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Foreigners in their own land : Pennsylvania Germans in the early republic /
Steven M. Nolt.
University Park, Pa. : Pennsylvania State University Press, c2002.
x, 238 p. : ill., map
0271021993 (alk. paper)
A Look Inside
About the Author
Author Affiliation
Steven M. Nolt is Assistant Professor of History at Goshen College.
First Chapter


In June 1787, as delegates labored in oppressive Philadelphia heat to draft a new frame of government for the young American republic, a group of Philadelphia's leading civil and religious figures traveled sixty miles west to the borough of Lancaster to witness the dedication of a new academy of higher education. Unlike the state's two other such schools-the University of Pennsylvania and Dickinson College-this institution was to serve a German-speaking population. Dubbed "Franklin College" in honor of its most prominent benefactor and Pennsylvania's leading political figure, the school was a joint endeavor of the Lutheran and German Reformed communions.

Philadelphia physician, evangelical activist, and social commentator Benjamin Rush (1745-1813) was among those who attended and spoke at the dedication. An ardent federalist, Rush used the forum to speak optimistically about an emerging nation and nationality in America. Franklin College, he announced, would break down "the partition wall which has long separated the English and German inhabitants of the State" so that "in the course of a few years ... the names of German, Irishman, and Englishman will be lost in the general name of Pennsylvanian." Sectarian differences and ignorance of the English language would fade together as educated, ecumenical, anglicized "sons of the Germans" would "be qualified to shine in our legislature, and to fill with reputation the professions of law, physic, and divinity."

In private, Rush was far less sanguine about the success of his assimilationist goals. Writing several days later to relatives, he noted that the German-speakers he met "exhibit[ed] the most melancholy proofs of ignorance," and otherwise seemed poor prospects for becoming the sort of new American he hoped would populate the republic. His dream of creating a new society united by common republican political principles and his commitment to evangelical religious reformism were balanced by his recognition that the Pennsylvania German community might easily resist any attempts at managing its future. They had, after all, remained decidedly separate and distinct despite almost a century of life in America. Indeed, Rush's subsequent Account of the Manners of the German Inhabitants of Pennsylvania , which referred to the German population as "an inexhaustible treasure in the bosom of the state," was prompted as much by his apprehension as by his admiration of the group.

Rush sensed that Pennsylvania Germans resisted the homogenizing forces of assimilation that he had extolled in his Franklin College address, that they stood apart from his vision of America. That Germans remained distinctly "in the bosom of the state" was cause for both nervous calm and gnawing concern. The embryonic metaphor suggested that their place in society was underdeveloped. That so large a population was maintaining such a sharply identifiable position posed a problem for the nationalist Rush. Could these people find a place in American culture and society? What was their relationship to the republican vision and evangelical religious causes that Rush saw as the unifying foundation of the rising new nation?

Germans in a New World

The Pennsylvania German population Rush lauded and feared had grown from some seventy thousand German-speaking immigrants who had arrived through the port of Philadelphia before the American Revolution. As Aaron Fogleman has summarized, eighteenth-century German immigration to North America was a "calculated risk, one of many choices [European Germans] could have made to try to improve their steadily deteriorating [economic] situation at home." Yet during the second and third quarters of the eighteenth century, the number of German immigrants to the New World was substantial. Scholarly estimates suggest that between 1717 and 1775, speakers of German constituted more than 27 percent of all white arrivals to the thirteen colonies, and more than 80 percent of these Germans came by way of Philadelphia. While German-speaking newcomers hailed from Hesse, Baden, Württemberg, Alsace, Switzerland, and elsewhere, many were from the Palatinate, and that geographic designation frequently served as a label for all of them.

German immigrants tended to leave Europe in groups as extended or nuclear families, or associations of village neighbors. According to Fogleman, this strategy of communal migration enabled them to succeed in the expensive and arduous process of transatlantic migration. Their success and the networks they replicated in North America encouraged others to join them in a process of chain migration, the results of which startled English observers. In 1742, the Pennsylvania government acknowledged "that some look with jealous eyes upon the yearly concourse of Germans to this Province," but tried to calm critics by reminding them that "every industrious laborer from Europe is a real addition to the [colony's] wealth."

German immigrants settled in southeastern Pennsylvania and backcountry regions linked to Pennsylvania by trade and culture. Known to colonial historians as "Greater Pennsylvania," this area included southern and eastern Pennsylvania, western Maryland, and the backcountry of Virginia and North Carolina. Indeed, the thousands of German-speaking settlers living throughout Greater Pennsylvania soon acquired the appellation "Pennsylvania Dutch," or "Pennsylvania German," regardless of their actual province of residence.

