Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters and Journals
Samuel F. B. Morse
Part 2 out of 7
In a long letter to a friend, dated September 17, 1811, he thus describes
some of the sights of London:--
"A few days since I walked about four miles out of town to a village of
the name of Hackney to witness the ascension of a Mr. Sadler and another
gentleman in a balloon. It was a very grand sight, and the next day the
aeronauts returned to Hackney, having gone nearly fifty miles in about an
hour and a half. The number of people who attended on this occasion might
be fairly estimated at 300,000, such a concourse as I never before
"When the balloon was out of sight the crowd began to return home, and
such a confusion it is almost impossible for me to describe. A gang of
pickpockets had contrived to block up the way, which was across a bridge,
with carriages and carts, etc., and as soon as the people began to move
it created such an obstruction that, in a few moments, this great crowd,
in the midst of which I had unfortunately got, was stopped. This gave the
pickpockets an opportunity and the people were plundered to a great
"I was detained in this manner, almost suffocated, in a great shower of
rain, for about an hour, and, what added to the misery of the scene,
there were a great many women and children crying and screaming in all
directions, and no one able to assist them, not even having a finger at
liberty, they were wedged in in such a manner. I had often heard of the
danger of a London crowd, but never before experienced it, and I think
once is amply sufficient and shall rest satisfied with it.
"A few evenings since I visited the celebrated Vauxhall Gardens, of which
you have doubtless often heard. I must say they far exceeded my
expectations; I never before had an idea of such splendor. The moment I
went in I was almost struck blind with the blaze of light proceeding from
thousands of lamps and those of every color.
"In the midst of the gardens stands the orchestra box in the form of a
large temple and most beautifully illuminated. In this the principal band
of music is placed. At a little distance is another smaller temple in
which is placed the Turkish band. On one side of the gardens you enter
two splendid saloons illuminated in the same brilliant manner. In one of
them the Pandean band is placed, and in the other the Scotch band. All
around the gardens is a walk with a covered top, but opening on the sides
under curtains in festoons, and these form the most splendid illuminated
part of the whole gardens. The amusements of the evening are music,
waterworks, fireworks, and dancing.
"The principal band plays till about ten o'clock, when a little bell is
rung, and the whole concourse of people (the greater part of which are
females) run to a dark part of the gardens where there is an admirable
deception of waterworks. A bridge is seen over which stages and wagons,
men and horses, are seen passing; birds flying across and the water in
great cataracts falling down from the mountains and passing over smaller
falls under the bridges; men are seen rowing a boat across, and, indeed,
everything which could be devised in such an exhibition was performed.
"This continues for about fifteen minutes, when they all return into the
illuminated part of the gardens and are amused by music from the same
orchestra till eleven o'clock. They then are called away again to the
dark part of the gardens, where is an exhibition of the most splendid
fireworks; sky-rockets, serpents, wheels, and fountains of fire in the
greatest abundance, occupying twenty minutes more of the time.
"After this exhibition is closed, they again return into the illuminated
parts of the gardens, where the music strikes up from the chief
orchestra, and hundreds of groups are immediately formed for dancing.
Respectable ladies, however, seldom join in this dance, although
gentlemen of the first distinction sometimes for amusement lend a hand,
or rather a foot, to the general cheerfulness.
"All now is gayety throughout the gardens; every one is in motion, and
care, that bane of human happiness, for a time seems to have lost her
dominion over the human heart. Had the Eastern sage, who was in search of
the land of happiness, at this moment been introduced into Vauxhall, I
think his most exalted conceptions of happiness would have been
surpassed, and he would rest contented in having at last found the object
of his wishes.
"In a few minutes the chief orchestra ceases and is relieved in turn by
the other bands, the company following the music. The Scotch band
principally plays Scotch reels and dances. The music and this course of
dancing continue till about four o'clock in the morning, when the lights
are extinguished and the company disperses. On this evening, which was by
no means considered as a full night, the company consisted of perhaps
three thousand persons.
"I had the pleasure a few days since of witnessing one of the oddest
exhibitions, perhaps, in the world. It was no other than _St.
Bartholomew's Fair_. It is held here in London once a year and continues
three days. There is a ceremony in opening it by the Lord Mayor, which I
did not see. At this fair the lower orders of society are let loose and
allowed to amuse themselves in any lawful way they please. The fair is
held in Smithfield Market, about the centre of the city. The principal
amusement appeared to be swinging. There were large boxes capable of
holding five or six suspended in large frames in such manner as to
vibrate nearly through a semicircle. There were, to speak within bounds,
three hundred of these. They were placed all round the square, and it
almost made me giddy only to see them all in motion. They were so much
pressed for room that one of these swings would clear another but about
two inches, and it seemed almost miraculous to me that they did not meet
with more accidents than they did.
"Another amusement were large wheels, about thirty or forty feet in
diameter, on the circumference of which were four and sometimes six boxes
capable of holding four persons. These are set in slow motion, and they
gradually rise to the top of the wheel and as gradually descend and so on
in succession. There were various other machines on the same principle
which I have not time to describe.
"In the centre of the square was an assemblage of everything in the
world; theatres, wild beasts, _lusus naturoe_, mountebanks, buffoons,
dancers on the slack wire, fighting and swearing, pocket-picking and
stealing, music and dancing, and hubbub and confusion in every confused
"The theatres are worth describing; they are temporary buildings put up
and ornamented very richly on the exteriors to attract attention, while
the interiors, like many persons' heads, are but very poorly furnished.
Strolling companies of players occupy these, and between the plays the
actors and actresses exhibit themselves on a stage before the theatre in
all their spangled robes and false jewels, and strut and flourish about
till the theatre is filled.
"Then they go in and turn, perhaps, a very serious tragedy into one of
the most ridiculous farces. They occupy about fifteen minutes in reciting
a play and then a fresh audience is collected, and so they proceed
through the three days and nights, so that the poor actors and actresses
are killed about fifty times in the course of a day.
"A person who goes into one of these theatres must not expect to hear a
syllable of the tragedy. If he can look upon the stage it is as much as
he can expect, for there is such a confused noise without of drums and
fifes, clarionets, bassoons, hautboys, triangles, fiddles, bass-viols,
and, in short, every possible instrument that can make a noise, that if a
person gets safe from the fair without the total loss of his hearing for
three weeks he may consider himself fortunate. Contiguous to the theatres
are the exhibition rooms of the jugglers and buffoons, who also between
their exhibitions display their tricks on stages before the populace, and
show as many antics as so many monkeys. But were I to attempt a
description of everything I saw at Bartholomew Fair my letter, instead of
being a few sheets, would swell to as many quires; so I must close it.
"I shall probably soon witness an exhibition of a more interesting
nature; I mean a coronation. The King is now so very low that he cannot
survive more than a week or two longer, and immediately on his death the
ceremony of the coronation takes place. If I should see it I shall
certainly describe it to you."
The King, George III, did not, however, die until 1820.
In a letter of September 20 to his parents he says: "I endeavor to be as
economical as possible and am getting into the habit very fast. It must
be learned by degrees. I shall not say, as Salmagundi says,--'I shall
spare no expense in discovering the most economical way of spending
money,' but shall endeavor to practise it immediately."
"_September 24, 1811._ You will see by the papers which accompany this
what a report respecting the capture of the U.S. frigate President by
Melampus frigate prevails here. It is sufficient to say it is not in the
"In case of war I shall be ordered out of the country. If so, instead of
returning home, had I not better go to Paris, as it is cheaper living
there even than in London, and there are great advantages there? I only
ask the question in case of war.... I am going on swimmingly. Next week
on Monday the Royal Academy opens and I shall present my drawing."
"_October 21, 1811._ I wrote you by the Galen about three weeks ago and
have this moment heard she was still in the Downs. I was really provoked.
There is great deception about vessels; they advertise for a certain day
and perhaps do not sail under a month after. The Galen has been going and
going till I am sick of hearing she hasn't gone."
"_November 6, 1811._ After leaving this letter so long, as you see by the
different dates, I again resume it. Perhaps you will be surprised when I
tell you that but yesterday I heard that the Galen is still wind-bound.
It makes my letters which are on board of her about five or six weeks
old, besides the prospect of a long voyage. However it is not her fault.
There are three or four hundred vessels in the same predicament. The wind
has been such that it has been impossible for any of them to get under
weigh; but I must confess I feel considerably anxious on your account....
"I mentioned in one of my other letters that I had drawn a figure (the
Gladiator) to admit me into the Academy. After I had finished it I was
displeased with it, and concluded not to offer it, but to attempt
another. I have accordingly drawn another from the Laocoon statue, the
most difficult of all the statues; have shown it to, the keeper of the
Academy and _am admitted for a year_ without the least difficulty. Mr.
Allston was pleased to compliment me upon it by saying that it was better
than two thirds of the drawings of those who had been drawing at the
Academy for two years."
"_November 85, 1811._ I mentioned in my last letter that I had entered
the Royal Academy, which information I hope will give you pleasure. I now
employ my days in painting at home and in the evenings in drawing at the
Academy as is customary. I have finished a landscape and almost finished
a copy of a portrait which Mr. West lent me. Mr. Allston has seen it and
complimented me by saying it was just a hundred tunes better than he had
any idea I could do, and that I should astonish Mr. West very much. I
have also begun a landscape, a morning scene at sunrise, which Mr.
Allston is very much pleased with. All these things encourage me, and, as
every day passes away, I feel increased enthusiasm....
"Distresses are increasing in this country, and disturbances, riots,
etc., have commenced as you will see by the papers which accompany this.
They are considered very alarming."
"_December 1, 1811._ I am pursuing my studies with increased enthusiasm,
and hope, before the three years are out, to relieve you from further
expense on my account. Mr. Allston encourages me to think thus from the
rapid improvement he says I have made. You may rest assured I shall use
all my endeavors to do it as soon as may be....
"This country appears to me to be in a very bad state. I judge from the
increasing disturbances at Nottingham, and more especially from the
startling murders lately committed in this city.
"A few mornings since was published an account of the murder of a family
consisting of four persons, and this moment there is another account of
the murder of one consisting of three persons, making the twelfth murder
committed in that part of the city within three months, and not one of
the murderers as yet has been discovered, although a reward of more than
seven hundred pounds has been offered for the discovery.
"The inhabitants are very much alarmed, and hereafter I shall sleep with
pistols at the head of my bed, although there is little to apprehend in
this part of the city. Still, as I find many of my acquaintance adopting
that plan, I choose rather to be on the safe side and join with them."
JANUARY 18, 1812--AUGUST 6. 1812
Political opinions.--Charles E. Leslie's reminiscences of Morse, Allston,
King, and Coleridge.--C. B. King's letter.--Sidney E. Morse's letter.--
Benjamin West's kindness.--Sir William Beechy.--Murders, robberies, etc.
--Morse and Leslie paint each other's portraits.--The elder Morse's
financial difficulties.--He deprecates the war talk.--The son differs
with his father.--The Prince Regent.--Orders in Council.--Estimate of
West.--Alarming state of affairs in England.--Assassination of Perceval,
Prime Minister.--Execution of assassin.--Morse's love for his art.--
Stephen Van Rensselaer.--Leslie the friend and Allston the master.--
Afternoon tea.--The elder Morse well known in Europe.--Lord Castlereagh.
