Samuel Eliot Morison and His Catholic Sympathies

Author: John Carrigg

Samuel Eliot Morison and His Catholic Sympathies

By John Carrigg, Professor of History at Franciscan University

Samuel Eliot Morison entered Harvard in 1904 fully determined to major in mathematics; but Professor Albert Bushnell Hart detoured him into history and urged Morison to write, as his thesis, a biography of one of his distinguished forbears, Harrison Gray Otis, whose papers were stored in the Morison wine cellar. That thesis became Morison's Ph.D. dissertation from Harvard in 1912 entitled, . It was published the next year by Houghton Mifflin. Looking back on it, Morison said it was a and only sold 700 copies, but laid the basis for his career as a historian and his appointment to the faculty of Berkeley and later Harvard.

In 1921 , Morison's was published. It grew out of a course on the history of Massachusetts that he taught. The book, one of my favorites, has a great chapter on the Whaling era and another on the Clipper ships. He said that book was a product of research and of his hobby of sailing along the New England coast. In it he described an ecumenical incident that occurred in 1803. A Boston merchant ship, the , put into a lonely California port and

"Its people got on beautifully with a group of mission fathers who came down to trade and gossip. They spent two weeks together on this lonely shore, dining alternately in tent and cabin, inaugurating a half century of close and friendly relations between Puritan and Padre on the California coast. Nothing like a common interest in smuggling to smooth religious differences."

Out of the Maritime history grew another volume, , a series of biographical sketches of the founders of New England.

In the early twenties, Morison was the first American historian to hold the Harmsworth Chair of History at Oxford where he taught for three years. In 1925, he returned to Harvard as a full professor and began work on his history of the University in preparation for its 300th anniversary. It culminated in a multi-volume work, , which appeared in 1936 and won for him the Jusserand Medal and the Loubat prize, both academic distinctions.

Next he got on the trail of Columbus, a trail that he had been following intermittently since 1916, when Professor Edward Channing asked him to take over his American Colonial History course. This was in August and Morison had a month to prepare for the opening day class. Any of us who have been given a new course to teach on short notice can sympathize with that. Morison relates that on the eve of the first class he had been so fascinated by the subject that he had not gone beyond Columbus. He was destined to spend forty years on the subject. Like Parkman, Morison was convinced that the historian must visit the scene of his story to better understand the problems that confronted his hero; and so between 1936 and 1940, he took four voyages under sail to the Caribbean and across the Atlantic and back, recording the wind, the tides, and the weather, which were changed but little since Columbus' day and viewing the islands and coastlines as seen through the eyes of the great discoverer. And finally, with all this experience and the voluminous records gathered by the Italian and Spanish governments, and with complete sympathy for the Catholic faith that impelled Columbus to ever new and more amazing coastlines of , he wrote his masterful biography, . This came out in 1942 in both a two and a one-volume version. In 1955, he wrote in the hope of reaching a wider public. This was translated into Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Persian and Arabic. Finally, flying with his friend, Mauricio Obregon, he took a huge number of pictures of the islands and mainlands that Columbus first viewed and put them together in still another book entitled, .

In the prologue to his epic biography of Christopher Columbus -- -- Morison concludes his summary of the European scene in 1942 with these words:

"I cannot forget the faith that sent this man forth, to the benefit of all future ages. And so writing in a day of tribulation both for Europe and for America, I venture to close my prologue by the prayer with which Columbus began his work


The tone of that passage is the tone of the whole work, sympathetic and reverent. There is no Gibbon or even Parkman in Morison. He is quite comfortable with the Catholic view of things.

When Columbus returned from his first voyage to America he spent Holy Week in Seville. Morison describes the meaning of that season in what would be difficult for the most ardent Catholic to match:

"Holy Week in Seville, with its alternation of abject humility and superb pride, penance and pardon, death and victory seemed at once a symbol and a fitting conclusion to his great adventure. The daily processions of the brotherhoods with their gorgeously bedecked statues of saints, the ancient ceremonies in the Cathedral -- renting of the temple veil, knocking at the great door, candles on the great tenebrario extinguished until only the one representing the Light of the World remained, the washing of feet on Maundy Thursday, the supreme Passion on Good Friday when the clacking of the matraca replaced the cheerful bells, the consecration of the paschal candle, and the supreme ecstasy of Easter morning -- all that moved Columbus as no worldly honors could and strengthened the conviction that his own toils and triumphs fitted the framework of the Passion."

At the beginning of each chapter in his . Morison provides a brief quotation, usually in Latin with an English translation, and the majority of them from Scripture -- many from the psalms, which give a key to the subject ahead.

Finally a line from Psalm 106 leads into the chapter that describes the rescue of Columbus: "Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble -- and he delivered them out of their distresses."

