In the midst of the ongoing immigration and "Christian nation" debates, it is always instructive to look at America's past for clues to the present. There is, as they say, nothing new under the sun.
On this date, April 27 in 1791, Samuel F.B. Morse was born. If you remember your grade-school history -- or you were a Boy Scout who learned "Morse Code" -- his name is still familiar. He is credited with developing the telegraph and the dots and dashes code that bears his name.
But there is something else about Morse that your schoolbooks probably left out. He wrote vitriolic anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant essays, published by his brother's New York newspaper. Morse even ran for Mayor of New York as a "Nativist" candidate. "No Immigrants. No Catholics": the Other Morse Code.
"Surely American Protestants, freemen, have discernment enough to discover beneath them the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy. They will see that Popery is now, what it has ever been, a system of the darkest political intrigue and despotism, cloaking itself to avoid attack under the sacred name of religion."
--"Brutus" (Samuel F. B. Morse)
Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States (1834)
The man who wrote that in 1834 was son of a Puritan preacher who had a burning vision of a Protestant America. Samuel F. B. Morse is largely credited with the invention of the telegraph and the system of dots and dashes that still bears his name. But that extraordinary combination of American ingenuity and technology would not make Morse famous -- nor enormously wealthy -- for another few years. His famous telegraphed message, "What hath God wrought" -- was sent from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore in 1844.
Samuel was the oldest son of Jedediah Morse, a renowned Calvinist preacher who was also famous both as the author of a basic geography textbook and for his vocal, Puritan-inspired belief that America would create the "largest empire that ever existed." Born in Charlestown, outside Boston, Samuel attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and then Yale.
An aspiring painter, Morse went to Europe to study the masters. In an incident that might seem comic if it did not hold such significant repercussions, Morse was standing in a square in Rome when the Pope passed him. He failed to remove his hat as the Pontiff's procession moved past and was struck by one of the Pope's Swiss guards, who knocked his hat to the ground.
While teaching fine arts at New York University, Morse began to publish his attacks on Catholicism in the New York Observer, a religious newsweekly run by his brother, Richard. In a series of twelve articles, Morse issued dire warnings about the fate of America. He charged that cells of Jesuit priests were undermining American education and luring American children into Catholic schools, cautioning his readers:
I exposed in my last chapter the remarkable coincidence of the tenets of Popery with the principles of despotic government, in this respect so opposite to the tenets of Protestantism; Popery, from its very nature, favoring despotism, and Protestantism, from its very nature, favoring liberty. Is it not then perfectly natural that the Austrian government should be active in supporting Catholic missions in this country? Is it not clear that the cause of Popery is the cause of despotism?
Morse's essays, collected in Foreign Conspiracy were both controversial and influential. Morse turned his Nativist views into a political career. In 1835, he formed the Native American Democratic Association and became the party's chief spokesman. As the Nativist candidate for Mayor of New York, Morse was blindsided by New York's rough and tumble politics and finished a miserable third.
Aside from his predictions of a Catholic catastrophe for American democracy, Morse had also warned of sexual corruption in the Church. He even edited an account of priestly lechery called Confessions of a Catholic Priest, published in 1837.
But Morse's views were completely within the mainstream of American thought in the mid-1800s. His anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant stance was the bedrock of the Nativist "American" or "Know-Nothing" Party. These views would explode violently in the 1840s, especially in the City of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia, where the deadly "Bible Riots" of 1844 left dozens dead, Catholic churches in ruins, and hundreds of homes destroyed.