--The Queen's drawing-room.--Kemble and Mrs. Siddons.--Zachary Macaulay.
--Warning letter from his parents.--War declared.--Morse approves.--
Gratitude to his parents, and to Allston.
The years from 1811 to 1815 which were passed by Morse in the study of
his art in London are full of historical interest, for England and
America were at war from 1812 to 1814, and the campaign of the allied
European Powers against Napoleon Bonaparte culminated in Waterloo and the
Treaty of Paris in 1815.
The young man took a deep interest in these affairs and expressed his
opinions freely and forcibly in his letters to his parents. His father
was a strong Federalist and bitterly deprecated the declaration of war by
the United States. The son, on the contrary, from his point of vantage in
the enemy's country saw things from a different point of view and stoutly
upheld the wisdom, nay, the necessity, of the war. His parents and
friends urged him to keep out of politics and to be discreet, and he
seems, at any rate, to have followed their advice in the latter respect,
for he was not in any way molested by the authorities.
At the same time he was making steady progress in his studies and making
friends, both among the Americans who were his fellow students or artists
of established reputation, and among distinguished Englishmen who were
friends of his father.
Among the former was Charles R. Leslie, his room-mate and devoted friend,
who afterwards became one of the best of the American painters of those
days. In his autobiography Leslie says:--
"My new acquaintances Allston, King, and Morse were very kind, but still
they were _new_ acquaintances. I thought of the happy circle round my
mother's fireside, and there were moments in which, but for my
obligations to Mr. Bradford and my other kind patrons, I could have been
content to forfeit all the advantages I expected from my visit to England
and return immediately to America. The two years I was to remain in
London seemed, in prospect, an age.
"Mr. Morse, who was but a year or two older than myself, and who had been
in London but six months when I arrived, felt very much as I did and we
agreed to take apartments together. For some time we painted in one room,
he at one window and I at the other. We drew at the Royal Academy in the
evening and worked at home in the day. Our mentors were Allston and King,
nor could we have been better provided; Allston, a most amiable and
polished gentleman, and a painter of the purest taste; and King,
warm-hearted, sincere, sensible, prudent, and the strictest of
"When Allston was suffering extreme depression of spirits after the loss
of his wife, he was haunted during sleepless nights by horrid thoughts,
and he told me that diabolical imprecations forced themselves into his
mind. The distress of this to a man so sincerely religious as Allston may
be imagined. He wished to consult Coleridge, but could not summon
resolution. He desired, therefore, that I should do it, and I went to
Highgate where Coleridge was at that time living with Mr. Gillman. I
found him walking in the garden, his hat in his hand (as it generally was
in the open air), for he told me that, having been one of the Bluecoat
Boys, among whom it is the fashion to go bareheaded, he had acquired a
dislike to any covering of the head.
"I explained the cause of my visit and he said: 'Allston should say to
himself, "_Nothing is me but my will._ These thoughts, therefore, that
force themselves on my mind are no part of _me_ and there can be no guilt
in them." If he will make a strong effort to become indifferent to their
recurrence, they will either cease or cease to trouble him.'
"He said much more, but this was the substance, and, after it was
repeated to Allston, I did not hear him again complain of the same kind
Mr. C.B. King, the other friend mentioned by Leslie, returned to America
in 1812, and writes from Philadelphia, January 3, 1813:--
MY DEAR FRIENDS, This will be handed you by Mr. Payne, of Boston, who
intends passing some time in England.... I have not been here
sufficiently long to forget the delightful time when we could meet in the
evening with novels, coffee, and _music by Morse_, with the conversation
of that dear fellow Allston. The reflection that it will not again take
place, comes across my mind accompanied with the same painful sensation
as the thought that I must die.
That Morse was not forgotten by the good people at home is evidenced by a
letter from his brother, Sidney Edwards, of January 18, 1812, part of
which I transcribe:--
DEAR BROTHER,--I am sitting in the parlor in the armchair on the right of
the fireplace, and, as I hold my paper in my hand, with my feet sprawled
out before the fire, and with my body reclining in an oblique position
against the back of the chair, I am penning you a letter such as it is,
and for the inverted position of the letters of which I beg to apologize.
As I turn my eyes upward and opposite I behold the family picture painted
by an ingenious artist who, I understand, is at present residing in
London. If you are acquainted with him, give my love to him and my best
wishes for his prosperity and success in the art to which, if report says
true, he has devoted himself with much diligence.
Richard sits before me writing to you, and mama says (for I have just
asked her the question) that she is engaged in the same business. Papa is
upstairs very much engaged in the selfsame employment. Four right hands
are at this instant writing to give you, at some future moment, the
pleasure of perusing the products of their present labor. Four
imaginations are now employed in conceiving of a son or a brother in a
distant land. Therefore we may draw the conclusion that you are not
universally forgotten, and consequently all do not forget you.
I have written you this long letter because I knew that you would be
anxious for the information it contains; because papa told me I must
write; because mama said I had better write; because I had nothing else
to do, and because I hadn't time to write a shorter. I trust for these
special reasons you will excuse me for this once, especially when you
consider that you asked me to write you long letters; when you consider
that it is my natural disposition to express my sentiments fully; that I
commonly say most when I have least to say; that I promise reformation in
future, and that you shall hereafter hear from me on this subject.
As to news, I am sorry to say we are entirely out. We sent you the last
we had by the Sally Ann. We hope to get some ready by the time the next
ship sails, and then we will furnish you with the best the country
From a letter of January 30, 1812, to his parents I select the following
"On Tuesday last I dined at Mr. West's, who requested to be particularly
remembered to you. He is extremely attentive and polite to me. He called
on me a few days ago, which I consider a very marked attention as he
keeps so confined that he seldom pays any visits....
"I have changed my lodgings to No. 82 in the same street [Great
Titchfield Street], and have rooms with young Leslie of Philadelphia who
has just arrived. He is very promising and a very agreeable room-mate. We
are in the same stage of advancement in art.
"I have painted five pieces since I have been here, two landscapes and
three portraits; one of myself, one a copy from Mr. West's copy from
Vandyke, and the other a portrait of Mr. Leslie, who is also taking
mine.... I called a day or two since on Sir William Beechy, an artist of
great eminence, to see his paintings. They are beautiful beyond anything
I ever imagined. His principal excellence is in coloring, which, to the
many, is the most attractive part of art. Sir William is considered the
best colorist now living.
"You may be apt to ask, 'If Sir William is so great and even the best,
what is Mr. West's great excellence?' Mr. West is a bad colorist in
general, but he excels in the grandeur of his thought. Mr. West is to
painting what Milton is to poetry, and Sir William Beechy to Mr. West as
Pope to Milton, so that by comparing, or rather illustrating the one art
by the other, I can give you a better idea of the art of painting than in
any other way. For as some poets excel in the different species of poetry
and stand at the head of their different kinds, in the same manner do
painters have their particular branch of their art; and as epic poetry
excels all other kinds of poetry, because it addresses itself to the
sublimer feelings of our nature, so does historical painting stand
preeminent in our art, because it calls forth the same feelings. For
poets' and painters' minds are the same, and I infer that painting is
superior to poetry from this:--that the painter possesses with the poet a
vigorous imagination, where the poet stops, while the painter exceeds him
in the mechanical and very difficult part of the art, that of handling
"I gave you a hint in letter number 12 and a particular account in number
13 of the horrid murders committed in this city. It has been pretty well
ascertained from a variety of evidence that all of them have been
committed by one man, who was apprehended and put an end to his life in
prison. Very horrid attempts at robbery and murder have been very
frequent of late in all parts of the city, and even so near as within two
doors of me in the same street, but do not be alarmed, you have nothing
to fear on my account. Leslie and myself sleep in the same room and sleep
armed with a pair of pistols and a sword and alarms at our doors and
windows, so we are safe on that score....
"In my next I shall give you some account of politics here and as it
respects America. The Federalists are certainly wrong in very many
"P.S. I wish you would keep my letter in which I enumerate all my
friends, and when I say, 'Give my love to my friends,' imagine I write
them all over, and distribute it out to all as you think I ought, always
particularizing Miss Russell, my patroness, my brothers, relations, and
Mr. Brown and Nancy [his old nurse]. This will save me time, ink,
trouble, and paper."
Concerning the portraits which Morse and Leslie were painting of each
other, the following letter to Morse's mother, from a friend in
Philadelphia and signed "R.W. Snow," will be found interesting:--
MY DEAR FRIEND,--I have this moment received a letter from Miss Vaughan
in London, dated February 20, 1812, and, knowing the passage below would
be interesting to you, I transcribe it with pleasure, and add my very
sincere wish that all your hopes may be realized.
"Dr. Morse's son is considered a young man of very promising talents by
Mr. Allston and Mr. West and by those who have seen his paintings. We
have seen him and think his modesty and apparent amiableness promise as
much happiness to his friends as his talents may procure distinction for
himself. He is peculiarly fortunate, not only in having Mr. Allston for
an adviser and friend, but in his companion in painting, Mr. Leslie, a
young man from Philadelphia highly recommended by my uncle there, and
whose extreme diffidence adds to the most promising talents the patient
industry and desire of improvement which are necessary to bring them to
perfection. They have been drawing each other's pictures. Mr. Leslie is
in the Spanish costume and Mr. Morse in Highland dress. They are in an
unfinished state, but striking resemblances."
This Highland lad, I hope, my dear friend, you will see, and in due time
be again blessed with the interesting original.
At this time the good father was sore distressed financially. He was
generous to a fault and had, by endorsing notes and giving to others,
crippled his own means. He says in a letter to his son dated March 21,
"The Parkman case remains yet undecided and I know not that it ever will
be. There is a strange mystery surrounding the business which I am not
able to unravel. The court is now in session in Boston which is expected
to decide the case. In a few days we shall be able to determine what we
have to expect from this case. If we lose it, your mother and I have made
up our minds to sit down contented with the loss. I trust we shall be
enabled to pay our honest debts without it and to support ourselves.
"As to you and your brothers, I trust, with your education, you will be
able to maintain yourselves, and your parents, too, should they need it
in their old age. Probably this necessity laid on you for exertion,
industry, and economy in early life will be better for you in the end
than to be supported by your parents. In nine cases out of ten those who
begin the world with nothing are richer and more useful men in life than
those who inherit a large estate....
"We have just heard from your brothers, who are well and in fine spirits.
Edwards writes that he thinks of staying in New Haven another year and of
pursuing _general science_, and afterwards of purchasing a plantation and
becoming a planter in some one of the Southern States!! Perhaps he
intends to marry some rich planter's daughter and to get his plantation
and negroes in that way. This, I imagine, will be his only way to do it.
"The newspapers which I shall send with this will inform you of the state
of our public affairs. We have high hopes that Governor Strong will be
our governor next year. I have no belief that our _war hawks_ will be
able to involve the country in a war with Great Britain, nor do I believe
that the President really wishes it. It is thought that all the war talk
and preparations are intended to effect the reelection of Mr. Madison.
