By M.A. Davis
On May 28 1783, President of the Royal Society, Joseph Banks penned a letter to his friend and frequent correspondent Benjamin Franklin, giving him an update on the latest scientific innovations of the day. Franklin, then busy negotiating the Treaty of Paris that marked the end of the Revolutionary War, was a little too busy to keep up with the literature. Banks had much to tell Franklin, particularly about the sky. The Solar System, or at least the human perception of it, had changed forever.
“You will find I hope that we have not been idle a new Planet…mark[s] the progress of Active astronomy.” The new planet Banks described was one now commonly called Uranus, discovered in March 1781 by the British astronomer William Herschel. But that name was by no means certain in 1783. Ten years later, Thomas Jefferson wrote to his friend Andrew Ellicot about Ellicot’s new almanac, lamenting that “you [have] adopted the name of Georgium sidus, which no nation but the English took up, while justice and all other nations gave it that of Herschel?” Jefferson was not alone in seeing the name as politically charged. Herschel, eager to curry favor with George III, a monarch who would indeed become his family’s patron, had named the new planet not for a Roman god, not for himself, but for his king.
Uranus lacks the size of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, or the distinction of Neptune as the outermost planet. In today’s popular culture, the seventh planet is more likely to be a subject of puerile jokes than fascination. But in the early 1780s and the decades that followed, the fight for the identity of the seventh planet was a key moment of Enlightenment culture war, with British, French, Russian and American astronomers looking to shape the way the skies would be remembered forever. American astronomy was in its early infancy in the Revolutionary era and Early Republic, David Rittenhouse having completed the first American observatory in only in the 1760s. But Americans were nonetheless invested in the new science and had much to say during the fight to name the seventh planet. Ultimately, the preferred American name for the new planet – Herschel – did not survive, but neither did the name of George III.
The roots of Anglo-American astronomy go back to at least the almanacs of seventeenth-century Puritan New England, where Harvard-trained scholars explained Copernican, Galilean, and Keplerian astronomy to their readers even at a time when contemporary Puritan doctrine often inclined towards geocentrism. By the time of the American Revolution, American astronomy looked very much like British astronomy. Astronomers like Thomas Brattle, John Winthrop, and David Rittenhouse were American versions of the sort of Enlightenment scholar-gentry that dominated the profession in Britain, with all three serving as members of the transatlantic Royal Society of London. By the time of the American Revolution, educated Americans could look through their own telescopes (the first having been built in 1660 in Massachusetts), read discussions of astronomical matters in newspapers printed across the colonies, or even consult the widely-printed almanacs of the day. And from manifold letters, journals, and newspaper articles, it’s clear they did, in great numbers.
In 1785, a homesick, war-anxious Jefferson wrote to his friend Francis Hopkinson from Paris about the latest scientific discoveries from Europe, noting in particular that “the number of double stars discovered by Herschel amounts now to upwards of 900, being twice the number which he gave in the Philosophical Transactions.” This was among the first mentions of Herschel in American letters, before the self-taught Bath orchestra master would go on to become one of the most celebrated scientific figures in the trans-Atlantic world. Jefferson, cut off from news of home and a dabbler in science, was among the first Americans to specifically discuss the “planet Herschel” in a follow-up letter to his friend Ezra Stiles sent in July of that year, having earlier lamented that the English “foolishly call it Georgium sidus.” Jefferson was not the only writer in the early United States to make this distinction, with the National Gazette in 1791 noting that the new planet (which the Gazette called “Cybele”) was “called by the English Georgium sidus (George’s Star), after their king.”
By 1791, several new names for the proposed planet had been discussed, many of them from the leading astronomers of Europe. Franklin’s friend Jerome Lalande had proposed “Herschel” back in 1782, with the German Bode (in what was ironically an error in Bode’s Latin) recommending “Uranus” in that same year. But Uranus was seemingly slow to penetrate the American national discourse; the tension was seen as one between Americans (who preferred Lalande and Jefferson’s Herschel) over the Georgium sidus that the British would use for decades afterwards.
Not every American hesitated to use the British term for the new planet, even in the Early Republic. In 1795, the Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser, an vigorously Federalist paper from Philadelphia, mentions the “‘tenth muse,’ lately arrived from ‘Georgium Sidus.’” Given the Anglophilia of the Federalist press, perhaps this is not surprising – but the divide over the new planet was not quite that simply partisan. On April 20, 1801, DC’s National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser had no problem referring to (in Herschel’s obituary) his role as “discoverer of the new planet Georgium sidus.” And the National Intelligencer, in an age of partisan divides in the press, was an enthusiastically Republican paper and one closely affiliated with Jefferson! Jefferson’s preferred “Planet Herschel” appeared next in the Alexandria Gazette, Commercial & Political in 1811 – a Federalist paper. Whatever divide did exist in the United States between advocates of Herschel and Georgium sidus, it was seemingly not a partisan one. Relatively few Americans had much interest in Bode’s Uranus, which has little presence in American popular discussions of astronomy until the 1840s.
