About half of the correspondence in the Morse papers consists of letters between father and son, written mainly while Richard junior was at Andover and Yale. The senior Morse insisted that the boy write often and at length as a way of maintaining a close relationship with his family, describing academic and recreational activities, expressing his opinions on all sorts of matters, recording the substance of sermons and lectures he attended. His own letters to his son were similarly detailed. The correspondence is a particularly rich source of data on the content and tenor of conservative Protestant preaching during this era, as well as on details of a classical private education. Perhaps its greatest value, however, is as a record of the father-son relationship and the changes it went through as Richard junior matured. It shows how the young man gradually took on his own opinions and tastes, and became less shy about expressing them even when they brought him into disagreement with his father -- who was clearly a strongly opinionated and very controlling parent. (He advises his son minutely on food, exercise, study, religious practice, dress, companionship, sleep habits, reading, career choice, etc.) Richard's New England experience brought him into contact with liberal political and social views which were much at odds with Morse conservatism, and while he never strayed very far from the fold, his conservatism became more tempered than his father's, his perspective broader and outlook more flexible. The letters record the process of this separation and personal development.
The 100-odd letters to and from siblings are briefer, less revealing, though far from rote and mechanical. They depict warm affection between brothers and sisters and the protective, advising role taken on by elder toward younger. Those from older sisters at home show the busy doings of the New York household and the many comings and goings of various family members, for the Morses were great travelers, both in America and abroad. Eldest sister Elizabeth Morse Colgate wrote especially detailed and loving letters, advising Richard on matters of clothing, manners, and general behavior and catching him up on family activities. Brother Sidney offered his opinions on conduct appropriate to young men, and especially advised Richard on matters of academics and personal finances. Older sister Charlotte seems to have styled herself as a religious guide for her younger brother, while Mary and Louisa occupy a less prominent role with regard to Richard, at least as expressed in surviving family correspondence. Richard, in turn, looked out for those who came after him, and his younger sister Rebecca and brothers Willie and Nollie sought his advice on all kinds of matters, from politics to reading choices to composition themes.
Harriott Messinger Morse does not seem to have developed a close relationship with stepson Richard, and this eventually led to strained feelings between father and son, for he blamed Richard for the failure. A few later letters between siblings indicate that the other Morse children had their problems with her as well, and the father seems to have responded with some bitterness toward his children and the sad results of their "liberal" education. In Richard's case, particularly, there may have been some truth in this, for the boy developed a close relationship with Miss E.D. Apthorp, a fervent abolitionist, during his education at her Hartford school which continued into his college years. The Morse papers contain 7 letters to Richard from Apthorp, only 4 from his stepmother--and the Apthorp letters are far warmer, more personal and engaging. Richard's former teacher encouraged him in his efforts to enter the Civil War service, in open opposition to his parents' wishes.
Relations between the Richard Cary Morse household and the families of Samuel F.B. and Sidney Morse are touched upon but not detailed in the collection. There was evidently frequent communication and visiting back and forth, especially among the young women, and the two younger brothers and their families shared the same New York City house for some years. A few letters mention "Uncle Finley's" (Samuel F.B. Morse) travels, activities, and honors, but there is no direct correspondence with him or his family in these papers.
Richard's letters from friends during and just after college make up a valuable component of this collection. They depict the nature of male friendship, and the sorts of interests, concerns and activities typical of young men of this social class during the era. They are open with one another about loneliness, religious doubts, and other personal matters. Since the Civil War erupted during Morse's college years, young men faced difficult decisions and pressures which led them into vastly different experiences. Richard felt guilty about avoiding war duty, and conscientiously tried to keep in touch with those who went into the army. Other friends also opted out of service, expressing varying degrees of remorse over their decisions. There are a few letters from former classmates in military camp, and others which tell of friends in the service, several of whom died.
There are several small subsets of correspondence pertaining to non-family matters. Seven letters between Richard Morse senior and Guillaume de Felice offer a few details about social and religious conditions in France, the publishing business, and the conservative religious tone of the New York Observer, which regularly published pieces by Felice. A series of letters between clergyman, religious writer, and autograph collector William Buell Sprague (1795-1876) and the two Morse brothers involved in the Observer records the difficult relations which developed between Sprague and the Morses during his work on a biography of Jedediah Morse. One controversy touched upon in a few 1858 letters is the accusation by the Morses that Sprague, without their permission, removed autographs from letters given to him in relation to the biographical work. He vigorously denied this, and the truth of the matter is not evident from the correspondence. A more complicated and extended dispute, in 1867, revolved around the treatment by Sprague in the biography of a scandal in Jedediah Morse's career involving accusations of plagiarism of work by Hannah Adams. Adams was a Unitarian, Morse a well-known and fervent anti-Unitarian, and his condemnation, some felt, was more related to his religious views and former attacks on Unitarianism than the actual merits of Adams' case. Sprague wished to avoid reopening the issue, Sidney Morse felt strongly that his father should be vindicated in the biography, and Richard senior wavered back and forth indecisively, increasing Sprague's discomfort level. The arguing and negotiating goes on at great length, and evidently to no end, for the project was abandoned after being all but ready for press.
The collection also includes a book, Maria Louisa Charlesworth, Sunday Afternoons in the Nursery; or, Familiar Narratives from the Book of Genesis. (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1859). The volume is inscribed by Nollie Morse.
The Morses, with their impressive intellectual tradition and high level of education and sophistication, could hardly be considered a typical family of the time, particularly since their religious orientation, anti-urban sentiments, and lack of wealth kept them somewhat isolated from the general upper-class New York scene. This very difference contributes interest to the collection, for Richard Morse was not a typical wealthy young Yale man on his way to an illustrious career. He struggled with strongly conservative family traditions and parental opinions that were often at odds with what he encountered in his own experience, and which he wished at times to defy. In the end, Richard Cary Morse was decidedly a Morse, abandoning youthful doubts and contrary ambitions for a life of religious service, but in a form which reflected the strong influence of his school and college years -- by devoting himself to an organization formed to encourage the fellowship of Christian young men.