The _Henry Plot_ is a farce intended for the same purpose, but it can
never be got up. It will operate against its promoters."
While the father was thus writing, on March 21, of the political
conditions in America from his point of view, almost at the same moment
the son in England was expressing himself as follows:--
"_March 25, 1812._ With respect to politics I know very little, my time
being occupied with much pleasanter subjects. I, however, can answer your
question whether party spirit is conducted with such virulence here as in
America. It is by no means the case, for, although it is in some few
instances very violent, still, for the most part, their debates are
conducted with great coolness.
"As to the Prince Regent, you have, perhaps, heard how unpopular he has
made himself. He has disappointed the expectations of very many. Among
the most unpopular of his measures may be placed the retention of the
Orders in Council, which orders, notwithstanding the declarations of Mr.
Perceval [the Prime Minister] and others in the Ministry to the contrary,
are fast, very fast reducing this country to ruin; and it is the opinion
of some of the best politicians in this country that, should the United
States either persist in the Non-Intercourse Law or declare war, this
country would be reduced to the lowest extremity.
[Footnote 1: Orders in Council were issued by the sovereign, with the
advice of the Privy Council, in periods of emergency, trusting to their
future ratification by Parliament. In this case, while promulgated as a
retaliatory measure against Bonaparte's Continental System, they bore
heavily upon the commerce of the United States.]
"Bankruptcies are daily increasing and petitions from all parts of the
Kingdom, praying for the repeal of the Orders in Council, have been
presented to the Prince, but he has declined hearing any of them. Also
the Catholic cause remains undecided, and he refuses hearing anything on
that subject. But no more of politics. I am sure you must have more than
sufficient at home.
"I will turn to a more pleasant subject and give you a slight history of
the American artists now in London.
"At the head stands Mr. West. He stands and has stood so long preeminent
that I could relate but little of his history that would be new to you,
so that I shall confine myself only to what has fallen under my own
observation, and, of course, my remarks will be few.
"As a painter Mr. West can be accused of as few faults as any artist of
ancient or modern times. In his studies he has been indefatigable, and
the result of those studies is a perfect knowledge of the philosophy of
his art. There is not a line or a touch in his pictures which he cannot
account for on philosophical principles. They are not the productions of
accident, but of study.
"His principal excellence is considered composition, design, and elegant
grouping; and his faults were said to be a hard and harsh outline and bad
coloring. These faults he has of late in a great degree amended. His
outline is softer and his coloring, in some pictures in which he has
attempted truth of color, is not surpassed by any artist now living, and
some have even said that Titian himself did not surpass it. However that
may be, his pictures of a late date are admirable even in this
particular, and it evinces that, if in general he neglected that
fascinating branch of art in some of his paintings, he still possesses a
perfect knowledge of all its artifices. He has just completed a picture,
an historical landscape, which, for clearness of coloring combined with
grandeur of composition, has never been excelled.
"In his private character he is unimpeachable. He is a man of tender
feelings, but of a mind so noble that it soars above the slanders of his
enemies, and he expresses pity rather than revenge towards those who,
through wantonness or malice, plan to undermine his character. No man,
perhaps, ever passed through so much abuse, and none, I am confident,
ever bore up against its virulence with more nobleness of spirit, with a
steady perseverance in the pursuit of the sublimest of human professions.
He has travelled on heedless of the sneers, the ridicule, or the
detraction of his enemies, and he has arrived at that point where the
lustre of his works will not fail to illuminate the dark regions of
barbarism and distaste long after their bright author has ceased to
"Excuse my fervor in the praise of this man. He is not a common man, not
such a one as can be met with in every age. He is one of those geniuses
who are doomed in their lifetime to endure the malice, the ridicule, and
neglect of the world, and at their death to receive the praise and
adoration of this same inconsistent world. I think there cannot be a
stronger proof that human nature is always the same than that men of
genius in all ages have been compelled to undergo the same
disappointments and to pass through the same routine of calumny and
The rest of this letter is missing, which is a great pity, as it would be
interesting to read what Morse had to say of Allston, Leslie, and the
Was it a presentiment of the calumnies and abuse to which he himself was
to be subjected in after life which led him to express himself so
heartily in sympathy with his master West? And was it the inspiring
remembrance of his master's calm bearing under these afflictions which
heartened him to maintain a noble serenity under even greater
"_April 21, 1812._ I mentioned in my last letter that I should probably
exceed my allowance this year by a few pounds, but I now begin to think
that I shall not. I am trying every method to be economical and hope it
will not be long before I shall relieve you from further expense on my
"With respect to politics they appear gloomy on both sides.... You may
depend on it. England has injured us sorely and our Non-Intercourse is a
just retaliation for those wrongs. Perhaps you will believe what is said
in some of the Federal papers that that measure has no effect on this
country. You may be assured the effects are great and severe; I am myself
an eye-witness of the effects. The country is in a state of rebellion
from literal starvation. Accounts are daily received which grow more and
more alarming from the great manufacturing towns. Troops are in motion
all over the country, and but last week measures were adopted by
Parliament to prevent this metropolis from rising to rebellion, by
ordering troops to be stationed round the city to be ready at a moment's
warning. This I call an alarming period. Everybody thinks so and Mr.
Perceval himself is frightened, and a committee is appointed to take into
consideration the Orders in Council. Now, when you consider that I came
to this country prejudiced against our government and its measures, and
that I can have no bad motive in telling you these facts, you will not
think hard of me when I say that I hope that our Non-Intercourse Law will
be enforced with all its rigor, as I firmly believe it is the only way to
bring this country to terms, and that, if persisted in, it will certainly
bring them to terms. I know it must make some misery at home, but it will
be followed by a corresponding happiness after it. Some of you at home, I
suppose, will call me a Democrat, but facts are stubborn things, and I
can't deny the truth of what I see every day before my eyes. A man to
judge properly of his country must, like judging of a picture, view it at
"_May 12, 1812._ I write in great haste to inform you of a dreadful event
which happened here last evening, and rumors of which will probably reach
you before this. Not to keep you in suspense it is no less than the
_assassination of Mr. Perceval,_ the Prime Minister of Great Britain. As
he was entering the House of Commons last evening a little past five
o'clock, he was shot directly through the heart by a man from behind the
door. He staggered forward and fell, and expired in about ten minutes....
"I have just returned from the House of Commons; there was an immense
crowd assembled and very riotous. In the hall was written in large
letters, 'Peace or the Head of the Regent.' This country is in a very
alarming state and there is no doubt but great quantities of blood will
be spilled before it is restored to order. Even while I am writing a
party of Life Guards is patrolling the streets. London must soon be the
scene of dreadful events.
"Last night I had an opportunity of studying the public mind. It was at
the theatre; the play was 'Venice Preserved; or, the Plot Discovered.' If
you will take the trouble just to read the first act you will see what
relation it has to the present state of affairs. When Pierre says to
Jaffier, 'Cans't thou kill a Senator?' there were three cheers, and so
through the whole, whenever anything was said concerning conspiracy and
in favor of it, the audience applauded, and when anything was said
against it they hissed. When Pierre asked the conspirators if Brutus was
not a good man, the audience was in a great uproar, applauding so as to
prevent for some minutes the progress of the performance. This I think
shows the public mind to be in great agitation. The play of 'Venice
Preserved' is not a moral play, and I should not ask you to read any part
of it if I could better explain to you the feelings of the public."
A few days later, on May 17, he says in a letter to his brothers:--
"The assassin Bellingham was immediately taken into custody. He was tried
on Friday and condemned to be executed to-morrow morning (Monday, 18th).
I shall go to the place to see the concourse of people, for to see him
executed I know I could not bear."
In a postscript written the day after he says:--
"I went this morning to the execution. A very violent rain prevented so
great a crowd as was expected. A few minutes before eight o'clock
Bellingham ascended the scaffold. He was very genteelly dressed; he bowed
to the crowd, who cried out, 'God bless you,' repeatedly. I saw him draw
the cap over his face and shake hands with the clergyman. I stayed no
longer, but immediately turned my back and was returning home. I had
taken but a few steps when the clock struck eight, and, on turning back,
I saw the crowd beginning to disperse. I have felt the effects of this
sight all day, and shall probably not get over it for weeks. It was a
dreadful sight. There were no accidents."
In spite of all these momentous occurrences, the young artist was
faithfully pursuing his studies, for in this same letter to his brothers
"But enough of this; you will probably hear the whole account before this
reaches you. I am wholly absorbed in the studies of my profession; it is
a slow and arduous undertaking. I never knew till now the difficulties of
art, and no one can duly appreciate it unless he has tried it.
Difficulties, however, only increase my ardor and make me more determined
than ever to conquer them.
"Mr. West is very kind to me; I visit him occasionally of a morning to
hear him converse on art. He appears quite attached to me, as he is,
indeed, to all young American artists. It seems to give him the greatest
pleasure to think that one day the arts will flourish in America. He says
that Philadelphia will be the Athens of the world. That city certainly
gives the greatest encouragement of any place in the United States.
Boston is most backward, so, if ever I should return to America,
Philadelphia or New York would probably be my place of abode.
"I have just seen Mr. Stephen Van Rensselaer, who you know was at college
with us, and with whom I was intimate. He was very glad to see me and
calls on me every day while I am painting. He keeps his carriage and
horses and is in the first circles here. I ride out occasionally with
him; shall begin his portrait next week."
Like a breath of fresh air, in all the heat and dust of these troublous
times, comes this request from his gentle mother in a letter of May 8,
"Miss C. Dexter requests the favor of you to take a sketch of the face of
Mr. Southey and send it her. He is a favorite writer with her and she has
a great desire to see the style of his countenance. If you can get it,
enclose it in a genteel note to her with a brief account of him, his age
and character, etc."
The next letter of May 25, 1812, is from Morse to his parents.
"I have told you in former letters that my lodgings are at 82 Great
Titchfield Street and that my room-mate is Leslie, the young man who is
so much talked of in Philadelphia. We have lived together since December
and have not, as yet, had a falling out. I find his thoughts of art agree
perfectly with my own. He is enthusiastic and so am I, and we have not
time, scarcely, to think of anything else; everything we do has a
reference to art, and all our plans are for our mutual advancement in it.
Our amusements are walking, _occasionally_ attending the theatres, and
the company of Mr. Allston and a few other gentlemen, consisting of three
or four painters and poets. We meet by turn at each other's rooms and
converse and laugh.
"Mr. Allston is our most intimate friend and companion. I can't feel too
grateful to Him for his attentions to me; he calls every day and
superintends all we are doing. When I am at a stand and perplexed in some
parts of the picture, he puts me right and encourages me to proceed by
praising those parts which he thinks good, but he is faithful and always
tells me when anything is bad.
"It is a mortifying thing sometimes to me, when I have been painting all
day very hard and begin to be pleased with what I have done, on showing
it to Mr. Allston, with the expectation of praise, and not only of praise
but a score of 'excellents,' 'well dones,' and 'admirables'; I say it is
mortifying to hear him after a long silence say: 'Very bad, sir; that is
not flesh, it is mud, sir; it is painted with brick dust and clay.'
