Morse, Jedidiah

views updated May 29 2018


(b. Woodstock, Connecticut, 23 August 1761; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 9 June 1826)


The son of Jedidiah Morse, holder of local offices and deacon of the Congregational Church, and Sarah Child, Morse was educated in the Academy of Woodstock. He entered Yale College in 1779, graduating in 1783. He remained in New Haven to study theology and supported himself by conducting a school for young girls. In 1785 he became pastor of the church at Norwich, Connecticut, but returned to Yale as tutor in 1786. During part of 1787 Morse was pastor of a church in Midway, Georgia, after which he returned to Yale. In 1789 he was installed as minister of the First Parish Church of Charlestown, Massachusetts, where he remained until 1819. In 1789 he married Elizabeth Ann Breese of New Jersey. Of their eleven children only three sons survived to maturity, one of whom was Samuel Finley Breese Morse, painter and inventor of the telegraph. Throughout his career at Charlestown Morse took a leading (and often inflexible) part in upholding orthodox Calvinist views in opposition to the growing liberal Unitarianism in New England. Morse was one of the founders of Andover Theological Seminary (1808) to train orthodox ministers, and of the Park Street Church in Boston (1809) to provide an orthodox center in that city. He moved to New Haven in 1820. He visited Indian tribes in the Northwest as a representative of the government and prepared a report of his investigation in 1822.

For use in his school in New Haven in 1784, Morse wrote Geography Made Easy, the first geography to be published in the United States. This was so well received that he extensively revised and extended the work and published in 1789 the famous American Geography; or A View of the Present Situation of the United States of America. It was an immediate success and the edition of 3,000 copies was soon sold. The book was quickly reprinted in Edinburgh, Dublin, and Tondon, and translated into German and Dutch but no benefit except scholarly recognition came to the author from the foreign editions. A second edition, published in 1793, The American Universal Geography, was much enlarged and a second volume added on “The Eastern Continent.” Later editions included even more on foreign countries. Morse was immediately established as the “American Geographer” and as such he commanded the field for the next twenty-five years.

In the preparation of his books Morse sought the aid by consultation and correspondence of any who would contribute information. Elaborate questionnaires were circulated far and wide and produced information of varying reliability and importance. Many well-know people provided data. He submitted sections for criticism to men like Jeremy Belknap, who reviewed and corrected his work on New England. Morse’s limited travels to the several states provided some firsthand information, but he was in no sense a field geographer.

The first edition of the American Geographer, and also later editions, contained much historical and political material as well as sections on the “Face of the Country” for the various states and regions. The latter contained paraphrases or direct quotations (not always acknowledged) from the work of Lewis Evans, Thomas Pownall, Robert Rogers, Jonathan Carver, John and William Bartram, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Hutchins, Mark Catesby, Noah Webster, John Filson, Gilbert Imlay, Samuel Mitchell, and many others. They form an instructive summary of geomorphology and geotogy of the United States in 1789. Although his own interests were historical and political geography, Morse paid enough attention to topography in his travels to understand physical geography and geology as described by others. One of the greatest criticisms of his geographies was that their maps were small and inadequate.


I. Original Works. Morse’s earliest geography was Geography Made easy (1784). This went through 20 editions by 1819. His great work was American Geography (Elizabethtown, 1789; London, 1792, also Edinburgh and Dublin); the 2nd ed., in two vols. (now called The American Universal Geography), with the 2nd vol. on the eastern hemisphere (Boston, 1793), was followed by successive two-volume eds. to the 7th in 1819. The American Gazetteer (Boston, 1796) was followed by successive editions and abridgments; The New Gazetteer of the Eastern Continent (Charlestown, 1802), with Elijah Parish, was followed by several editions to 1823. His historical works, sermons, editorials and other theotogical works arc listed in the 50-page typed bibliography in the Yale University Library; a copy is in the Clements Library, University of Michigan. The locations of the extraordinarily voluminous Morse papers and correspondence are given in detail by J. K. Morse, R. H. Brown, and W. R. Waterman.

II. Secondary Literature. A biography by his son, R. C. Morse, remains unpublished. The only published biography is W. B. Sprague, The Life of Jedidiah Morse, D.D. (New York, 1874). It contains excerpts from letters and a long chapter of personal notes from Morse’s three sons and from his other associates. The short biography by W. R. Waterman in the Dictionary of American Biography is an excellent summary. J. K. Morse, Jedidiah Morse, a Champion of New England Orthodoxy (New York, 1939), with elaborale bibliographies, is devoted entirely to Morse’s career as a minister and strenuous advocate of orthodox Calvinism, without any mention of his geographical work. R. H. Brown, “The American Geographies of Jedidiah Morse,” in Annals of the Association of American Geographer, 31 (1941), 145–217, is the definitive work on Morse as a geographer, his geographical associations, and sources. It contains Winfield Shires’ “Geographical Works of Jedidiah Morse, a Brief Bibliography,… adapted and simplified from a list of the works of Jedidiah Morse with notes, from the fifty typewritten pages in the Yale Library,” 214–217.

George W. White

Jedidiah Morse

views updated May 09 2018

Jedidiah Morse

Jedidiah Morse (1761-1826), American geographer and clergyman, was most influential for his dissemination of geographical knowledge about the American continent.

Jedidiah Morse was born in Woodstock, Conn., on Aug. 23, 1761, the son of a Congregationalist minister. Early training at home and in the local academy provided his education before he went to Yale, from which he graduated in 1783. While in college Morse decided to become a clergyman, and in order to help support his studies he served as a schoolmaster. As a teacher, he was dissatisfied with the deficient, inaccurate geographic information about America contained in the only available textbooks, which were European.

Morse compiled materials on American geography and published them as Geography Made Easy (1784). This work, the first geography by an American, launched his fame as a geographer. It had reached 22 editions by 1820. His subsequent efforts in gathering authentic, accurate, up-to-date information, particularly about American geography, provided material for more detailed compilations. These included information not only about the geography of the new country but also about the general and natural histories of all its regions. By revising his works periodically, he kept them current with the nation's expansion.

American Geography appeared in 1789. This was followed by The American Universal Geography (1793), The American Gazetteer (1797), and The New Gazetteer (1802). Because his works were widely adopted in schools, colleges, and libraries and were used in thousands of households, Morse remained foremost in the field for several decades.

Meanwhile Morse had completed his preparation for the ministry, and he had accepted a permanent post with the First Congregational Church in Charlestown, Mass., in 1789. About the same time, he married Elizabeth Ann Breese of New Jersey. As a clergyman, Morse was very active in defending orthodox religious tenets against the theses of Unitarianism. He participated in founding a seminary at Andover, Mass., so that orthodox Congregational theology would continue to flourish. Religious controversy caused him to leave the ministry in 1819.

For the next three years Morse attended to the plight of the American Indian as a U.S. War Department agent investigating their conditions. His report, including a plan for remedying Indian problems, was presented to President James Monroe and to Congress in 1822. It was subsequently published at the author's own expense. The last years of Morse's life were spent preparing further publications in American history and geography. After several years of ill health he died on June 9, 1826, in New Haven. The inventor Samuel F. B. Morse was his eldest son.

Further Reading

The standard biography of Morse is William Buell Sprague, The Life of Jedidiah Morse, D.D. (1874). A fairly clear account of his life as a clergyman and his participation in the New England religious controversy is in James King Morse, Jedidiah Morse: A Champion of New England Orthodoxy (1939).

Additional Sources

Moss, Richard J., The life of Jedidiah Morse: a station of peculiar exposure, Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. □