Friday, June 07, 2013

Fact Friday: A Little More History

Fact Friday:  A little More of History from the Journal of Commerce

If  the Journal of Commerce was ever branded conservative, cantankerous or stubborn — and it was — those traits could be traced directly to the most famous of the publication’s founders, Samuel F.B. Morse. The inventor of the Morse code was, in 1827, an underemployed and perennially indebted portrait artist and widower with three children. He also was a fiery reactionary who was easily roused to action by perceived blemishes on the moral fabric of society.

One such affront to Morse’s concept of decency was the appearance in February of what was, for the times, a scandalously dressed dancer at a Bowery theatre and by the positive reviews she received by critics, one of whom wrote, “She never lets concealment prey on her charms.” Morse vented anonymously in a letter to the Observer newspaper. In the process he called for the creation of a new aper that could help cleanse the city of its of its moral impurities. Morse went on to write the prospectus for the new newspaper and is credited by historians for giving it its name. The “Journal of Commerce” was not initially intended to be primarily a business newspaper, but instead was so named because wealthy merchants such as its initial bankroller, Arthur Tappan, were envisioned as its main supporters.

The Erie Canal had been opened just two years earlier, attracting a new business class of ambitious New Englanders such as Tappan to New York City.

Morse was a complex individual. Raised in New England by a Calvinist minister who was opposed to slavery and educated at Phillips Academy and Yale, he held strong prejudices, including being a supporter of slavery.

“He dislikes immigrants, especially Catholics and especially Irish,” said Kenneth Silverman, whose biography of Morse, “Lighting Man,” will be published by Knopf next year. “A lot of that came from his visits to Europe, where he got to see the Catholic church first-hand and blamed it for the state of European society, which he thought was immoral, backward and despotic, and didn’t want that to come to America.

“The other side of it is that he is a tremendously imaginative and inventive guy,” Silverman said. He credits Morse with largely creating the art scene in New York, helping found the National Academy of Design in 1825. Morse was himself an accomplished artist acknowledged by posterity; in 1982 one of his paintings sold for the highest price ever paid for the work of an American artist, $3.25 million.

By the late 1830s Morse was working full time on the device for which he would become most famous, the electric telegraph. It was not his idea, and other models had been proposed earlier, according to historians. Even the Morse Code did not differ significantly from others’ versions. But Morse persuaded Congress to fund the first telegraph line from Baltimore to Washington, over which were sent the famous words, “What hath God wrought!” It took a U.S. Supreme Court decision to finally secure Morse’s patent rights to the invention, but he had already gotten rich, buying an estate overlooking the Hudson and building an Italian villa there.

Throughout his life, Morse maintained an affection for the JoC. He used the publication to defend the National Academy of Design and when he went abroad he was occasionally asked to serve as a special correspondent.