Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States

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Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872) is perhaps best known as the inventor of the telegraph and the "Morse code" that bears his name. Those familiar with American art know him as an accomplished painter of landscapes, portraits, and ambitious history paintings such as the Gallery of the Louvre (1831–1832), a six-by-nine-foot panoramic containing thirty-eight miniaturized European old masters's paintings, including works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, and Rembrandt. Morse played a prominent role in the establishment of the National Academy of Design in 1825 and served for more than two decades as its president. Because Morse is admired for these significant contributions to American history and culture, a less-appealing side of his personality is often overlooked: his intolerance toward Catholics and his nativist activism. Morse launched several public attacks on Roman Catholicism, including the publication in 1835 of Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States, a treatise warning Americans against the political influence of Roman Catholicism. Foreign Conspiracy ranks among the most virulent and paranoid of a flurry of anti-Catholic documents published during the antebellum period.


Samuel Finley Breese Morse was born 27 April 1791 in Charlestown, Massachusetts. His father, Jedediah Morse, was a Congregational minister and geographer, and Samuel was the eldest of eleven children, only three of whom survived infancy. After his graduation from Yale College in 1810, Morse was determined to make a name for himself as a painter, and in 1811 he set sail for England to begin his studies at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. He remained in England until 1815, when he returned to the United States. Within a year he met Lucretia Pickering Walker, whom he married in 1818, and he briefly considered careers other than painting, including studying for the Episcopal ministry, invention, and architecture. After his marriage, Morse struggled to support himself as a painter, and the couple had three children. Following his wife's sudden death in 1825, Morse moved to New York, where he became a founder and first president of the National Academy of Design. In 1829 he returned to Europe for another three years to continue his study of European art.

Morse's antipathy to Catholicism had deep roots in his New England boyhood, where a culture of anti-Catholicism had thrived since the region's Puritan settlement and where his father issued pulpit polemics warning his countrymen of the dangers of the Bavarian Illuminati. Morse's antipathy grew under the influence of his friends James Fenimore Cooper (1789–1851) and the anticlerical Marquis de Lafayette. It was to Lafayette that Morse had attributed the statement "American liberty can be destroyed only by Popish clergy," which he often quoted and which was reprinted in Morse's Confessions of a French Priest (1837). His experiences studying abroad are pivotal to an understanding of the ideas that form the core of Foreign Conspiracy.

The sensuousness and aesthetic beauty of Catholicism appealed to Morse, as his dalliance with conversion to Episcopalianism demonstrated. As a painter Morse was moved by the magnificent art he viewed in Europe, especially the Catholic art of the Italian Renaissance. Many of his paintings were influenced by the study of these old masters, and in paintings such as the The Chapel of the Virgin at Subiaco (1830), Morse romanticizes the devotion of Italian peasants praying in the countryside.

However, one episode that took place in Italy in June 1830 may have marked a turning point in his sensibilities. Morse reported in his journal that he had had a "rather disagreeable experience" while watching a papal procession: "I was standing close to the side of the house when, in an instant, without the slightest notice, my hat was struck off to the distance of several yards by a soldier . . . and this courteous manoeuvre was performed with his gun and bayonet, accompanied with curses and taunts and the expression of a demon in his countenance" (1:353). Morse apparently took this insult deeply to heart, writing: "In cases like this there is no redress. The soldier receives his orders to see that all hats are off in this religion of force, and the manner is left to his discretion. . . . There was no excuse for this outrage on all decency, to which every foreigner is liable" (1:353).

From a historical vantage point, this clash with the pope's grenadier appears to have been a life-altering one for Morse. Back in New York, he finished his work on the ambitious Gallery of the Louvre, and though he continued to seek commissions as an artist for several more years, by 1832 he had made a career shift, turning his attention to the development of the telegraph. Morse is thought to have conceived of the idea of the telegraph on the ship returning from Europe in 1832. For the second half of his life Morse worked primarily on the telegraph and other inventions.

As Morse drifted away from his career in painting, the mediating influence of Catholic European art receded. During the 1830s he assiduously cultivated his scientific interests, and in this new arena European ideas began to hold considerably less sway. Where Catholic art produced an unavoidable impression on any artist intent on achieving greatness as a painter, the essentially antimodern nineteenth-century Roman Catholic doctrine was in many ways anathema to the pursuit of science and technology. As the inventor's star rose, he became more overt in his antipathy for Catholicism. During the same period he began experimenting with the invention of the telegraph, Morse published Foreign Conspiracy, first during 1834 in the newspaper owned by his brothers, then as a monograph in 1835.