"I have felt sometimes ready to dash my palette knife through it and to
feel at the moment quite angry with him; but a little reflection restores
me; I see that Mr. Allston is not a flatterer but a friend, and that
really to improve I must see my faults. What he says after this always
puts me in good humor again. He tells me to put a few flesh tints here, a
few gray ones there, and to clear up such and such a part by such and
such colors. And not only that, but takes the palette and brushes and
shows me how, and in this way he assists me. I think it one of the
greatest blessings that I am under his eye. I don't know how many errors
I might have fallen into if it had not been for his attentions....
"I am painting portraits alone at present. Our sitters are among our
acquaintances. We paint them if they defray the expense of canvas and
"Mama wished me to send some specimens of my painting home that you might
see my improvement. The pictures that I now paint would be uninteresting
to you; they consist merely of studies and drawings from plaster figures,
hands and feet and such things. The portraits are taken by those for whom
they are painted. I shall soon begin a portrait of myself and will try
and send that to you."
"_June 8, 1812._ Mama asks in one of her letters if we make our own tea.
We do. The tea-kettle is brought to us boiling in the morning and evening
and we make our own coffee (which, by the way, is very cheap here) and
tea. We live quite in the old bachelor style. I don't know but it will be
best for me to live in this style through life; my profession seems to
require all my time.
"Mr. Hurd will take a diploma to you, with others to different persons
near Boston. I suppose it confers some title on you of consequence, as I
saw at his house a great number to be sent to all parts of the world to
distinguished men. I find papa is known here pretty extensively. Some
one, hearing my name and that I am an American, immediately asks if I am
related to you....
"The Administration is at length formed, and, to the great sorrow of
everybody, the old Ministers are reelected. The Orders in Council are the
subject of debate at the House of Commons this evening. It is an
important crisis, though there is scarcely any hope of their repeal. If
not, I sincerely hope that America will declare war.
"What Lord Castlereagh said at a public meeting a few days ago ought to
be known in America. Respecting the Orders in Council, when some one said
unless they were repealed war with America must be the consequence, he
replied that, '_if the people would but support the Ministry in those
measures for a short time, America would be compelled to submit, for she
was not able to go to war_.' But I say, and so does every American here
who sees how things are going with this country, that, should America but
declare war, before hostilities commenced Great Britain would sue for
peace on any terms. Great Britain is jealous of us and would trample on
us if she could, and I feel ashamed when I see her supported through
everything by some of the Federal editors. I wish they could be here a
few months and they would be ashamed of themselves. They are injuring
their country, for it is _their_ violence that induces this Government to
persist in their measures by holding out hope that the parties will
change, and that then they can compel America to do anything. If America
loses in this contest and softens her measures towards this country, she
never need expect to hold up her head again."
"_June 15, 1812._ The Queen held a drawing-room a short time since and I
went to St. James's Palace to see those who attended. It was a singular
sight to see the ladies and gentlemen in their court dresses. The
gentlemen were dressed in buckram skirted coats without capes, long
waistcoats, cocked hats, bag-wigs, swords, and large buckles on their
shoes. The ladies in monstrous hoops, so that in getting into their
carriages they were obliged to go edgewise. Their dresses were very rich;
some ladies, I suppose, had about them to adorn them L20,000 or L30,000
worth of diamonds."
"I had a sight of the Prince Regent as he passed in his splendid state
carriage drawn by six horses. He is very corpulent, his features are
good, but he is very red and considerably bloated. I likewise saw the
Princess Charlotte of Wales, who is handsome, the Dukes of Kent,
Cambridge, Clarence, and Cumberland, Admiral Duckworth, and many others.
The Prince held a levee a few days since at which Mr. Van Rensselaer was
"I occasionally attend the theatres. At Covent Garden there is the best
acting in the world; Mr. Kemble is the first tragic actor now in England;
Cook was a rival and excelled him in some characters. Mrs. Siddons is the
first tragic actress, perhaps, that ever lived. She is now advanced in
life and is about to retire from the stage; on the 29th of this month she
makes her last appearance. I must say I admire her acting very much; she
is rather corpulent, but has a remarkably fine face; the Grecian
character is finely portrayed in it; she excels to admiration in deep
tragedy. In Mrs. Beverly, in the play of the 'Gamesters' a few nights
ago, she so arrested the attention of the house that you might hear your
watch tick in your fob, and, at the close of the play, when she utters an
hysteric laugh for joy that her husband was not a murderer, there were
different ladies in the boxes who actually went into hysterics and were
obliged to be carried out of the theatre. This I think is proof of good
acting. Mrs. Siddons is a woman of irreproachable character and moves in
the first circles; the stage will never again see her equal.
"You mustn't think because I praise the acting that I am partial to
theatres. I think in a certain degree they are harmless, but, too much
attended, they dissipate the mind. There is no danger of my loving them
too much; I like to go once in awhile after studying hard all day.
"Last night, as I was passing through Tottenham Court Road, I saw a large
collection of people of the lower class making a most terrible noise by
beating on something of the sounding genus. Upon going nearer and
enquiring the cause, I found that a butcher had just been married, and
that it is always the custom on such occasions for his brethren by trade
to serenade the couple with _marrow-bones_ and _cleavers_. Perhaps you
have heard of the phrase 'musical as marrow-bones and cleavers'; this is
the origin of it. If you wish to experience the sound let each one in the
family take a pair of tongs and a shovel, and then, standing all
together, let each one try to outdo the other in noise, and this will
give you some idea of it. How this custom originated I don't know. I hope
it is not symbolical of the _harmony_ which is to exist between the
Among those eminent Englishmen to whom young Morse had letters of
introduction was Zachary Macaulay, editor of the "Christian Observer,"
and father of the historian. The following note from him will be found of
a delightful old-time flavor:--
Mr. Macaulay presents his compliments to Mr. Morse and begs to express
his regret at not having yet been so fortunate as to meet with him. Mr.
Macaulay will be particularly happy if it should suit Mr. Morse to dine
with him at his house at Clapham on Saturday next at five o'clock. Mr.
M.'s house is five doors beyond the Plough at the entrance of Clapham
Common. A coach goes daily to Clapham from the Ship at Charing Cross at a
quarter past three, and several leave Grace Church Street in the City
every day at four. The distance from London Bridge to Mr. Macaulay's
house is about four miles.
23d June, 1812.
In a letter from his mother of June 28, 1812, the anxious parent says:--
"Although we long to see you, yet we rejoice that you are so happily
situated at so great a distance from our, at present, wretched, miserably
distracted country, whose mad rulers are plunging us into an unnecessary
war with a country that I shall always revere as doing more to spread the
glorious gospel of Jesus Christ to the benighted heathen, and those that
are famishing from lack of knowledge, than any other nation on the globe.
Our hearts bleed at every pore to think of again being at war. We have
not yet forgotten the wormwood and gall of the last revolution.
"We hope you will steer clear of any of the difficulties of the contest
that is about to take place. We wish you to be very prudent and guarded
in all your conversation and actions and not to make yourself a party man
on either side. Have your opinions, but have them to yourself, and be
sure you do not commit them to paper. It may do you great injury either
on one side or the other, and you are not in your present situation as a
politician but as an artist."
In this same letter his father adds:--
"The die is cast and our country plunged in war.... There is great
opposition to it in the country. The papers, which you will have
opportunity to see, will inform you of the state of parties. Your mother
has given you sound advice as respects the course you should pursue. Be
the _artist_ wholly and let _politics_ alone. I rejoice that you are
where you are at the present time. You will do what you can without delay
to support yourself, as I know not how we shall be able to procure funds
to transmit to you, and, if we had them, how we could transmit them
should the war continue."
To this the son answers in a letter of August 6, 1812:--
"I am improving, perhaps, the last opportunity I shall have for some time
to write you. Mr. Wheeler, an American, who has been here some time
studying portrait painting, has kindly offered to deliver this to you.
"Our political affairs, it seems, have come to a crisis, which I
sincerely hope will turn to the advantage of America; it certainly will
not to this country. War is an evil which no man ought to think lightly
of, but, if ever it was just, it now is. The English acknowledge it, and
what can be more convincing proof than the confession of an enemy? I was
sorry to hear of the riotous proceedings in Boston. If they knew what an
injury they were doing their country in the opinion of foreign nations,
they certainly would refrain from them. I assert (because I have proof)
that the Federalists in the Northern States have done more injury to
their country by their violent opposition measures than even a French
alliance could. Their proceedings are copied into the English papers,
read before Parliament, and circulated through the country, and what do
they say of them? Do they say the Federalists are patriots and are firm
in asserting the rights of their country? No; they call them _cowards,_ a
_base set;_ say they are traitors to their country and ought to be hanged
like traitors. These things I have heard and read, and therefore must
"I wish I could have a talk with you, papa; I am sure I could convince
you that neither Federalists nor Democrats are Americans; that war with
this country is just, and that the present Administration of our country
has acted with perfect justice in all their proceedings against this
"To observe the contempt with which America is spoken of, and the
epithets of a _'nation of cheats,' 'sprung from convicts,'
'pusillanimous,' 'cowardly,'_ and such like,--these I think are
sufficient to make any true American's blood boil. These are not used by
individuals only, but on the floor of the House of Commons. The good
effects of our declaration of war begin to be perceived already. The tone
of their public prints here is a little softer and more submissive. Not
one has called in question the justice of the declaration of war; all
say, 'We are in the wrong and we shall do well to get out of it as soon
"I could tell you volumes, but I have not time, and it would, perhaps, be
impolitic in the present state of affairs. I only wish that among the
infatuated party men I may not find my father, and I hope that he will be
_neutral_ rather than oppose the war measure, for (if he will believe a
son who loves him and his country better the longer and farther he is
away from them) this war will reestablish that character for honor and
spirit which our country has lost through the proceedings of
"But I will turn from this subject. My health and spirits are excellent
and my love for my profession increases. I am painting a small historical
piece; the subject is 'Marius in Prison,' and the soldier sent to kill
him who drops his sword as Marius says, '_Durst thou kill Caius Marius?_'
The historical fact you must be familiar with. I am taking great pains
with it, and may possibly exhibit it in February at the British Gallery.
"I never think of my situation in this country but with gratitude to you
for suffering me to pursue the profession of my choice, and for making so
many sacrifices to gratify me. I hope I shall always feel grateful to the
best of parents and be able soon to show them I am so. In the mean time,
if industry and application on my part can make them happy, be assured I
shall use my best endeavors to be industrious, and in any other way to
give them comfort. One of my greatest blessings here is Mr. Allston. He
is like a brother to me, and not only is a most agreeable and
entertaining companion, but he has been the means of giving me more
knowledge (practical as well as theoretical) in my art than I could have
acquired by myself in three years.
"In whatever circumstance I am, Mr. Allston I shall esteem as one of my
best and most intimate friends, and in whatever I can assist him or his I
shall feel proud in being able to do it.
"Mr. and Mrs. Allston are well. I dined with them yesterday at Captain
Visscher's, whom I have mentioned to you before as one of our passengers.