Examining the social and economic motives for emigration to Pennsylvania, Fogleman has argued that the ability to acquire and secure title to land was the Germans' most important New World goal. During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Rhine Valley villagers had participated in a vigorous reassertion of their traditional communal rights in the face of efforts by lesser nobles to break community bonds. The German-speaking immigrants who populated Greater Pennsylvania possessed a strong corporate spirit that they put to use in establishing communal land claims for themselves and their kin. Historical geographer James Lemon has demonstrated the way in which immigrants of differing national origin segregated themselves in the process of taking up land in colonial Pennsylvania, rather than mixing with one another. Further, demographers have shown that German residents in particular were even more ensconced in ethnic enclaves than Irish, Scots, Welsh, or English residents. Rather than automatically settling along an ever-extending westward frontier, Germans tended to take up lands among fellow ethnics, and historians have uncovered relatively low rates of geographic mobility among Pennsylvania Germans.

These communities also shared a common set of Pennsylvania-evolved folkways and material culture. For example, customs of dress set Pennsylvania Germans apart from the practices of British neighbors in Greater Pennsylvania. In 1797, Polish nobleman Julian U. Niemcewicz (1758-1841) arrived in Frederick, Maryland, and observed that while even the oldest German inhabitant he met "was born in America, nevertheless by dress and way of life it is easy to recognize them as Germans and even to place them as Germans of the 16th century." For example, instead of British-style bonnets, women wore "large white hats without crowns like huge flat plates," while men sported "long, wide linen trousers."

In addition to folk culture, emergent ethnicity had institutional structure, and the establishment of regular patterns of religious life was a significant factor in the formation of stable German-speaking communities in Pennsylvania. Nearly all Pennsylvania Germans were Protestants of one sort or another. Early German immigrants represented a wide array of confessions and creeds-a variety that caused some colonial commentators, such as Lutheran schoolmaster Gottlieb Mittelberger, to complain about the "blind zeal of the many sects" he encountered in the province. Yet while sectarian plurality was sure to strike European observers as the most remarkable aspect of the middle colonies' religious life, it was, in the end, the so-called church folk-members of Lutheran and German Reformed communions-who dominated the German American landscape in Greater Pennsylvania and created what amounted to a practical ecclesiastical establishment. (Fig. 1.) With more than sixteen thousand actively communing members (and many more baptized members) in Greater Pennsylvania by 1740, these church bodies were already well established, and they continued to grow in the years that followed as the total number of German arrivals swelled and the proportion of sectarian immigrants shrank.

Though representing historically distinct Reformation traditions, Lutheran and Reformed churches in Greater Pennsylvania developed close relations, often shared church buildings, and lived within a common cultural context that often meant more than their dogmatic differences. In fact, early American Lutheranism was not as confessionally conscious as some of its nineteenth-century descendants would later become, and a number of early Reformed pastors had been trained at the Reformed school in the German city of Herborn-a school known for its irenic approach and rather open stance toward Lutheranism. In short, the experiences of these two confessions in Greater Pennsylvania would be cordial and closely intertwined.

In either case, for those in the Lutheran and Reformed Pennsylvania German mainstream, religion was a critical part of their cultural identity. Throughout Greater Pennsylvania, the number of congregations expanded quickly and acted as ethnic magnets. Later-arriving Germans tended to settle in Pennsylvania townships that had established German churches rather than in those with commercial markets or county seats. Although settled clergy were often in short supply, the laity acted to organize congregations even without clerical help, and then they appealed for ministerial service. (Maps 2 and 3.) The dearth of German clergy in North Carolina, for example, did not dissuade lay members from organizing eighteen congregations by 1760-and six more in the decade that followed.

Indeed, ecclesiastical identities became more important as the eighteenth century wore on, in large part because of the course of the Great Awakening in the middle colonies. While the revival of interest in religion in the mid-1700s was destabilizing and even revolutionary in parts of New England and the South, where it gave birth to dissenter movements, divided the local standing order, or upset old elites, the Awakening in Pennsylvania was a consolidating, denomination-building event that strengthened member loyalty and structural authority. During the 1740s, under the active direction of Lutheran pastor Heinrich Melchior Muhlenberg (1711-87) and Reformed cleric Michael Schlatter (1718-90), both communions organized further. "Paradoxically," historian John B. Frantz has noted, "this revival of religion that transcended nationality ... accentuated their group consciousness to such a degree that their religion became an ethnic as well as spiritual refuge." Theologically, Lutheranism was an "outsider" tradition in a British Protestant religious context, and German Reformed clergy were always quick to contrast their traditions' lone adherence to the German-language Heidelberg Catechism with the allegiances of Reformed believers from the British Isles or Holland, who ascribed dogmatic significance to a longer list of English and Dutch confessional documents.

