter for you to
Mr. Rives before the 1st. I have written to Mr. Van Buren and he will
doubtless send you a letter before the 8th. Therefore make arrangements
to have it sent after you if you sail on the 1st.

I need not say I shall be very happy to hear from you during your
sojournment abroad. Especially tell me what your impressions are when you
turn from David's picture with Romulus and Tatius in the foreground, and
Paul Veronese's Marriage at Cana directly opposite, at the entrance of
the picture gallery in the Louvre.

We are all well and all desire to be remembered. I have only time to add
my best wishes for your happiness and prosperity.

Yours truly and constantly,

The Mr. Rives mentioned in the letter was at that time our Minister to
France, and the Mr. Van Buren was Martin Van Buren, then Secretary of
State in President Jackson's Cabinet, and afterwards himself President of
the United States.

The following is from the pencilled draft of a letter or the beginning of
a diary which was not finished, but ends abruptly: -

"On the 8th November, 1829, I embarked from New York in the ship
Napoleon, Captain Smith, for Liverpool. The Napoleon is one of those
splendid packets, which have been provided by the enterprise of our
merchants, for the accommodation of persons whose business or pleasure
requires a visit to Europe or America.

"Precisely at the appointed hour, ten o'clock, the steamboat with the
passengers and their baggage left the Whitehall dock for our gallant
ship, which was lying to above the city, heading up the North River,
careening to the brisk northwest gale, and waiting with apparent
impatience for us, like a spirited horse curvetting under the rein of his
master, and waiting but his signal to bound away. A few moments brought
us to her side, and a few more saw the steamboat leave us, and the sad
farewells to relatives and friends, who had thus far accompanied us, were
mutually exchanged by the waving of hands and of handkerchiefs. The
'Ready about,' and soon after the 'Mainsail haul' of the pilot were
answered by the cheering 'Ho, heave, ho' of the sailors, and, with the
fairest wind that ever blew, we fast left the spires and shores of the
great city behind us. In two hours we discharged our pilot to the south
of Sandy Hook, with his pocket full of farewell letters to our friends,
and then stood on our course for England.

"Four days brought us to the Banks of Newfoundland, one third of our
passage. Many of our passengers were sanguine in their anticipations of
our making the shortest passage ever known, and, had our subsequent
progress been as great as at first, we should doubtless have accomplished
the voyage in thirteen days, but calms and head winds for three days on
the Banks have frustrated our expectations.

"There is little that is interesting in the incidents of a voyage. The
indescribable listlessness of seasickness, the varied state of feeling
which changes with the wind and weather, have often been described. These
I experienced in all their force. From the time we left the Banks of
Newfoundland we had a continued succession of head winds, and when within
one fair day's sail of land, we were kept off by severe gales directly
ahead for five successive days and nights, during which time the uneasy
motion of the ship deprived us all of sleep, except in broken intervals
of an half-hour at a time. We neither saw nor spoke any vessel until the
evening of the - - , when we descried through the darkness a large vessel
on an opposite course from ourselves; we first saw her cabin lights. It
was blowing a gale of wind before which we were going on our own course
at the rate of eleven miles an hour. It was, of course, impossible to
speak her, but, to let her know that she had company on the wide ocean,
we threw up a rocket which for splendor of effect surpassed any that I
had ever seen on shore. It was thrown from behind the mizzenmast, over
which it shot arching its way over the main and foremasts, illuminating
every sail and rope, and then diving into the water, piercing the wave,
it again shot upwards and vanished in a loud report. To our companion
ship the effect must have been very fine.

"The sea is often complained of for its monotony, and yet there is great
variety in the appearance of the sea."

Here it ends, but we learn a little more of the voyage and the landing in
England from a letter to a cousin in America, written in Liverpool, on
December 5, 1829: -

"I arrived safely in England yesterday after a long, but, on the whole,
pleasant, passage of twenty-six days. I write you from the inn (the
King's Arms Hotel) at which I put up eighteen years ago. This inn is the
one at which Professor Silliman stayed when he travelled in England, and
which he mentions in his travels. The old Frenchman whom he mentions I
well remember when I was here before. I enquired for him and am told he
is still living, but I have not seen him.

