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Theodor Erasmus Hilgard (born in Mannheim) was a key figure in political emigration from Germany to the United States in the 19th century. As a respected jurist in Baden, he held an official post and had social standing but his liberal principles conflicted with the repressive conservative forces controlling German society. In 1835, therefore, Hilgard, together with his large family, left his homeland to begin a new life in Middle America – founding the new community of West Belleville in Illinois.
Hilgard was not alone. Other disaffected German liberals, such as August Follen (born in Giessen), were emigrating at around the same time for many of the same reasons. Then, between 1849 and 1852, there was a flood of political exiles fleeing from the conservative crackdown that followed the failure of the liberal revolution of 1848. These exiled ‘Forty-Eighters’ included Friedrich Hecker (born in Angelbachtal), Gustav Struve (born in Munich) and Carl Schurz (born in Erfstadt).
Hilgard and the ‘Forty-Eighters’ left a lasting legacy, both in the United States and in Germany. They influenced the lives of the large and ever-increasing number of German-Americans, both in rural communities and in the cities. They also played a significant role in politics, especially in the American Civil War. Many of them eventually returned to Germany, bringing back idea that deeply influenced the political and cultural life of Germany.