He is very attentive to us, visits us constantly, and is making us
presents of various kinds every day, such as half a dozen best Madeira,
etc. He came out here with his lady to take possession of a fortune of
L80,000 and was immensely rich before, having married Miss Van Rensselaer
SEPTEMBER 20, 1812--JUNE 13, 1813 Models the "Dying Hercules."--Dreams
of greatness.--Again expresses gratitude to his parents.--Begins painting
of "Dying Hercules."--Letter from Jeremiah Evarts.--Morse upholds
righteousness of the war.--Henry Thornton.--Political discussions.--
Gilbert Stuart.--William Wilberforce.--James Wynne's reminiscences of
Morse, Coleridge, Leslie, Allston, and Dr. Abernethy.--Letters from his
mother and brother.--Letters from friends on the state of the fine arts
in America.--"The Dying Hercules" exhibited at the Royal Academy.--
Expenses of painting.--Receives Adelphi Gold Medal for statuette of
Hercules.--Mr. Dunlap's reminiscences.--Critics praise "Dying Hercules."
The young artist's letters to his parents at this period are filled with
patriotic sentiments, and he writes many pages descriptive of the state
of affairs in England and of the effects of the war on that country. He
strongly upholds the justice of that war and pleads with his parents and
brothers to take his view of the matter. They, on the other hand,
strongly disapprove of the American Administration's position and of the
war, and are inclined to censure and to laugh at the enthusiastic young
As we are more concerned with Morse's career as an artist than with his
political sentiments, and as these latter, I fear, had no influence on
the course of international events, I shall quote but sparingly from that
portion of the correspondence, just enough to show that, whatever cause
he espoused, then, and at all times during his long life, he threw
himself into it heart and soul, and thoroughly believed in its
righteousness. He was absolutely sincere, although he may sometimes have
In a letter dated September 20, 1812, he says:--
"I have just finished a model in clay of a figure (the 'Dying Hercules'),
my first attempt at sculpture. Mr. Allston is extremely pleased with it;
he says it is better than all the things I have done since I have been in
England put together, and says I must send a cast of it home to you, and
that it will convince you that I shall make a painter. He says also that
he will write to his friends in Boston to call on you and see it when I
"Mr. West also was extremely delighted with it. He said it was not merely
an academical figure, but displayed mind and thought. He could not have
made me a higher compliment.
"Mr. West would write you, but he has been disabled from painting or
writing for a long time with the gout in his right hand. This is a great
trial to him.
"I am anxious to send you something to show you that I have not been idle
since I have been here. My passion for my art is so firmly rooted that I
am confident no human power could destroy it. [And yet, as we shall see
later on, human injustice so discouraged him that he dropped the brush
"The more I study it, the greater I think is its claim to the appellation
of '_divine_' and I never shall be able sufficiently to show my gratitude
to my parents for their indulgence in so greatly enabling me to pursue
that profession, without which I am sure I would be miserable. If ever it
is my destiny to become great and worthy of a biographical memoir, my
biographer will never be able to charge upon my parents that bigoted
attachment to any individual profession, the exercise of which spirit by
parents toward their children has been the ruin of some of the greatest
geniuses; and the biography of men of genius has too often contained that
reflection on their parents. If ever the contrary spirit was evident, it
has certainly been shown by my parents towards me. Indeed, they have been
almost too indulgent; they have watched every change of my capricious
inclinations, and seem to have made it an object to study them with the
greatest fondness. But I think they will say that, when my desire for
change did cease, it always settled on painting.
"I hope that one day my success in my profession will reward you, in some
measure, for the trouble and inconvenience I have so long put you to.
"I am now going to begin a picture of the death of Hercules from this
figure, as large as life. The figure I shall send to you as soon as it is
practicable, and also one of the same to Philadelphia, if possible in
time for the next exhibition in May.
"I have enjoyed excellent health and spirits and am perfectly contented.
The war between the two countries has not been productive of any measures
against resident American citizens. I hope it will produce a good effect
towards both countries."
He adds in a postscript that he has removed from 82 Great Titchfield
Street to No. 8 Buckingham Place, Fitzroy Square.
The following extract from a letter to Morse written by his friend, Mr.
Jeremiah Evarts, father of William M. Evarts, dated Charlestown, October
7, 1812, is interesting:--
"I am happy that you are so industriously and prosperously engaged in the
prosecution of your profession. I hope you will let politics entirely
alone for many reasons, not the least of which is a regard to the
internal tranquillity of your own mind. I never yet knew a man made happy
by studying politics; nor useful, unless he has great duties to perform
as a citizen. You will receive this advice, I know, with your accustomed
The next letter, dated November 1, 1812, is a very long one, over
eighteen large pages, and is an impassioned appeal to his father to look
at the war from the son's point of view. I shall quote only a few
"Your last letter was of October 2, via Halifax, accompanying your sermon
on Fast Day. The letter gave me great pleasure, but I must confess that
the sentiments in the sermon appeared very _strange_ to me, knowing what
I, as well as every American here does, respecting the causes of the
present war.... 'Tis the character of Englishmen to be haughty, proud,
and overbearing. If this conduct meets with no resistance, their
treatment becomes more imperious, and the more submissive and
conciliating is the object of their imperiousness, the more tyrannical
are they towards it. This has been their uniform treatment towards us,
and this character pervades all ranks of society, whether in public or
"The only way to please John Bull is to give him a good beating, and,
such is the singularity of his character that, the more you beat him, the
greater is his respect for you, and the more he will esteem you....
"If, after all I have now written, you still think that this war is
unjust, and think it worth the trouble in order to ascertain the truth, I
wish papa would take a trip across the Atlantic. If he is not convinced
of the truth of what I have written in less than two months, I will agree
to support myself all the time I am in England after this date, and never
be a farthing's more expense to you.... I was glad to hear that Cousin
Samuel Breese is in the navy. I really envy him very much. I hope one
day, as a painter, I may be able to hand him down to posterity as an
American Nelson.... As to my letters of introduction, I find that a
painter and a visitor cannot be united. Were I to deliver my letters the
acquaintance could not be kept up, and the bare thought of encountering
the English reserve is enough to deter any one.... This objection,
however, might be got over did it not take up so much time. Every moment
is precious to me now. I don't know how soon I may be obliged to return
home for want of means to support me; for the difficulties which are
increasing in this country take off the attention of the people from the
fine arts, and they withhold that patronage from young artists which they
would, from their liberality, in other circumstances freely bestow....
"You mention that some of the Ralston family are in Boston on a visit,
and that Mr. Codman is attached to Eliza. Once in my life, you know, if
you had told me this and I had been a very bloody-minded young man, who
knows but Mr. Codman might have been challenged. But I suppose he takes
advantage of my being in England. If it is as you say, I am very happy to
hear it, for Elizabeth is a girl whom I very much esteem, and there is no
doubt that she will make an excellent wife."
In a letter from his mother of July 6, 1818, she thus reassures him: "Mr.
Codman is married. He married a Miss Wheeler, of Newburyport, so you will
have no need of challenging him on account of Eliza Ralston."
In a postscript to the letter of November 1, Morse adds:--
"I have just read the political parts of this letter to my good friend
Mr. A----n, and he not only approves of the sentiments in it, but pays me
a compliment by saying that I have expressed the truth and nothing but
the truth in a very clear and proper manner, and hopes it may do good."
Among young Morse's friends in England at that time was Henry Thornton,
philanthropist and member of Parliament. In a letter to his parents of
January 1, 1813, he says:--
"Last Thursday week I received a very polite invitation from Henry
Thornton, Esq., to dine with him, which I accepted. I had no introduction
to him, but, hearing that your son was in the country, he found me out
and has shown me every attention. He is a very pleasant, sensible man,
but his character is too well known to you to need any eulogium from me.
"At his table was a son of Mr. Stephen, who was the author of the odious
Orders in Council. Mr. Thornton asked me at table if I thought that, if
the Orders in Council had been repealed a month or two sooner, it would
not have prevented the war. I told him I thought it would, at which he
was much pleased, and, turning to Mr. Stephen, he said: 'Do you hear
that, Mr. Stephen? I always told you so.'
"Last Wednesday I dined at Mr. Wilberforce's. I was extremely pleased
with him. At his house I met Mr. Grant and Mr. Thornton, members of
Parliament. In the course of conversation they introduced America, and
Mr. Wilberforce regretted the war extremely; he said it was like two of
the same family quarrelling; that he thought it a judgment on this
country for its wickedness, and that they had been justly punished for
their arrogance and insolence at sea, as well as the Americans for their
vaunting on land.
"As Mr. Thornton was going he invited me to spend a day or two at his
seat at Clapham, a few miles out of town. I accordingly went and was very
civilly treated. The _reserve_ which I mentioned in a former letter was
evident, however, here, and I felt a degree of embarrassment arising from
it which I never felt in America. The second day I was a little more at
"At dinner were the two sons of the Mr. Grant I mentioned above. They
are, perhaps, the most promising young men in the country, and you may
possibly one day hear of them as at the head of the nation. [One of these
young men was afterwards raised to the peerage as Lord Glenelg.]
"After dinner I got into conversation with them and with Mr. Thornton,
when America again became the topic. They asked me a great many questions
respecting America which I answered to the best of my ability. They at
length asked me if I did not think that the ruling party in America was
very much under French influence. I replied 'No'; that I believed on the
contrary that nine tenths of the American people were prepossessed
strongly in favor of this country. As a proof I urged the universal
prevalence of English fashions in preference to French, and English
manners and customs; the universal rejoicings on the success of the
English over the French; the marked attention shown to English travellers
and visitors; the neglect with which they treated their own literary
productions on account of the strong prejudice in favor of English works;
that everything, in short, was enhanced in its value by having attached
to it the name English.
"On the other hand, I told them that the French were a people almost
universally despised in America, and by at least one half hated. As in
England, they were esteemed the common enemies of mankind; that French
fashions were discountenanced and loathed; that a Frenchman was
considered as a man always to be suspected; that young men were forbidden
by their parents, in many instances, to associate with them, they
considering their company and habits as tending to subvert their morals,
and to render them frivolous and insincere. I added that in America as
well as everywhere else there were bad men, men of no principles, whose
consciences never stand in the way of their ambition or avarice; but that
I firmly believed that, as a body, the American Congress was as pure from
corruption and foreign influence as any body of men in the world. They
were much pleased with what I told them, and acknowledged that America
and American visitors generally had been treated with too much contempt
"In the course of the day I asked Mr. Thornton what were the objects that
the English Government had in view when they laid the Orders in Council.
He told me in direct terms, '_the Universal monopoly of Commerce_'; that
they had long desired an excuse for such measures as the Orders in
Council, and that the French decrees were exactly what they wished, and
the opportunity was seized with avidity the moment it was offered. They
knew that the Orders in Council bore hard upon the Americans, but they
considered that as merely _incidental_.
"To this I replied that, if such was the case as he represented it, what
blame could be attached to the American Government for declaring war? He
said that it was urged that America ought to have considered the
circumstances of the case, and that Great Britain was fighting for the
liberties of the world; that America was, in a great degree, interested
in the decision of the contest, and that she ought to be content to
suffer a little.