"There is a large black man, a waiter in the house, who is quite a
polished man in his manners, and an elderly white man, with white hair,
who looks so respectable and dignified that one feels a little awkward at
first in ordering him to do this or that service; and the chambermaids
look so venerable and matronly that to ask them for a pitcher of water
seems almost rude to them. But I am in a land where domestic servants are
the best in the world. No servant aspires to a higher station, but feels
a pride in making himself the first in that station. I notice this, for
our own country presents a melancholy contrast in this particular."

Here follows a description of the voyage, and he continues: -

"Yesterday we anchored off the Floating Light, sixteen miles from the
city, unable to reach the dock on account of the wind, but the
post-office steamboat (or steamer, as they call them here) came to us
from Liverpool to take the letter-bags, and I with other passengers got
on board, and at twelve o'clock I once more placed my foot on English

"The weather is true English weather, thick, smoky, and damp. I can see
nothing of the general appearance of the city. The splendid docks, which
were building when I was here before, are now completed and extend along
the river. They are really splendid; everything about them is solid and
substantial, of stone and iron, and on so large a scale.

"I have passed my baggage through the custom-house, and on Monday I
proceed on my journey to London through Birmingham and Oxford. Miss
Leslie, a sister of my friend Leslie of London, is my _compagnon de
voyage_. She is a woman of fine talents and makes my journey less tedious
and irksome than it would otherwise be.... I have a long journey before
me yet ere I reach Rome, where I intended to be by Christmas Day, but my
long voyage will probably defeat my intention."


DECEMBER 6, 1829 - FEBRUARY 6, 1830

Journey from Liverpool to London by coach. - Neatness of the cottages. -
Trentham Hall. - Stratford-on-Avon. - Oxford. - London. - Charles R. Leslie.
- Samuel Rogers. - Seated with Academicians at Royal Academy lecture. -
Washington Irving. - Turner. - Leaves London for Dover. - Canterbury
Cathedral. - Detained at Dover by bad weather. - Incident of a former
visit. - Channel steamer. - Boulogne-sur-Mer. - First impressions of
France. - Paris. - The Louvre. - Lafayette. - Cold in Paris. - Continental
Sunday. - Leaves Paris for Marseilles in diligence. - Intense cold. -
Dijon. - French funeral. - Lyons. - The H√іtel Dieu. - Avignon. - Catholic
church services. - Marseilles. - Toulon. - The navy yard and the galley
slaves. - Disagreeable experience at an inn. - The Riviera. - Genoa.

Morse was now thirty-eight years old, in the full vigor of manhood, of a
spare but well-knit frame and of a strong constitution. While all his
life, and especially in his younger years, he was a sufferer from
occasional severe headaches, he never let these interfere with the work
on hand, and, by leading a sane and rational life, he escaped all serious
illnesses. He was not a total abstainer as regards either wine or
tobacco, but was moderate in the use of both; a temperance advocate in
the true sense of the word.

His character had now been moulded both by prosperity and adversity. He
had known the love of wife and children, and of father and mother, and
the cup of domestic happiness had been dashed from his lips. He had
experienced the joy of the artist in successful creation, and the
bitterness of the sensitive soul irritated by the ignorant, and all but
overwhelmed by the struggle for existence. He had felt the supreme joy of
swaying an audience by his eloquence, and he had endured with fortitude
the carping criticism of the envious. Through it all, through prosperity
and through adversity, his hopeful, buoyant nature had triumphed.
Prosperity had not spoiled him, and adversity had but served to refine.
He felt that he had been given talents which he must utilize to the
utmost, that he must be true to himself, and that, above all, he must
strive in every way to benefit his fellow men.

