By the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, powerful forces were threatening to undermine the old ways of society in Europe. Conservative regimes were challenged by nationalism, liberalism, socialism and industrialisation. In Germany, as in most of Europe, the reaction of the authorities was repression rather than reform. This repression led to political agitation and fear of revolution.
The turbulent political background was not the only, or the main, cause of emigration from Germany. There were many social, economic and cultural factors involved. From 1709, thousands of German Palatines travelled to the New World in search of a better life. Many moved for religious reasons - they established new Lutheran communities in the Eastern colonies, especially Pennsylvania. Once established, these communities became a magnet for later emigrants. These motives were a mixture of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors: many people were pushed out, uprooted, by hardship or persecution but many others were pulled, attracted, to the New World by the positive images of a richer and freer life. The trickle of emigrants in the 18th century then became a flood from the middle of the 19th. Political emigrants such as Theodor Hilgard were part of this mass migration.