Morse's personal antipathy toward Catholicism was part of a growing nativist movement in the United States, sparked by increasing numbers of immigrants, mainly from Catholic Ireland. Nativists vowed to protect the interests of "native-born" Americans against newcomers. In fact nativism and anti-Catholicism were only one piece of a broad Anglo-Protestant hegemony in the United States during the 1830s that permitted, among other things, a system of slavery in the South and westward expansion. Within this national context, blacks, Indians, Spanish settlers, and Catholics were systematically excluded from privileges accorded American citizens. Morse's use of the ideology of liberty to protect these privileges is best understood within this broader context.

Because of his European experiences, Morse felt well qualified to write this series of twelve letters under the pen name "Brutus" to expose, as his title indicated, A Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States. Despite the pseudonym Brutus, a reference to the Roman patriot who murdered the tyrant Julius Caesar, Morse's identity as author was generally well known. The serialization of Foreign Conspiracy in the New York Observer during 1834 began just weeks after an anti-Catholic incident in Morse's birthplace of Charlestown, Massachusetts: the burning of the Ursuline convent in August 1834. Morse's essay was reprinted in Congregational, Methodist, and Baptist journals and in the leading nativist papers. His first edition sold so well in book form that a second edition appeared almost immediately. Foreign Conspiracy was favorably reviewed in such anti-Catholic publications as the Downfall of Babylon and the American Protestant Vindicator.

During Morse's 1836 run for mayor of New York on a nativist ticket, a fourth edition of Foreign Conspiracy appeared, issued by Van Nostrand and Dwight, sponsors of the notorious Canadian "escaped nun" Maria Monk. Morse was resoundingly defeated in the election, with a distant fourth-place finish. He made another unsuccessful bid for the seat in 1841 and then for Congress in 1854. A seventh edition of Foreign Conspiracy was issued in 1851, and a final edition appeared after his death.

Foreign Conspiracy and Morse's subsequent work, Imminent Dangers to the Free Institutions of the United States through Foreign Immigration—first serialized in the Journal of Commerce, then appearing in book form in 1835—linked Catholicism and immigration as clear and present dangers to Americans. The Brutus letters originated in response to Frederick Schlegel's lectures in Vienna in 1828 that warned of the alliance of monarchy and Catholicism. Morse believed that without an effective army to attack America, Austria, and other so-called backward countries had joined with the Catholic Church through the Leopold Association, formed in Vienna in 1829, to win the American West by sending large numbers of immigrants to colonize America. Like his contemporary the Reverend Lyman Beecher, Morse encouraged Protestants to work together and unite against Catholic schools.

Foreign Conspiracy characterized Catholicism as a political system with roots in monarchial Europe, headed by an autocratic temporal ruler. The plot Morse detailed in Foreign Conspiracy originates with the Austrian government: "Austria is now acting in this country. She has devised a grand scheme. She has organized a great plan for doing something here" (p. 14). Prince Metternich, according to Morse, "the arch-contriver of plans to stifle liberty," will join forces with Pope Gregory XVI—whose agents are the Jesuits—to attack the United States. Morse elaborated on this collaboration, charging that "Austria has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money, and has furnished a fountain for a regular supply" (p. 15). One "fountain" was thought to be the Leopold Association, a group of Austrian and Hungarian Catholics dedicated to missionary work in America.

America's liberty of conscience, liberty of opinion, and liberty of the press, continued Morse, presented a dangerous model to revolutionaries in Europe chafing under monarchial systems. These governments therefore and the Catholic Church were conspiring to destroy America. Since their armies could not cross the Atlantic, Catholic immigrants to America became their weapon. Morse saw evidence of the plot in the growing mob actions in New York, the O'Connell Guards, and in the purported interference of Catholic priests in elections.

