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. ↩