The star of empire

I’ve found some evidence of how the Anglo-Irish cleric George Berkeley’s verse, “Westward the course of empire takes its way,” became a “star of empire” on the cover of George Bancroft’s History of the United States. The connecting link seems to be John Quincy Adams, with an assist from Massachusetts poet Sarah Wentworth Morton.

George Berkeley (1685-1753) — the minister, mathematician, philosopher, Rhode Island planter, and namesake of Berkeley, California — was what we’d call a fan of Britain’s American colonies. So the last four lines of his “Verses on the Prospect of Planting Arts and Learning in America” were frequently quoted on this side of the Atlantic — especially the first:

Westward the course of empire takes its way;
The first four Acts already past,
A fifth shall close the Drama with the day;
Time’s noblest offspring is the last.

In 1822, John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) was secretary of state to President James Monroe. Expected to succeed Monroe as president, Adams faced attacks from political enemies who claimed that he and fellow diplomats, while negotiating peace in 1814-15, had given away too much to the hated British. Adams responded with a book that published his diplomatic records, along with his specific rebuttals of his critics’ charges. At one point he quoted from memory,

Westward the star of empire takes its course.1

It is a garbled version of Berkeley’s quote; probably the harassed Secretary Adams didn’t feel he had time to look up the exact reference. Besides, it might not have been politic to directly quote a British author while defending himself from charges of having been soft on Britain. In any case, replacing the “course of empire” with the “star of empire” seems to have been an original idea of Adams’s. 2

As Aaron Phipps pointed out in the comments to this post, Adams may well have had a poem by Sarah Wentworth Morton on his mind. The Massachusetts poet’s “Song for the Celebration of the National Peace” concludes each of its five stanzas with a “Hail Columbia!” and a reference to “the Star of Empire.” For example:

Empire, that travels wide and far,
  Sheds her last glories on the west—
Born ’mid the morning realms of war,
  She loves the peaceful evening best.
Hail Columbia! Columbia blest and free,
The Star of Empire
rests on thee.

However the earliest appearance I have found for this poem is in 1823, a year after Adams’ book citing “the star of empire.” It’s quite possible that Adams knew of Morton’s poem before then, as it may have circulated in manuscript or appeared in a newspaper before Adams finished his book. For now, though, the evidence points to Adams as the originator of the phrase “star of empire.” 3

A generation later, another Massachusetts blueblood named George Bancroft (1800-1891) came to Washington as secretary of the Navy. Educated at Harvard and in Germany, Bancroft is best remembered as a historian. In 1854 he published the first volume of his History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent. Inscribed on the cover:

Westward the star of empire makes its way. 4

From that point the “star of empire” became something of a cliché in American arts and letters, appearing in the titles of books and paintings, and quoted in journalism and political speech. After the name and idea of imperialism lost most of its luster in the 20th century, the star of empire gradually faded out again.

Its westward course corresponds pretty closely to that of the idea of white racial supremacy — one of the worst ideas our species has had. Is it too much to hope that the star of empire will never rise again in the East?


1 John Quincy Adams, “Further Strictures on Mr. Russell’s Representations and Estimates,” in The Duplicate Letters, the Fisheries and the Mississippi, collected by John Quincy Adams (Washington: Davis and Force, 1822), p. 187. 
2 If there is an earlier literary use of the phrase “star of empire,” I have yet to find it. A recent history of the British Empire is called Star of Empire, but the title is unattributed, and I have not found a use of the term earlier than John Quincy Adams’ 1822 citation. Peter Freese also gives priority to Adams in “The translatio Concept in Popular American Writing and Painting,” The Internationality of National Literatures in Either America: Transfer and Transformation vol. 1 (no. 2) (2000): p. 62, 64. 
3 Sarah Wentworth Morton, “Song, for the Public Celebration of the National Peace,” in My Mind and Its Thoughts, in Sketches, Fragments, and Essays (Boston: Wells & Lilly, 1823), pp. 218-219. The song was meant to be sung to the tune of Rule, Britannia! 
4 I haven’t seen the cover, or an image of it. I’m relying on Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 704. Howe thought Bancroft’s History first appeared in 1834, but library catalogs agree it was 1854. Bancroft’s work was first published in ten volumes over a forty-year span, from 1834 to 1874. 

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9 thoughts on “The star of empire

  1. Very interesting. I actually had never heard it as “the star of empire”–always “course.” How did you come across this little nugget?

    Actually, come to think of it, I’m not sure that I had ever read Berkeley’s or Bancroft’s words–only heard them in combination with Gast’s painting. Which, of course, is a great way to start a class on US Western history. Particularly the race bit that you mention; even the dullest first year undergraduate can see how white Progress is in the painting.

  2. I was dipping into Adams’ book The Duplicate Letters during dissertation research, and the garbled version of the quote caught my attention. Not long after, I found Daniel Walker Howe’s mention of the motto on the cover of Bancroft’s History of the United States. Howe mentions the origin with Berkeley, and until then I had thought the “course of empire” line was from an earlier author. I guess I’d confused it with the Jacobean play Westward Ho, which gave Americans another expression to recycle as a slogan of manifest destiny.

    For those who don’t know Gast’s painting, here are online reproductions.