After Columbus had discovered the mainland of South America in 1498, he entered in his Journal these words:

"And your Highnesses will win these lands, which are an Other World () and where Christianity will have so much enjoyment and our faith in time so great an increase. All this I say with very honest intent, and because I desire that your Highnesses may be the greatest lords in the world, lords of it all I say; and that all be with much service to and satisfaction of the Holy Trinity."

To this Morison adds an emphatic Amen:

"Marvelous prophecy, superb faith! At a time when not fifty people of importance in Spain believed in Columbus or valued his discoveries, when the court doubtless hoped that shipwreck or disaster would rid them forever of this importunate Genoese, when his name was cursed on the lips of the Spaniards in Hispaniola, he foresaw the vast revenue that his sovereigns were about to secure. He foretold that Christianity whose area had been shrinking since the rise of Islam, would here win new converts to the Cross, that the Catholic faith was destined to advance triumphantly into Otro Mundo, this Other and New World."

As I said above, he was convinced that the historian must visit the scene as Parkman did, but Morison gives even Parkman a gentle nudge because he never attempted to write of sea voyages and discoveries. (What about his treatment of Jacques Cartier in ?)

Indeed, Morison was a master of narrative history and his books are a pleasure to read. It all seemed so effortless, but Morison avowed that it was the result of hard work and came after writing and rewriting and rewriting. I recall what the great sportswriter Red Smith said: "Writing is easy. All you have to do is sit in front of a typewriter and sweat a pint of blood."

In reading through the obituaries written at the time of Morison's death, one finds unstinting praise for his great gift of composition. "He told history dramatically and splendidly." His writings possessed a "standard of literary distinction seldom equaled and never surpassed. A master narrative historian he was a pleasure to read for his figure of phrase and the enthusiasm that suffused virtually every page of his book."

As a literary artist he was a master. He wrote with "unabating gusto and momentum." His works possessed an "effortless unaffected quality of vocabulary and cadence." He wrote with "special vividness and depth." "His naval narrative with its crackling a model of narrative history. "

Although Morison possessed the Christian vision and was quite comfortable with the Catholic view, which is emphatically clear in his treatment of Columbus, he was a political liberal and a strong supporter of FDR whom he consldered one of our great presidents. He had absolutely no sympathy for the Barnes-Beard-Tansill view of Roosevelt's foreign policy that held that the president talked peace but plotted war. In fact, when Beard's book, came out, Morison blasted it in review that appeared in the entitled significantly enough, "History Through a Beard."

But in things religious Morison was quite traditional and much closer to Columbus, the Catholic, than he was to Roosevelt, the liberal Democrat.

Morison sees the name Christopher as very significant in the life of Columbus.

Why the parents of Columbus chose the name Christofaro for their son, born in 1451, we do not know, but in so doing, they furthered the natural bent of the boy's mind. Saint Christopher was a tall, stout pagan who yearned to know Christ but could not seem to do anything about it. He dwelt on the bank of a river in Asia Minor where there was a dangerous ford and by reason of his great stature and strength helped many a traveler to cross. One day when he was asleep in his cabin he heard a Child's voice cry out, 'Christopher, Christopher. Come and set me across the river!' So out he came, staff in hand and took the infant on his shoulders. As he waded across, the Child's weight so increased that it was all he could do to keep from stumbling and falling, but he reached the other bank safely. 'Well, now my lad,' said he, 'thou hast put me in great danger, for thy burden waxed so great that had I borne the whole world on my back it could have weighed no more than thee.' To which the child replied, 'Marvel not, for thou hast borne upon thy back the whole world and Him who created it. I am the Child whom thou servest in doing good for mankind. Plant thy staff near yonder cabin, and tomorrow it shall put forth flowers and fruit -- proof that I am indeed thy Lord and Savior.' Christopher did as he was bid, and sure enough, next morning, his staff had become a beautiful date-palm."

Morison goes on:

"From that day forth Christopher has been the patron saint of all who travel by land, sea, or air. In his name, Christopher Columbus saw a sign that he was destined to bring Christ across the sea to men who knew Him not. Indeed, the oldest known map of the New World, dated A.D. 1500, dedicated to Columbus by his shipmate, Juan de la Cosa, is ornamented by a vignette of Saint Christopher carrying the Infant Jesus on his shoulders."

So Morison concludes,

"We may fairly say that the first step toward the discovery of America was taken by the parents of Columbus when they caused him to be baptized Christofaro in some ancient church of Genoa, one day in the late summer or early fall of 1451."

This article was taken from "The Dawson Newsletter," Fall 1994, P.O. Box 332, Fayetteville, AR 72702, $8.00 per year.