"I told him that England had no right whatever to infringe on the
neutrality of America, or to expect because she (England) supposed
herself to have justice on her side in the contest with France, that, of
course, the Americans should think the same. The moment America declared
this opinion her neutrality ceased. 'Besides,' said I, 'how can they have
the face to make such a declaration when you just now said that their
object was universal monopoly, and they longed for an excuse to adopt
measures to that end?' I told him that it showed that all the noise about
England's fighting for the liberties of mankind proved to be but a
thirst, a selfish desire for _universal monopoly_.
"This he said seemed to be the case; he could not deny it. He was going
on to observe something respecting the French decrees when we were
interrupted, and I have not been able again to resume the conversation. I
returned to town with him shortly after in his carriage, where, as there
were strangers, I could not introduce it again."
After this follow two long pages giving further reasons for the stand he
has taken, which I shall not include, only quoting the following
sentences towards the end of the letter:--
"You will have heard before this arrives of the glorious news from
Russia. Bonaparte is for once _defeated_, and will probably never again
recover from it.
"My regards to Mr. Stuart [Gilbert Stuart]. I feel quite flattered at his
remembrance of me. Tell him that, by coming to England, I know how more
justly to appreciate his great merits. There is really no one in England
who equals him.
"Accompanying this are some newspapers, some of Cobbett's, a man of no
principle and a great rascal, yet a man of sense and says many good
I have quoted at length from this letter in order that we may gain a
clearer insight into the character of the man. While in no wise
neglecting his main objects in life, he yet could not help taking a deep
interest in public affairs. He was frank and outspoken in his opinions,
but courteous withal. He abhorred hypocrisy and vice and was unsparing in
his condemnation of both. He enjoyed a controversy and was quick to
discover the weak points in his opponent's arguments and to make the most
These characteristics he carried with him through life, becoming,
however, broader-minded and more tolerant as he grew in years and
Morse's father had given him many letters of introduction to eminent men
in England. Most of these he neglected to deliver, pleading in
extenuation of his apparent carelessness that he could not spare the time
from his artistic studies to fulfill all the duties that would be
expected of him in society, and that he also could not afford the
expenses necessary to a well-dressed man.
The following note from William Wilberforce explains itself, but there
seems to be some confusion of dates, for Morse had just said in his
letter of January 1st that he dined at Mr. Wilberforce's over a week
January 4, 1813.
SIR,--I cannot help entertaining some apprehension of my not having
received some letter or some card which you may have done me the favor of
leaving at my house. Be this, however, as it may, I gladly avail myself
of the sanction of a letter from your father for introducing myself to
you; and, as many calls are mere matters of form, I take the liberty of
begging the favor of your company at dinner on Wednesday next, at a
quarter before five o'clock, at Kensington Gore (one mile from Hyde Park
corner), and of thereby securing the pleasure of an acquaintance with
The high respect which I have always entertained for your father, in
addition to the many obliging marks of attention which I have received
from him, render me desirous of becoming personally known to you, and
enable me with truth to assure you I am, with good will, sir,
Your faithful servant,
Among Morse's friends in London during the period of his student years,
were Coleridge, Rogers, Lamb, and others whose names are familiar ones in
the literary world.
While the letters of those days give only hints of the delightful
intercourse between these congenial souls, the recollection of them was
enshrined in the memory of some of their contemporaries, and the
following reminiscences, preserved by Mr. James Wynne and recorded by Mr.
Prune in his biography, will be found interesting:--
"Coleridge, who was a visitor at the rooms of Leslie and Morse,
frequently made his appearance under the influence of those fits of
despondency to which he was subject. On these occasions, by a
preconcerted plan, they often drew him from this state to one of
"'I was just wishing to see you,' said Morse on one of these occasions
when Coleridge entered with a hesitating step, and replied to their frank
salutations with a gloomy aspect and deep-drawn sighs. 'Leslie and myself
have had a dispute about certain lines of beauty; which is right?' And
then each argued with the other for a few moments until Coleridge became
interested, and, rousing from his fit of despondency, spoke with an
eloquence and depth of metaphysical reasoning on the subject far beyond
the comprehension of his auditors. Their point, however, was gained, and
Coleridge was again the eloquent, the profound, the gifted being which
his remarkable productions show him to be.
"'On one occasion,' said Morse, 'I heard him improvise for half an hour
in blank verse what he stated to be a strange dream, which was full of
those wonderful creations that glitter like diamonds in his poetical
productions.' 'All of which,' remarked I, 'is undoubtedly lost to the
world.' 'Not all,' replied Mr. Morse, 'for I recognize in the "Ancient
Mariner" some of the thoughts of that evening; but doubtless the greater
part, which would have made the reputation of any other man, perished
with the moment of inspiration, never again to be recalled.'
"When his tragedy of 'Remorse,' which had a run of twenty-one nights, was
first brought out, Washington Allston, Charles King, Leslie, Lamb, Morse,
and Coleridge went together to witness the performance. They occupied a
box near the stage, and each of the party was as much interested in its
success as Coleridge himself.
"The effect of the frequent applause upon Coleridge was very manifest,
but when, at the end of the piece, he was called for by the audience, the
intensity of his emotions was such as none but one gifted with the fine
sensibilities of a poet could experience. Fortunately the audience was
satisfied with a mere presentation of himself. His emotions would have
precluded the idea of his speaking on such an occasion.
"Allston soon after this became so much out of health that he thought a
change of air and a short residence in the country might relieve him. He
accordingly set out on his journey accompanied by Leslie and Morse.
"When he reached Salt Hill, near Oxford, he became so ill as to be unable
to proceed, and requested Morse to return to town for his medical
attendant, Dr. Tuthill, and Coleridge, to whom he was ardently attached.
"Morse accordingly returned, and, procuring a post-chaise, immediately
set out for Salt Hill, a distance of twenty-two miles, accompanied by
Coleridge and Dr. Tuthill.
"They arrived late in the evening and were busied with Allston until
midnight, when he became easier, and Morse and Coleridge left him for the
"Upon repairing to the sitting-room of the hotel Morse opened
Knickerbocker's 'History of New York,' which he had thrown into the
carriage before leaving town. Coleridge asked him what work he had.
"'Oh,' replied he, 'it is only an American book.'
"'Let me see it,' said Coleridge.
"He accordingly handed it to him, and Coleridge was soon buried in its
pages. Mr. Morse, overcome by the fatigues of the day, soon after retired
to his chamber and fell asleep.
"On awakening next morning he repaired to the sitting-room, when what was
his astonishment to find it still closed, with the lights burning, and
Coleridge busy with the book he had lent him the previous night.
"'Why, Coleridge,' said he, approaching him, 'have you been reading the
"'Why,' remarked Coleridge abstractedly, 'it is not late.'
"Morse replied by throwing open the blinds and permitting the broad
daylight, for it was now ten o'clock, to stream in upon them.
"'Indeed,' said Coleridge, 'I had no conception of this; but the work has
pleased me exceedingly. It is admirably written; pray, who is its
"He was informed that it was the production of Washington Irving. It is
needless to say that, during the long residence of Irving in London, they
became warm friends.
"At this period Mr. Abernethy was in the full tide of his popularity as a
surgeon, and Allston, who had for some little time had a grumbling pain
in his thigh, proposed to Morse to accompany him to the house of the
distinguished surgeon to consult him on the cause of the ailment.
"As Allston had his hand on the bell-pull, the door was opened and a
visitor passed out, immediately followed by a coarse-looking person with
a large, shaggy head of hair, whom Allston at once took for a domestic.
He accordingly enquired if Mr. Abernethy was in.
"'What do you want of Mr. Abernethy?' demanded this uncouth-looking
person with the harshest possible Scotch accent.
"'I wished to see him,' gently replied Allston, somewhat shocked by the
coarseness of his reception. 'Is he at home?'
"'Come in, come in, mon,' said the same uncouth personage.
"'But he may be engaged,' responded Allston. 'Perhaps I had better call
"'Come in, mon, I say,' replied the person addressed; and, partly by
persuasion and partly by force, Allston, followed by Morse, was induced
to enter the hall, which they had no sooner done than the person who
admitted them closed the street door, and, placing his back against it,
"'Now, tell me what is your business with Mr. Abernethy. I am Mr.
"'I have come to consult you,' replied Allston, 'about an affection--'
"'What the de'il hae I to do with your affections?' bluntly interposed
"'Perhaps, Mr. Abernethy,' said Allston, by this time so completely
overcome by the apparent rudeness of the eminent surgeon as to regret
calling on him at all, 'you are engaged at present, and I had better call
"'De'il the bit, de'il the bit, mon,' said Abernethy. 'Come in, come in.'
And he preceded them to his office, and examined his case, which proved
to be a slight one, with such gentleness as almost to lead them to doubt
whether Abernethy within his consulting-room, and Abernethy whom they had
encountered in the passage, was really the same personage."
While Morse was enjoying all these new experiences in England, the good
people at home were jogging along in their accustomed ruts, but were
deeply interested in the doings of the absent son and brother.
His mother writes on January 11, 1813:--
"Your letters are read with great pleasure by your acquaintance. I do not
show those in which you say anything on _politics,_ as I do not approve
your _change_, and think it would only prejudice others. For that reason
I do not wish you to write on that subject, as I love to read all your
observations to your friends.
"We cannot get Edwards to be a ladies' man at all. He will not visit
among the young ladies; he is as old as fifty, at least."
This same youthful misogynist and philosopher also writes to his brother
on January 11: "I intend soon writing another letter in which I shall
prove to your satisfaction that poetry is much superior to painting. You
asserted the contrary in one of your letters, and brought an argument to
prove it. I shall show the fallacy of that argument, and bring those to
support my doctrine which are incontrovertible."
A letter from his friend, Mrs. Jarvis, the sister of his erstwhile flame,
Miss Jannette Hart, informs him of the marriage of another sister to
Captain Hull of the navy, commander of the Constitution. In this letter,
written on March 4, 1813, at Bloomingdale, New York City, Mrs. Jarvis
"I am in general proud of the spirit of my countrymen, but there is too
little attention paid to the fine arts, to men of taste and science. Man
here is weighed by his purse, not by his mind, and, according to the
preponderance of that, he rises or sinks in the scale of individual
opinion. A fine painting or marble statue is very rare in the houses of
the rich of this city, and those individuals who would not pay fifty
pounds for either, expend double that sum to vie with a neighbor in a
piece of furniture.
"But do not tell tales. I would not say this to an Englishman, and I
trust you have not yet become one. This, however, is poor encouragement
for you to return to your native country. I hope better things of that
country before you may return."
A friend in Philadelphia writes to him on May 3, 1813:--
"Your favor I received from the hands of Mr. King, and have been very
much gratified with the introduction it afforded me to this worthy
gentleman. You have doubtless heard of his safe arrival in our city, and
of his having commenced his career in America, where, I am sorry to say,
the arts are not, as yet, so much patronized as I hope to see them. Those
of us who love them are too poor, and those who are wealthy regard them
but little. I think, however, I have already witnessed an improvement in
this respect, and the rich merchants and professional men are becoming
more and more liberal in their patronage of genius, when they find it
among native Americans.