  3. Thanks so much for shedding some light on this! I am writing about Theodor Kaufmann’s 1867 painting, “Westward the Star of Empire”, (seen here: http://www.umsl.edu/mercantile/mexhibevents/Missouri%20Splendor/assets/images/Z_Kauffman.jpg) and so far, I had not come across any sources that address the substitution of “star” for “course” in either that title or Andrew Melrose’s painting, “Westward the Star of Empire Takes its Way”, (http://www.alifetimeofcolor.com/play/gowest/images/melrose_westward_l.jpg) also from 1867. Thanks also for mentioning where you found Bancroft connection. Very helpful and interesting.

  4. There is also a painting by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze with the name of “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way”, painted in 1861. A picture can be seen online in Wikipedia under Emmanuel Leutze. This painting was the source of a mural painted at the United States Capital in 1862. Leutze claimed that his inspiration was the poem by Berkely.

    My interest in the slogan stems from the fact that it was used as the slogan for the first newspaper,the “Grand River Times”, printed in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Its first issue, April 18, 1837, has, right under the name Grand River Times, the slogan “Westward the Star of Empire Takes its Way.” Given that the proprietor, George W. Pattison, of the newspaper was only 21 years old at the time I began to wonder how he chose the slogan. Pattison was hired by the Kent Company formed by Lucius Lyon who was a Northwest Territory representative to the U.S. Senate and one of the first Michigan Senators when the state was formed in 1837. I doubt Lyon would have been connected to John Quincy Adams since in 1822 he was 22 years old working as a surveyor in Michigan.

  5. A little digging in Google Books turns up a book called “Cyclopaedia of American Liturature” By Evert A. Duyckinck and George L. Duyckinck in two volumes, Charles Scribner New York, 1856, volume 1, page 483:

    Sarah Wentworth Morton
    …married in 1778, Perez Morton. She was a constant contributor of short poems to the Massachusetts Magazine, and obtained a vaunted reputation in those days under the signature of Philenia…She was also the author of “Ouabi, or Virtues of Nature,” an Indian Tale in four cantos, published in 1790…

    There is listed a “Song for the Celebration of the National Peace” which has a chorus that repeats variations of:

    Hail Columbia! Columbia the blest and free,
    The Star of Empire leads to thee.

    A footnote states: It will probably be perceived, that the chorus of the above song is an illusion to Bishop Berkeley’s prophecy: – “Westward the course of empire,” etc.

    A piece of work that the Adams family might have been familiar with.

  6. Thanks, Aaron, for sharing that discovery. I’ve edited the post to include Sarah Wentworth Morton as a likely source. Followed your cite of the Cyclopedia of American Literature, which is available here via Google Books. If I can find the original citation for Morton’s poem, which I suppose followed the peace with Britain in 1815, I’ll add it to this post.

    As for the newspaper slogan, it gives us another form of the saying, midway between Berkeley and Adams, who come before, and Bancroft, who comes after (and is the first to change “takes” to “makes”). Can you send me an image or a link to the newspaper banner?

  7. More items that seem to point to the development of the phrase “Star of Empire.”

    The Life and Times of Joseph Warren
    By Richard Frothingham
    Little, Brown, & Company, Boston 1865
    Page 425-426 See footnote

    In the “Massachusetts Spy” of the 10th of March, 1774 is a “Song for the Fifth of March,” which was written for this paper. It contains a prediction of the triumphs of “The American Ensign.” There are phrases in this song similar to what may be found in Warren’s letters. I copy the three closing verses, – the allusion is to Hancock, who is the orator:

    “Blest Freedom’s the prize, thither bend all your eyes;
    Stern valor each visage inflames:
    These lands they have won, and still claim as their own;
    And no tyrant shall ravish their claims.

    A ray of bright glory now beams from afar,
    Blest dawn of an empire to rise;
    The American ensign now sparkles a star,
    Which shall shortly flame wide through the skies.

    Strong knit is the band which unites the blest land,
    No demon the union can sever:
    Here’s a glass to fair Freedom, come give us your hand!
    May the Orator flourish for ever!”

    —————-

    Reminiscences of Newport
    By George Champlin Mason
    Published by Charles E. Hammett Jr., Newport R.I., 1884
    Page 86

    The author idicates that the Song for the Fifth of March was sung to the tune of “Once the Gods of the Greeks.”

    —————-

    History of the Flag of the United States of America
    By George Henry Preble
    Fourth Edition
    Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1894
    Page 248

    Theories as to the origin of the stars and stripes.

    The earliest suggestion of stars as a device for an American ensign prior to their adoption in 1777 is found in the ‘Massachusetts Spy’ for March 10, 1774, in a song written for the anniversary of the Boston Massacre (March 5). In a flight of poetic fancy, the writer foretells the triumph of the American ensign:

    “A ray of bright glory now beams from afar,
    The American ensign now sparkles a star
    Which shall shortly flame wide through the skies.”

    Page 259

    On Saturday, the 14th of June, 1777, the American Congress “Resolved, That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”

  8. Could someone tell me what are “the first four Acts” already past in Berkeley’s poem? Is it four European empires?

    1. A typical play had a five-act structure in the 16th-18th centuries. So he was portraying America as the last act of world history.

      The first four acts might have been associated in Berkeley’s mind with the four kingdoms mentioned (vaguely) in the Book of Daniel, but that comparison is not brought forth explicitly. (You can read for yourself here.)

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