Author's School

Graduate School of Arts & Sciences

Author's Department/Program



English (en)

Date of Award

Summer 9-1-2014

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

Iver Bernstein


This dissertation, "The Burden of Western History: Kansas, Collective Memory, and the Reunification of the American Empire, 1854-1913," is a widely-ramifying study of the politics of collective memory in Kansas, where the Civil War can be said to have begun in 1854, where it unfolded in especially bloody and traumatic fashion, and continued to be fought in the domain of collective memory into the 20th century. The struggle over collective memory in Kansas is a story that disrupts the conventional narrative of Civil War memory as an ideological victory for the South and foregrounds the interrelated significance of several attempted "subjugations"--that of Southerners over Northerners, Northerners over Southerners, whites over African Americans, and whites over Native Americans--as foundational to understanding the genesis of Kansans,' and by extension, Americans' collective memory of the war. In short, this dissertation transforms our understanding of Civil War memory by recasting it not simply as a struggle over the legacy of war, slavery, and race, but rather, more broadly, one over war, slavery, and race in the context of empire.

Interpreting the struggle over Civil War memory becomes a more morally complicated enterprise when it is framed within the twin contexts of slavery and empire. Unlike most Americans, Kansans did not forget the bloody emancipatory struggles that led up to 1861 and continued through the war and Reconstruction. They celebrated African Americans' agency in their own liberation, as well as the morally righteous cause of stopping the advance of slavery, in a host of old settlers' reunions and other commemorative rituals. Indeed, as late as 1910, Kansan William Allen White and his ally Theodore Roosevelt were hailing John Brown of violent Pottawatomie fame as a political model. But the Kansas version of emancipationist memory erased from the story the extinction of Native American landholdings and destruction of peoples that was the actual first chapter of "Bleeding Kansas" and placed Southerners at the bottom of a hierarchy of relative barbarism below "savage" Native Americans. When they turned on each other, the white settlers of Kansas resorted to traumatic home invasions and murders to establish their version of an ideal American empire, traumas which Kansans recounted in loving detail in the late 19th century, but took great pains to distinguish from the "barbaric" activities of Native Americans and Southerners. Finally, John Brown's murderous assault on slave owners at Pottawatomie was reimagined as an act of liberating imperial conquest, a useable past for an early 20th-century Progressive empire-in-the-making. The dissertation shows not only that the imperial context is key to understanding the struggle over Civil War memory, but also that making a modern American West and American empire at the turn of the 20th century occurred not as an escape from the tortured prewar and wartime history of North and South but in deep engagement with it. Such was the burden of Western history.


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