Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Legacy of Jedidiah Morse in Early American Geography Education: Forgotten And/or Forgettable Geographer?

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

The Legacy of Jedidiah Morse in Early American Geography Education: Forgotten And/or Forgettable Geographer?

Article excerpt

The development of modern geographical thought in the United States is often considered to have "begun" under the influence of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter. However, the importance of writings by pre-Humboldt/ Ritter thinkers cannot be overlooked as having laid the groundwork for academic geography in the United States. One geographer who influenced geographical education in the early history of the United States was Jedidiah Morse (Figure 1), whose textbooks became staples in American classrooms as the first geography texts developed by and for the new nation. He has even been described as the "First American Geographer" (Brown 1951) and the "Father of American Geography" (Chamberlain 1939; Griffin 1988; Baker 1996; Martin 1998; Warf 2010), although his role as "one of America's leading authors and religious controversialists" (Jackson 1999, 3) may have deprived him of a fatherhood that could pass the test of time.

The purpose of this research is to clarify Morse's role in the development of American geography and to address the question of why his influence has been largely overlooked by all but the most dedicated scholars of the history of our discipline, his "Father of American Geography" title notwithstanding. Was his work simply forgotten or forgettable? We argue that Morse's religious stridency and its apparent contradictions in his own life, mixed with a healthy dose of impolitic behaviors with the intelligentsia of the time, overshadowed the message of his geography. In addition, Morse's legacy was soon drowned by a wave of "new" geographies that rendered his approach easily assailable and subject to official irrelevance. On the other hand, we should not overlook the possibility that, not unlike other writers, his true impact on geography in early America has been understated and that his reputation can be partially restored in the lens of hindsight, as with other examples provided by James Ryan (2002). Perhaps Morse is not forgettable so much as forgotten.

Toward this end, we examine Morse's formative years, particularly in terms of the religious influences that came down his family line. We review his travels that, one can surmise, stimulated and shaped his interest in geography. We follow with a brief review of the geography books that were available at the time of Morse's writing and how Morse may have been different. We then enter the world of religious and intellectual ferment that both energized and tormented Morse the geographer, and often laid bare embarrassing conflicts between his stated beliefs and public actions. Out of these surrounding circumstances, we examine the post-Morse impact on geography, focusing on whether Morse created a variant of American geography that should be more honored than ignored today.


Jedidiah Morse was born in Woodstock, Connecticut, on August 23, 1761. Woodstock was a hotbed of vigorous religious debate from its founding in the 1680s. Its settlers had mistakenly believed it to be in Massachusetts, where free-speech rights were protected more aggressively under the Cambridge Platform than in Connecticut, where some of the clergy's independence had been usurped under the Saybrook Platform (Moss 1995). As Morse's ancestors and their neighbors came to feel that their rights of free speech were being compromised, they felt emboldened to support clergy who preached passionately and controversially in a rebellious local culture, all amid the fervor of the First Great Awakening of the 1730s to 1750s. With both his grandfather and father in the clergy, Morse was born into this spirit of piety, determination, and staunch defense of free speech that set the tone for his later life (Moss 1995).

After graduating from Yale in 1783, Morse entered a period of uncertainty in his life, as he vacillated between becoming a minister or finding another calling, including writing:

"The little book which accompanies this will show you which way my principal attention has been for these three months past. …

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