This motive we find recurring again and again in his correspondence and
in his ultimate notes. Not, "What can I do for myself?" but "What can I
do for mankind?" Never falsely humble, but, on the contrary, properly
proud of his achievements, jealous of his own good name and fame and
eager _honestly_ to acquire wealth, he yet ever put the public good above
his private gain.

He was now again in Europe, the goal of his desires for many years, and
he was about to visit the Continent, where he had never been. Paris, with
her treasures of art, Italy, the promised land of every artist, lay
before him.

We shall miss the many intimate letters to his wife and to his parents,
but we shall find others to his brothers and to his friends, perhaps a
shade less unreserved, but still giving a clear account of his
wanderings, and, from a mass of little notebooks and sketch-books, we can
follow him on his pilgrimage and glean some keen observations on the
peoples and places visited by him. It must be remembered that this was
still the era of the stage-coach and the diligence, and that it took many
days to accomplish a journey which is now made in almost the same number
of hours.

On Christmas Day, 1829, he begins a letter from Dover to a favorite
cousin, Mrs. Margaret Roby, of Utica, New York: -

"When I left Liverpool I took my seat upon the outside of the coach, in
order to see as much as possible of the country through which I was to
pass. Unfortunately the fog and smoke were so dense that I could see
objects but a few yards from the road. Occasionally, indeed, the fog
would become less dense, and we could see the fine lawns of the seats of
the nobility and gentry, which were scattered on our route, and which
still retained their verdure. Now and then the spire and towers of some
ancient village church rose out of the leafless trees, beautifully simple
in their forms, and sometimes clothed to the very tops with the evergreen
ivy. It was severely cold; my eyebrows, hair, cap, and the fur of my
cloak were soon coated with frost, but I determined to keep my seat
though I suffered some from the cold.

"Their fine natural health, or the frosty weather, gave to the
complexions of the peasantry, particularly the females and children, a
beautiful rosy bloom. Through all the villages there was the appearance
of great comfort and neatness, - a neatness, however, very different from
ours. Their nicely thatched cottages bore all the marks of great
antiquity, covered with brilliant green moss like velvet, and round the
doors and windows were trained some of the many kinds of evergreen vines
which abound here. Most of them also had a trim courtyard before their
doors, planted with laurel and holly and box, and sometimes a yew cut
into some fantastic shape. The whole appearance of the villages was neat
and venerable; like some aged matron who, with all her wrinkles, her
stooping form, and grey locks, preserves the dignity of cleanliness in
her ancient but becoming costume.

"At Trentham we passed one of the seats of the Marquis of Stafford,
Trentham Hall. Here the Marquis has a fine gallery of pictures, and among
them Allston's famous picture of 'Uriel in the Sun.'

"I slept the first night in Birmingham, which I had no time to see on
account of darkness, smoke, and fog: three most inveterate enemies to the
seekers of the picturesque and of antiquities. In the morning, before
daylight, I resumed my journey towards London. At Stratford-on-Avon I
breakfasted, but in such haste as not to be able to visit again the house
of Shakespeare's birth, or his tomb. This house, however, I visited when
in England before. At Oxford, the city of so many classical
recollections, I stopped but a few moments to dine. I was here also when
before in England. It is a most splendid city; its spires and domes and
towers and pinnacles, rising from amid the trees, give it a magnificent
appearance as you approach it.

"Before we reached Oxford we passed through Woodstock and Blenheim, the
seat of the Duke of Marlborough, whose splendid estates are at present
suffering from the embarrassment of the present Duke, who has ruined his
fortunes by his fondness for play.

"Darkness came on after leaving Oxford; I saw nothing until arriving in
the vicinity of the great metropolis, which has, for many miles before
you enter it, the appearance of a continuous village. We saw the
brilliant gas-lights of its streets, and our coach soon joined the throng
of vehicles that rattled over its pavements. I could scarcely realize
that I was once more in London after fourteen years' absence.

"My first visit was to my old friend and fellow pupil, Leslie, who seemed

Online LibrarySamuel F.B. MorseSamuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals In Two Volumes, Volume I → online text (page 21 of 30)