"From the favorable circumstances under which your studies are
progressing; from the unrivalled talents of the gentleman who conducts
them; and, without flattery, suffer me to add, from the early proofs of
your own genius, I anticipate, in common with many of our fellow
citizens, the addition of one artist to our present roll whose name shall
stand high among those of American painters.
"In your companion Leslie we also calculate on a very distinguished
"Our Academy of Fine Arts has begun the all-important study of the live
figure. Mr. Sully, Mr. Peale, Mr. Fainnan, Mr. King, and several others
have devoted much attention to this branch of the school, and I hope to
see it in their hands highly useful and improving.
"The last annual exhibition was very splendid _for us_. Some very capital
landscapes were produced, many admirable portraits and one or two
"The most conspicuous paintings were Mr. Peale's picture of the 'Roman
Charity' (or, if you please, the 'Grecian Daughter,' for Murphy has it
so), and Mr. Sully's 'Lady of the Lake.'"
In a letter of May 30, 1818, to a friend, Morse says:--
"You ask in your letter what books I read and what I am painting. The
little time that I can spare from painting I employ in reading and
studying the old poets, Spenser, Chaucer, Dante, Tasso, etc. These are
necessary to a painter.
"As to painting, I have just finished a large picture, eight feet by six
feet six inches, the subject, the 'Death of Hercules,' which is now in
the Royal Academy Exhibition at Somerset House. I have been flattered by
the newspapers which seldom praise young artists, and they do me the
honor to say that my picture, with that of another young man by the name
of Monroe, form a distinguishing trait in this year's exhibition....
"This praise I consider much exaggerated. Mr. West, however, who saw it
as soon as I had finished it, paid me many compliments, and told me that,
were I to live to his age, I should never make a better composition. This
I consider but a compliment and as meant only to encourage me, and as
such I receive it.
"I mention these circumstances merely to show that I am getting along as
well as can be expected, and, if any credit attaches to me, I willingly
resign it to my country, and feel happy that I can contribute a mite to
"The American character stands high in this country as to the production
of artists, but in nothing else (except, indeed, I may now say
_bravery_). Mr. West now stands at the head, and has stood ever since the
arts began to flourish in this country, which is only about fifty years.
Mr. Copley next, then Colonel Trumbull. Stuart in America has no rival
here. As these are now old men and going off the stage, Mr. Allston
succeeds in the prime of life, and will, in the opinion of the greatest
connoisseurs in this country, carry the art to greater perfection than it
ever has been carried either in ancient or modern times.... After him is
a young man from Philadelphia by the name of Leslie, who is my room-mate."
How fallible is contemporary judgment on the claims of so-called genius
to immortality. "For many are called, but few are chosen."
In another letter to his parents written about this time, after telling
of his economies in order to make the money, advanced so cheerfully but
at the cost of so much self-sacrifice on their part, last as long as
possible, he adds:
"My greatest expense, next to _living_, is for canvas, frames, colors,
etc., and visiting galleries. The frame of my large picture, which I have
just finished, cost nearly twenty pounds, besides the canvas and colors,
which cost nearly eight pounds more, and the frame was the cheapest I
could possibly get. Mr. Allston's frame cost him sixty guineas.
"Frames are very expensive things, and, on that account, I shall not
attempt another large picture for some time, although Mr. West advises me
to paint _large_ as much as possible.
"The picture which I have finished is 'The Death of Hercules'; the size
is eight feet by six feet six inches. This picture I showed to Mr. West a
few weeks ago, and he was extremely pleased with it and paid me very many
high compliments; but as praise comes better from another than from one's
self, I shall send you a complimentary note which Mr. West has promised
to send me on the occasion.
"I sent the picture to the Exhibition at Somerset House which opens on
the 3d of May, and have the satisfaction not only of having it received,
but of having the praises of the council who decide on the admission of
pictures. Six hundred were refused admission this year, so you may
suppose that a picture (of the size of mine, too) must possess some merit
to be received in preference to six hundred. A small picture may be
received even if it is not very good, because it will serve to fill up
some little space which would otherwise be empty, but a large one, from
its excluding many smaller ones, must possess a great deal in its favor
in order to be received.
"If you recollect I told you I had completed a model of a single figure
of the same subject. This I sent to the Society of Arts at the Adelphi,
to stand for the prize (which is offered every year for the best
performance in painting, sculpture, and architecture and is a _gold
"Yesterday I received the note accompanying this, by which you will see
that it is adjudged to me in sculpture this year. It will be delivered to
me in public on the 13th of May or June, I don't know which, but I shall
give you a particular account of the whole process as soon as I have
received it.... I cannot close this letter without telling you how much I
am indebted to that excellent man Mr. Allston. He is extremely partial to
me and has often told me that he is proud of calling me his pupil. He
visits me every evening and our conversation is generally upon the
inexhaustible subject of our divine art, and upon _home_ which is next in
"I know not in what terms to speak of Mr. Allston. I can truly say I do
not know the slightest imperfection in him. He is amiable, affectionate,
learned, possessed of the greatest powers of mind and genius, modest,
unassuming, and, above all, a religious man.... I could write a quire of
paper in his praise, but all I could say of him would give you but a very
imperfect idea of him....
"You must recollect, when you tell friends that I am studying in England,
that I am a pupil of Allston and not Mr. West. They will not long ask who
Mr. Allston is; he will very soon astonish the world. He claims me as his
pupil, and told me a day or two since, in a jocose manner, that he should
have a battle with Mr. West unless he gave up all pretension to me."
We gain further information concerning Morse's first triumphs, his
painting and his statuette from the following reminiscences of a friend,
"It was about the year 1812 that Allston commenced his celebrated picture
of the 'Dead Man restored to Life by touching the Bones of Elisha,' which
is now in the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts. In the study of this picture
he made a model in clay of the head of the dead man to assist him in
painting the expression. This was the practice of the most eminent old
masters. Morse had begun a large picture to come out before the British
public at the Royal Academy Exhibition. The subject was the 'Dying
Hercules,' and, in order to paint it with the more effect, he followed
the example of Allston and determined to model the figure in clay. It was
his first attempt at modelling.
"His original intention was simply to complete such parts of the figure
as were useful in the single view necessary for the purpose of painting;
but, having done this, he was encouraged, by the approbation of Allston
and other artists, to finish the entire figure.
"After completing it, he had it cast in plaster of Paris and carried it
to show to West, who seemed more than pleased with it. After surveying it
all round critically, with many exclamations of surprise, he sent his
servant to call his son Raphael. As soon as Raphael made his appearance
West pointed to the figure and said: 'Look there, sir; I have always told
you any painter can make a sculptor.'
"From this model Morse painted his picture of the 'Dying Hercules,' of
colossal size, and sent it, in May, 1813, to the Royal Academy Exhibition
at Somerset House."
The picture was well received. A critic of one of the journals of that
day in speaking of the Royal Academy thus notices Morse:--
"Of the academicians two or three have distinguished themselves in a
preeminent degree; besides, few have added much to their fame, perhaps
they have hardly sustained it. But the great feature in this exhibition
is that it presents several works of very high merit by artists with
whose performances, and even with whose names, we were hitherto
unacquainted. At the head of this class are Messrs. Monroe and Morse. The
prize of history may be contended for by Mr. Northcote and Mr. Stothard.
We should award it to the former. After these gentlemen Messrs. Hilton,
Turner, Lane, Monroe, and Morse follow in the same class." (London
"Globe," May 14, 1813.)
[Illustration: THE DYING HERCULES
Painted by Morse in 1813]
In commemorating the "preeminent works of this exhibition," out of nearly
two thousand pictures, this critic places the "Dying Hercules" among the
On June 13, 1813, Morse thus writes to his parents:--
"I send by this opportunity (Mr. Elisha Goddard) the little cast of the
Hercules which obtained the prize this year at the Adelphi, and also the
gold medal, which was the premium presented to me, before a large
assembly of the nobility and gentry of the country, by the Duke of
Norfolk, who also paid me a handsome compliment at the same time.
"There were present Lord Percy, the Margravine of Anspach, the Turkish,
Sardinian, and Russian Ambassadors, who were pointed out to me, and many
noblemen whom I do not now recollect.
"My great picture also has not only been received at the Royal Academy,
but has one of the finest places in the rooms. It has been spoken of in
the papers, which you must know is considered a great compliment; for a
young artist, unless extraordinary, is seldom or never mentioned till he
has exhibited several times. They not only praise me, but place my
picture among the most attractive in the exhibition. This I know will
give you pleasure."
JULY 10, 1813--APRIL 6, 1814
Letter from the father on economies and political views.--Morse
deprecates lack of spirit in New England and rejoices at Wellington's
victories.--Allston's poems.--Morse coat-of-arms.--Letter of Joseph
Hillhouse.--Letter of exhortation from his mother.--Morse wishes to stay
longer in Europe.--Amused at mother's political views.--The father sends
more money for a longer stay.--Sidney exalts poetry above painting.--His
mother warns him against infidels and actors.--Bristol.--Optimism.--
Letter on infidels and his own religious observances.--Future of American
art.--He is in good health, but thin.--Letter from Mr. Visger.--Benjamin
Burritt, American prisoner.--Efforts in his behalf unsuccessful.--Capture
of Paris by the Allies.--Again expresses gratitude to parents.--Writes a
play for Charles Mathews.--Not produced.
The detailed accounts of his economies which the young man sent home to
his parents seem to have deeply touched them, for on July 10, 1813, his
father writes to him: "Your economy, industry, and success in pursuing
your professional studies give your affectionate parents the highest
gratification and reward. We wish you to avoid carrying your economy to
an _extreme_. Let your appearance be suited to the respectable company
you keep, and your living such as will conduce most effectually to
preserve health of body and vigor of mind. We shall all be willing to
make sacrifices at home so far as may be necessary to the above
Farther on in this same letter the father says: "The character you give
of Mr. Allston is, indeed, an exalted one, and we believe it correctly
drawn. Your ardor has given it a high coloring, but the excess is that of
an affectionate and grateful heart."
Referring to his son's political views, he answers in these broad-minded
"I approve your love of your country and concern for its honor. Your
errors, as we think them, appear to be the errors of a fair and honest
mind, and are of a kind to be effectually cured by correct information of
facts on both sides.
"Probably we may err because we are ignorant of many things which have
fallen under your notice. We shall no doubt agree when we shall have
opportunity to compare notes, and each is made acquainted with all that
the other knows. I confidently expect an honorable peace in the course of
six months, but may be deceived, as the future course of things cannot be
"The present is one of the finest and most promising seasons I ever knew;
the harvest to appearance will be very abundant. Heaven appears to be
rewarding this part of the country for their conduct in opposing the
Perhaps the good father did not mean to be malicious, but this is rather
a wicked little thrust at the son's vehemently expressed political views.
On this very same date, July 10, 1813, Morse writes to his parents:--
"I have just heard of the unfortunate capture of the Chesapeake. Is our
infant Hercules to be strangled at his birth? Where is the spirit of
former times which kindled in the hearts of the Bostonians? Will they
still be unmoved, or must they learn from more bitter experience that
Britain is not for peace, and that the only way to procure it is to join
heart and hand in a vigorous prosecution of the war?
