Date of Graduation

8-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in History (PhD)

Degree Level

Graduate

Department

History

Advisor

James Gigantino

Committee Member

Leo Mazow

Second Committee Member

Daniel Sutherland

Third Committee Member

Elliott West

Keywords

Course of Empire, Early Republic, empire, George Berkeley, translatio imperii, westward expansion

Abstract

This study investigates the extraordinary half-life of a single line of poetry: “Westward the Course of Empire takes its Way…”. Beginning with their composition in 1726 by the Irish- Anglican bishop George Berkeley, these words colonized an enormous swath of cultural landscape over nearly two centuries. Immortalized in newsprint, broadsides, statesmen’s speeches, reading primers, geographies, the first scholarly history of the United States, as well as in poetry, paintings, lithographs, and photographs, the words evolved from an old-world vision of prophetic empire into a nationalist slogan of manifest destiny. Following the poem as it threads through literary and visual culture, this project demonstrates how a simple sentence acclimated Americans to an expansive conception of United States empire from the colonial period through Reconstruction. The persistent certainty about the westward progress of empire, indeed, about the inevitability of empire itself, demonstrates the enduring vitality of the colonists’ British cultural inheritance on the eve of the American Revolution. As equally important are the ways that Americans reshaped the ideology of the poem to fit their evolving sense of national self in the early republic and antebellum eras. Berkeley’s words offered a critical venue for nationalistic explorations in the early decades of the new republic, easing the transformation of the nation into a capitalist, acquisitive society; in the mid-nineteenth-century conflicts, they served to justify American bellicose imperialism in the Mexican-American War, while deeply informed the debates surrounding the coming of the Civil War and its immediate aftermath, as the nation wrestled over the contours of America’s future. For two centuries, this ideology has enabled Americans to be both convinced evangelists of the exceptional character of their democratic-republican form of government and, in the same breath, self-righteous defenders of their imperial prerogative, first over the north American continent and its indigenous inhabitants, and ultimately over a global colonial empire. “Westward Empire” reveals the ways that Berkeley’s poem shaped this unique ideology, as well as the ways that Americans adapted Berkeley’s poem to their unique circumstances, and the ways that this evolving and multi-layered interpretation in turn shaped American thought and behavior between 1752 and 1876.

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