The American love of Herschel-for-Uranus continued well into the Age of Jackson. Though the Cherokee Phoenix in 1831 called the planet Uranus, like many newspapers of the day they referred to Uranus (Herschel) in their astronomical discussions. And this was not simply a matter of popular preference. American astronomers talked this way too. By 1836, Dartmouth College alumnus John Vose, then retired from his position as headmaster of Pembroke Academy, published his A Compendium of Astronomy, which describes the seventh planet as “Herschel, Uranus, or Georgium Sidus” – but with a preference for Herschel, after its discoverer. The American resistance to Uranus lasted at least until the Civil War, amid a general globalized turn to scientific standardization after the war. We can understand why the new nation was so uninterested in writing George III into the heavens, but why did Americans seize on Herschel – who after all never visited the United States and who had little correspondence with Americans? Today, the name Herschel stands for astronomy; William Herschel, his sister Caroline, and his son John being perhaps the most famous English astronomers of the 18th and 19th centuries. But in the 1780s, Herschel was an outsider, a man Americans later celebrated for his amateur scientific work carried out while working as a musician, the perfect hero for a nation finding itself in a new world. Americans have always preferred individual stories of scientific success, and Herschel’s was no exception. To name a planet for him was “common justice and common sense,” with some Americans even proposing that the same tradition continue with the discovery of Neptune in the late 1840s. As late as the 1840s, when a European astronomer discovered Neptune, by which time Uranus had largely won out in the scientific press, American newspapers like the Washington Union still spoke of “Uranus, or Herschel, as it is popularly called in this country.” A decade later, Denison Olmstead, perhaps the leading astronomer of the antebellum United States, said “[Georgium] being unacceptable to the astronomers of other countries, it was called Herschel in America, after the name of the discoverer, and Uranus on the continent of Europe.”
No blood was spilled in the conflict over what to call the seventh planet, outside of the genteel scholarly conflicts of astronomers on both sides of the Atlantic. But there was certainly an argument over the new planet, one where the new United States staked a claim on the heavens that was widely, if not universally, shared by Americans in the days of the Early Republic. Perhaps the American “Herschel” failed – but so too did the British “Georgium sidus.” Historians of the Early Republic know that American independence saw the United States stake a claim to new identities in matters of faith, language, and culture. When we look at Uranus, we can remember how Americans in the Early Republic staked a claim to the sky.
Dr. M.A. Davis is a Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina. His current projects include a biography of California’s own Dalip Singh Saund and a piece on Abraham Lincoln and science fiction. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @MikeDavisNoNot1
Hoskin, Michael. Discoverers of the Universe: William and Caroline Herschel. Princeton University Press, 2011.
Lemonick, Michael D. The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos. W. W. Norton, 2009.
Lankford, John and Ricky L. Slavings. American Astronomy: Community, Careers, and Power, 1859-1940. The University of Chicago Press, 1997.
 To Benjamin Franklin from Joseph Banks, 28 May 1783, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-40-02-0040.
 From Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Ellicott, 15 January 1793, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-25-02-0060.
 Stephen G. Brush, “Looking up: The Rise of Astronomy in America,” American Studies 20, no. 2 (1979): 41–67; and H.B. Rumrill, “Early American Astronomy,” Popular Astronomy 50 (October 1942): 408–19.
 Anthony F. Aveni, “Astronomers and Stargazers: Eyeing a Heliocentric Heaven for Planets, Portents, and Horoscopes,” CW Journal (Winter 2005-2006): 56-61.https://research.colonialwilliamsburg.org/Foundation/journal/Winter05-06/telescopes.cfm Donald K. Yeomans, “The Origin of North American Astronomy–Seventeenth Century.” Isis 68, no. 3 (1977): 414–25. http://www.jstor.org/stable/231317.
 Jefferson to Hopkinson, 13 January 1785, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-07-02-0437.
 Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, 17 July 1785,
 Philip Freneau, National Gazette, 15 December 1791, 1.
 Becky Ferreira, “How Uranus Got Its Name: How the Solar System’s Seventh Planet Became the Butt of the Joke,” Vice, March 13, 2016, https://www.vice.com/en/article/ezpzxp/how-uranus-got-its-name. To Benjamin Franklin from the Chevalier de Brus, 6 May 1777, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Franklin/01-24-02-0018
 Gazette of the United States and Daily Evening Advertiser, 13 January 1795, 2. The National Intelligencer and Washington Advertiser April 20, 1801, 3; and Alexandria Daily Gazette, Commercial & Political, 22 October 1811, 3.
 The ultimate victory of Uranus in astronomical etymology is beyond the scope of this article but can be understood as both a triumph for Continental astronomers and the universalization of the Heavens. Rather than bear the name of a contemporary monarch or astronomer, Uranus would maintain the Classical heritage of the previous planets, just as Neptune and [for a while] Pluto would.
 Cherokee Phoenix, and Indians’ Advocate, 3 December 1831, image 3.
 John Vose, A Compendium of Astronomy (Windsor, VT: NC Goddard, 1836), 74.
 The Shasta Courier, 30 April 1864, 1. The New-York Mirror, 12 June 1830, 388. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_New_York_Mirror/Ni7nAAAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=william+herschel+%22new+york%22&pg=PA388&printsec=frontcover Weekly National Intelligencer, [Volume], October 17, 1846, Page 4. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045784/1846-10-17/ed-1/seq-4/#date1=1777&sort=date&date2=1963&searchType=advanced&language=&sequence=0&index=3&words=Herschel+Sidus&proxdistance=5&rows=20&ortext=&proxtext=Herschel+Sidus&phrasetext=&andtext=&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1 The Washington Union, 11 Sep 1846, 2. Denison Olmstead, An Introduction to Astronomy…(Collins, NY, 1854). 210.