by Christopher Grisham
In the early 1800s, the world shrank. Boats and trains became faster with the invention of the steam engine. This allowed people to travel farther than ever before. But the telegraph connected more people than any other invention. The telegraph let people send messages across the entire country by using dots and dashes in place of letters. All you needed was a telegraph machine and a telegraph line.
Telegraph 1840-1865, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Samuel Morse spent the 1830s and 40s working out a way to send electronic signals through wires. In 1844, he was ready to show the country how useful his new invention could be. What better way to do that than with one of the biggest news stories in the nation? Morse had Baltimore and Washington D.C. connected with a telegraph line. Baltimore was where the Democrats were meeting to pick who they wanted to run for President that year. He wanted to show that he could share important news from the meeting almost instantly.
Polk Painting by George Healy, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
Samuel Morse had no idea how much news there would be in Baltimore. When the Democrats first met, most people thought former President Martin Van Buren would be the easy pick. But Martin Van Buren had one unpopular opinion. He didn’t want to add Texas to the country. Many other Democrats wanted that. They were going to have to find someone else to run for president.
Tennessean James K. Polk hoped this meeting would save his career. He had already held important jobs such as Speaker of the U. S. House and Governor of Tennessee. Then he lost two elections in a row. Polk sent his good friends, Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson, to Baltimore to suggest his name for Vice-President. As a southerner who wanted to add Texas, he thought he would be a good partner for Martin Van Buren.
In Baltimore, it was clear that Martin Van Buren wasn’t going to be picked to run for President. There wasn’t a good second choice that everyone could agree on either. Gideon Pillow and Cave Johnson realized that might be good for their friend, James K. Polk. Polk supported Manifest Destiny, and that was one of the biggest issue in the nation at the time. He was also a good friend of Andrew Jackson, who was still very popular. That made Polk a candidate that wasn’t everyone’s favorite, but that most people could agree on. On the ninth ballot, James K. Polk was picked to run for President.
Telegram June 1844, Tennessee State Museum Collection.
The telegram shown above was one of the first to ever be sent. It announced Polk’s nomination. Thanks to Samuel Morse’s telegraph line, people in Washington D.C. were the first to learn the news. As a matter of fact, they knew before Polk did. He was in Tennessee. That meant he had to rely on letters coming all the way from Baltimore. This new system of sending information worked so well that Samuel Morse was invited onto the platform as James K. Polk was being sworn in as the 11th President of the United States. From there, he sent up-to-the-minute descriptions of the event to newspapers back in Baltimore.
Career – a job, or several related jobs, that someone has for a long time.
Manifest Destiny – the belief that the United States should and would expand across the entire North American continent.
Candidate – someone who is trying to get a certain job or position.
Ballot – a list of people you can vote for in an election.
Nomination – being chosen to run for a public office.
What new invention from the 1840s allowed people to communicate better and faster than ever before?
What were the first two cities connected with a telegraph line?
What job did James K. Polk originally want to get from the meeting in Baltimore?
Whether the United States should expand or not was a major issue in Baltimore in the summer of 1844. Take a look at this map of the United States from 1839. What would be one benefit of expanding the United States? What would be one reason not to expand?
The Democrats had trouble choosing who should run for President in 1844. Have you ever had trouble picking between things that you wanted? How do you choose between two things you want if you can only have one?
The telegraph wasn’t Samuel Morse’s only invention. You may have heard of Morse Code. This is a code system that he developed and used to send messages across telegraph lines. This system uses dots and dashes in place of letters. Learn more about it here.
Take a look at International Morse Code below and see if you can write a secret message to a friend.
International Morse Code
Christopher Grisham is the K-12 Programs Manager at the Tennessee State Museum.