Morse's anti-Catholic books attracted the attention of the mentally unstable German student Lewis Clausing, whose claims of persecution by Metternich's agents, the Jesuits, led to his suicide and to Morse's subsequent publication of The Proscribed German Student (1836) and Confessions of a French Priest (1837). These texts moved beyond the more overt political concerns of Foreign Conspiracy and attacked aspects of Catholicism, such as celibacy and the confessional. Their charges of imprisonment of girls in nunneries echoed the kind of lurid material that was creating best-sellers of such books as Rebecca Reed's (1813–1838) Six Months in a Convent (1835) and the Canadian Maria Monk's (1817–1849) Awful Disclosures (1836).

Despite its appearance in multiple editions, Morse's Foreign Conspiracy was probably far less influential than the best-selling tales of escaped nuns. Reed's narrative is thought to have sold close to 200,000 copies. Monk's story sold 20,000 copies in the first few months after its release, and by the start of the Civil War, 300,000 copies were in circulation. Morse, with his deep affinity for the politics of Monk's book, is alleged to have helped with its publication. The beguiling escaped nun, Maria Monk, who in fact had likely been a Montreal prostitute, fended off several attacks on her credibility, yet Morse continued to be her supporter even once her credibility was worn thin. In 1836 an incredulous James Fenimore Cooper joked that his friend must have a romantic interest in the renegade nun. In a letter to their mutual friend, the sculptor Horatio Greenough, Cooper worried that Morse might be getting too carried away: "I am very much afraid Morse is about to marry a certain Miss Monk. I am afraid the issue of such a celibate as himself and a regular Monk, who, by the way, has also been a nun, might prove to be a progeny fit only for the choir of the Sistine Chapel" (3:220). Cooper's joke echoes the fascination with Catholic sexuality that drove much of the pseudo-pornographic anti-Catholic material, such as Monk's narrative. Morse had in fact become extremist in his nativist views.

By 1838 the inventor was deeply involved in demonstrating the telegraph and so did not participate in the 1838 National Academy of Design exhibition. But at least one art critic for the New-York Commercial Advertiser satirized his absence this way: "Has 'Brutus' eloped with Maria Monk? or has the author of 'Foreign conspiracies against the liberties of the United States' been kidnapped by emissaries of the Propaganda?" (Johnston). Morse's reputation had clearly suffered in many quarters by his commitment to nativism. During this period he apparently wooed several young ladies with a success rate that matched that of his political campaigns. In 1848 the fifty-seven-year-old Morse married the twenty-six-year-old Sarah Elizabeth Griswold, who was speech and hearing impaired and close to the age of his first wife at her death. Morse persisted in his anti-Catholicism and continued to act as a key figure in the rise of the Know-Nothing Party during the 1850s.

When Morse died on 2 April 1872, the telegraph flashed the news around the world. Yet despite his work in advancing technology, he was far from progressive. Morse was deeply regressive in his political beliefs, serving during the pre–Civil War period as president of the American Society for the Promotion of National Unity, a proslavery society. As his work in Foreign Conspiracy demonstrates, Morse was intolerant to the point of paranoia about Catholicism and remained so until the end of his days.

See alsoArt; Catholics; Foreigners; Immigration; Technology


Primary Works

Cooper, James Fenimore. The Letters and Journals of JamesFenimore Cooper. 2 vols. Edited by James Franklin Beard. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960.

Morse, Edward Lind, ed. Samuel F. B. Morse, His Letters andJournals. 2 vols. 1914. New York: Da Capo Press, 1973–.

Morse, Samuel F. B. Foreign Conspiracy against the Liberties of the United States. New York: Leavitt, Lord, 1835.

Schultz, Nancy Lusignan. Veil of Fear: Nineteeth CenturyConvent Tales by Rebecca Reed and Maria Monk. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1999.

Secondary Works

Billington, Ray Allen. The Protestant Crusade, 1800–1860:A Study in the Origins of American Nativism. New York: Macmillan, 1938.

Johnston, Patricia. "Samuel F. B. Morse's Gallery of the Louvre: Social Tensions in an Ideal World." In Seeing High and Low: Representing Social Conflict in American Visual Culture, edited by Patricia Johnston. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Mabee, Carleton. The American Leonardo: A Life of SamuelF. B. Morse. 1943. New York: Octagon, 1969.

Silverman, Kenneth. Lightning Man: The Accursed Life ofSamuel F. B. Morse. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Nancy Lusignan Schultz

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Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States

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