"It is not the time now to think of party; the country is in danger; but
I hope to hear soon that the honor of our navy is retrieved. The brave
Captain Lawrence will never, I am sure, be forgotten; his career of glory
has been short but brilliant.
"All is rejoicing here; illuminations and fireworks and _feux de joie_
for the capture of the Chesapeake and a victory in Spain.
"Imagine yourself, if possible, in my situation in an enemy's country and
hearing songs of triumph and exultation on the misfortunes of my
countrymen, and this, too, on the 4th of July. A less ardent spirit than
mine might perhaps tolerate it, but I cannot. I do long to be at home, to
be in the navy, and teach these insolent Englishmen how to respect us....
"The Marquis Wellington has achieved a great victory in Spain, and bids
fair to drive the French out very soon. At this I rejoice as ought every
man who abhors tyranny and loves liberty. I wish the British success
against everything but _my country_. I often say with Cowper: 'England,
with all thy faults, I love thee still.'
"I am longing for Edwards' comparison between poetry and painting, and to
know how he will prove the former superior to the latter. A painter
_must_ be a poet, but a poet need not be a painter. How will he get over
"By the way, Mr. Allston has just published a volume of poems, a copy of
which I will endeavor to send you. They are but just published, so that
the opinion of the public is not yet ascertained, but there is no doubt
they will forever put at rest the calumny that America has never produced
"I have lately been enquiring for the coat-of-arms which belongs to the
Morse family. For this purpose I wish to know from what part of this
Kingdom the Morses emigrated, and if you can recollect anything that
belongs to the arms. If you will answer these questions minutely, I can,
for half a crown, ascertain the arms and crest which belong to the
family, which (as there is a degree of importance attached to heraldry in
this country) may be well to know. I have seen the arms of one Morse
which have been in the family three hundred years. So we can trace our
antiquity as far as any family."
A letter from a college-mate, Mr. Joseph Hillhouse, written in Boston on
July 12, 1813, gives a pretty picture of Morse's home, and contains some
quaint gossip which I shall transcribe:--
"On Saturday afternoon the beauty of the weather invited my cousin
Catherine Borland, my sister Mary (who is here on a visit), and myself to
take a walk over to Charlestown for the purpose of paying a visit to your
good parents. We found them just preparing tea, and at once concluded to
join the family party.
"Present to the eye of your fancy the closing-in of a fine, blue-skied,
sunny American Saturday evening, whose tranquillity and repose rendered
it the fit precursor of the Sabbath. Imagine the tea-table placed in your
sitting-parlor, all the windows open, and round it, first, the
housekeeper pouring out tea; next her, Miss C. Borland; next her, your
mother, whose looks spoke love as often as you were mentioned, and that
was not infrequently, I assure you. On your mother's right sat my sister,
next whom was your father in his long green-striped study gown, his
apostolic smile responding to the eye of your mother when his dear son
was his theme. I was placed (and an honorable post I considered it) at
his right hand.
"There the scene for you. Can you paint it? Neither of your brothers was
"In home news we have little variety. The sister of your quondam flame,
Miss Ann Hart, bestowed her hand last winter on Victory as personified in
our little fat captain, Isaac Hull, who is now reposing in the shade of
his laurels, and amusing himself in directing the construction of a
seventy-four at Portsmouth. Where the fair excellence, Miss Jannette
herself, is at present, I am unable to say. The sunshine of her eyes has
not beamed upon me since I beheld you delightedly and gallantly figuring
at her side at Daddy Value's ball, where I exhibited sundry feats of the
same sort myself.
"By the way, Mons. V. is still in fiddling condition, and the immaculate
Ann Jane Caroline Gibbs, Madame, has bestowed a subject on the state!!
"A fortnight since your friend Nancy Goodrich was married to William
Ellsworth. Emily Webster is soon to plight her faith to his brother
Henry. Miss Mary Ann Woolsey thinks of consummating the blessedness of a
Mr. Scarborough before the expiration of the summer. He is a widower of
thirty or thirty-five with one child, a little girl four or five years
"Thus, you see, my dear friend, all here seem to be setting their faces
heavenward; all seem ambitious of repairing the ravages of war....
"P.S. Oh! horrid mistake I made on the preceding page! Nancy and Emily,
on my knees I deprecate your wrath!! I have substituted William for Henry
and Henry for William. No, Henry is Nancy's and William Emily's. They are
twins, and I, forsooth, must make them changelings!"
In a letter of July 30, 1813, his mother thus exhorts him:--
"I hope, my dear son, your success in your profession will not have a
tendency to make you vain, or embolden you to look down on any in your
profession whom Providence may have been less favorable to in point of
talents for this particular business; and that you will observe a modesty
in the reception of premiums and praises on account of your talents, that
shall show to those who bestow them that you are worthy of them in more
senses than merely as an artist. It will likewise convince those who are
less favored that you are far from exulting in their disappointments,--as
I hope is truly the case,--and prevent that jealousy and envy that too
often discovers itself in those of the same profession....
"We exceedingly rejoice in all your success, and hope you will persevere.
Remember, my son, it is easier to get a reputation than to keep it
unspotted in the midst of so much pollution as we are surrounded by....
"C. Dexter thanks you for your attention to her request as it respects
Southey's likeness. She does not wish you to take too much pains and
trouble to get it, but she, I know, would be greatly pleased if you
should send her one of him. If you should get acquainted with him, inform
him that a very sensible, fine young lady in America requested it (but
don't tell him her name) from having read his works."
In a long letter of August 10 and 26, 1813, after again giving free rein
to his political feelings, he returns to the subject of his art:--
"Mr. West promised me a note to you, but he is an old man and very
forgetful, and I suppose he has forgotten it. I don't wish to remind him
of it directly, but, if in the course of conversation I can contrive to
mention it, I will....
"With respect to returning home next summer, Mr. Allston and Mr. West
think it would be an injury to me. Mr. Allston says I ought not to return
till I am a _painter_. I long to return as much as you can wish to have
me, but, if you can spare me a little longer, I should wish it. I abide
your decision, however, completely. Mr. Allston will write you fully on
this subject, and I will endeavor to persuade Mr. West also to do it.
"France I could not, at present, visit with advantage; that is to say
for, perhaps, a year. Mr. Allston thinks I ought to be previously well
grounded in the principles of the English school to resist the
corruptions of the French school; for they are corrupt in the principles
of painting, as in religion and everything else; but, when well grounded
in the good principles of this school, I could study and select the few
beauties of the French without being in danger of following their many
errors. The Louvre also would, in about a year, be of the greatest
advantage to me, and also the fine works in Italy....
"Mama has amused me very much in her letter where she writes on politics.
She says that, next to changing one's religion, she would dislike a man
for changing his politics. Mama, perhaps, is not aware that she would in
this way shut the door completely to conviction in anything. It would
imply that, because a man is educated in error, he must forever live in
error. I know exactly how mama feels; she thinks, as I did when at home,
that it was impossible for the Federalists to be in the wrong; but, as
all men are fallible, I think they may stand a chance of being wrong as
well as any other class of people....
"Mama thinks my '_error_' arises from wrong information. I will ask mama
which of us is likely to get at the truth; I, who am in England and can
see and hear all their motives for acting as they have done; or mama, who
gets her information from the Federal papers, second-hand, with numerous
additions and improvements made to answer party purposes, distorted and
"But to give you an instance. In the Massachusetts remonstrance they
attribute the repeal of the Orders in Council to the kind disposition of
the English Government, and a wish on their part to do justice, whereas
it is notorious in this country that they repealed them on account of the
injury it was doing themselves, and took America into consideration about
as much as they did the inhabitants of Kamschatka. The conditional repeal
of the Berlin and Milan decrees was a back door for them, and they
availed themselves of it to sneak out of it. This necessity, this act of
dire necessity, the Federal papers cry up as evincing a most forbearing
spirit towards us, and really astonish the English themselves who never
dreamt that it could be twisted in that way.
"Mama assigns as a reason for my thinking well of the English that they
have been very polite to me, and that it is ingratitude in me if I do
otherwise. A few individuals have treated me politely, and I do feel
thankful and gratified for it; but a little politeness from an individual
of one nation to an individual of another is certainly not a reason that
the former's Government should be esteemed incapable of wrong by the
latter. I esteem the English as a nation; I rejoice in their conquests on
the Continent, and would love them heartily, if they would let me; but I
am afraid to tell them this, they are already too proud.
"Their treatment of America is the worse for it. They are like a poor man
who has got a lottery ticket and draws a great prize, and when his poor
neighbor comes sincerely to congratulate him on his success, he holds up
his head, and, turning up his nose, tells him that now he is his superior
and then kicks him out of doors.
"Papa says he expects peace in six months. It may be in the disposition
of America to make peace, but not in the will of the English. It is in
the power of the Federalists to force her to peace, but they will not do
it, so she will force us to do it."
As in most discussions, political or otherwise, neither party seems to
have been convinced by the arguments of the other, for the parents
continue to urge him to leave politics alone; indeed, they insist on his
doing so. They also urge him to make every effort to support himself, if
he should decide to spend another year abroad, for they fear that they
will be unable to send him any more money. However, the father, when he
became convinced that it was really to his son's interest to spend
another year abroad, contrived to send him another thousand dollars. This
was done at the cost of great self-sacrifice on the part of himself and
his family, and was all the more praiseworthy on that account.
In a letter from his brother Edwards, written also on the 17th of
November, is this passage: "I must defer giving my reasons for thinking
Poetry superior to Painting; I will mention only a few of the principles
upon which I found my judgment. Genius in both these arts is the power of
making impressions. The question then is: which is capable of making the
strongest impression; which can impress upon the mind most strongly a
sublime or a beautiful idea? Does the sublimest passage in Milton excite
a stronger sensation in the mind of a man of taste than the sublimest
painting of Michael Angelo? Or, to make the parallel more complete, does
Michael Angelo convey to you a stronger impression of the Last Judgment,
by his painting, than Milton could by his poetry? Could Michael Angelo
convey a more sublime idea of Death by his painting than Milton has in
his 'Paradise Lost'? These are the principles upon which your 'divine
art' is to be degraded below Poetry."
This was rather acute reasoning for a boy of twenty who had spent his
life in the Boston and New Haven of those early days. The fact that he
had never seen a great painting, whereas he had greedily read the poets,
will probably account for his strong partisanship.
The pious mother writes on November 25, 1813:--
"With regard to the Americans being despised and hated in England, you
were apprised by your Uncle Salisbury and others before you left this
country that that was the case, and you ought not to be surprised when
you realized it. The reason given was that a large portion of those who
visit Europe are _dissipated infidels_, which has justly given the
English a bad opinion of us as a nation. But we are happy to find that
there are many exceptions to these, who do honor to the country which
gave them birth, such as a West, an Allston, and many others, among whom,
I am happy to say, we hope that you, my son, will be enrolled at no very
"You mention being acquainted with young Payne, the play actor. I would
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