“A Republic Amidst the Stars”: Political Astronomy and the Intellectual Origins of the Stars and Stripes
Abstract

Abstract:

From the fifty-star flag to the Great Seal, from Greenbacks to the Star Spangled Banner, the star-as-American state, and consequently the United States as a constellation of stars-states, is arguably the most salient—and least explored—symbol in American public language. The configuration of the star-as-state, and the consequent image of the United States as a “new constellation,” emerged in the early days of the American Revolution. The republicanism and anti-monarchism of the Revolution shattered the traditional political view based on the imagery of a single solar power center, habitually associated with monarchical systems. Instead of the king as Sun around which the political realm revolves and which holds the nation in equilibrium, in the 1770s an alternative and revolutionary political cosmology emerged and was enshrined in the new nation’s symbols: a diffuse constellation of uniform floating stars devoid of a solar center that embodied egalitarian and republican values. The American Revolution would thus give rise to new modes of understanding and communicating the political order: no kingly star overshadowed and dominated others; together they constituted a novel political system in which a plurality of individual stars held together, comprising a unity that was more perfect than its discrete parts. Throughout the republic’s founding, expansion and the consequent addition of stars to its spangled banner, when it temporarily collapsed during the Civil War—and beyond, the idiom of the “new constellation” provided a distinct vocabulary to articulate and express Americans’ shifting attitudes toward, and understanding of their federal republic.