If ethnic religious loyalties, endogamy, and geographic community stability marked Pennsylvania Germans, these factors did not cut them off from the surrounding society. Ethnic sensibilities mediated and regulated, rather than precluded, such encounters. Pennsylvania Germans' relationships to provincial law illustrate this pattern. Because the vast majority of German-speaking immigrants had come to the New World to obtain clear land titles, securing property rights became a priority for Pennsylvania Germans and prompted their initial forays into political activity. Yet such involvement was far from straightforward, because Anglo-American notions of liberty and law were rarely self-evident to German-speakers schooled in Continental traditions of local privilege and hereditary rights. As A. G. Roeber has explained, German American Lutherans had to learn the language of this new political culture, and they did so in the context of church life: they secured ecclesiastical property and drew up valid personal wills and bequests. Such training might lead its participants into the wider world of public service, and several Pennsylvania German church folk did become deeply involved in colonial and postrevolutionary government. The first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Frederick A. C. Muhlenberg (1750-1801), was the most visible of these figures.

Nonetheless, by the 1780s, Pennsylvania Germans had actually taken only initial, cautious steps toward any significant involvement in mainstream public and political life, and the Revolution itself would so transform anglophone American society that in the war's wake, Pennsylvania Germans would find their surroundings even less familiar. Thus, nationalist observers like Benjamin Rush could be concerned that Pennsylvania Germans' civic isolation was becoming more salient at the very time that their neighbors were participating in the defining, nationalizing events of constitutional creation and debate.

Such was the situation in the spring of 1787, when Pennsylvania political figures such as Rush and financial supporters such as Benjamin Franklin backed the idea of a German college in Lancaster. They were eager to draw the German population-a population that by 1790 would comprise almost a tenth of the country's white population, and one third of Pennsylvania's-into the task of nation building. The new college would be part of a network of regional institutions all aimed at producing freshly minted Americans schooled in the logic and language of the infant republic.

But what Benjamin Rush and other non-German Franklin College boosters did not know was that the Pennsylvania Germans they eyed so warily would eventually learn their republican lessons quite well, indeed. Over the course of the next fifty years, many would turn those lessons and their accompanying language and logic against their Anglo-American tutors, defending ethnic particularism with the rhetoric of liberty, equality, and natural rights. Instead of nurturing new Americans who would transcend ethnicity and drown cultural differences in the "new order of the ages," as Rush and others had hoped, revolutionary ideology would in fact supply the very tools with which many Pennsylvania Germans would defend their refusal to assimilate. Becoming American would be more complicated than Benjamin Rush had imagined.


Excerpted from FOREIGNERS in Their Own Land by STEVEN M. NOLT Copyright © 2002 by The Pennsylvania German Society
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2003-03-01:
This regional study of German immigrants comprising the old Lutheran and Reformed groups who migrated to Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Appalachian backcountry during the mid-18th century is well researched and thoroughly documented. Nolt (Goshen College) explores the activities of the settlers, who became the first and largest non-English speaking Europeans to assimilate as Americans to their own ethnic advantage. US historians, unlike scholars of Catholicism and Judaism, have not previously examined the interaction of diverse religious, ethnic, and cultural groups during this period of the Early Republic. These German Lutheran and Reformed congregations resisted powerful English language denominations such as the Methodists and Presbyterians, and learned to preserve their own ethnic identity in the US. A majority of German congregations espoused their own ideals of conservative republican democracy, and resisted the practices of evangelical reformers. They did, however, express their positions in religious tracts, papers, debates, and essays. In this fashion, they preserved their ethnic US status, which provided a model for countless immigrants to the US to come. ^BSumming Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. J. D. Born Jr. Wichita State University
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Choice, March 2003
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Bowker Data Service Summary
This is an examination of how the German Lutheran and Reformed populations of eastern Pennsylvania integrated themselves successfully into the early American republic.
Publisher Fact Sheet
The Story Of How the Pennsylvania Germans, an ethnic minority of the period, came to think of themselves as quintessential Americans while maintaining their ethnicity.
Unpaid Annotation
Historians of the early Republic are just beginning to tell the stories of the period's ethnic minorities. In Foreigners in Their Own Land, Steven M. Nolt is the first to add the story of the Pennsylvania Germans to that larger mosaic, showing how they came to think of themselves as quintessential Americans and simultaneously constructed a durable sense of ethnicity.The Pennsylvania German Lutheran and Reformed populations of eastern Pennsylvania, Maryland, and the Appalachian backcountry successfully combined elements of their Old World tradition with several emerging versions of national identity. Many took up democratic populist rhetoric to defend local cultural particularity and ethnic separatism. Others wedded certain American notions of reform and national purpose to Continental traditions of clerical authority and idealized German virtues. Their experience illustrates how creating and defending an ethnic identity can itself be a way of becoming American. Though they would maintain a remarkably stable and identifiable subculture well into the twentieth century, Pennsylvania Germans were, even by the eve of the Civil War, the most "inside" of "outsiders." They represent the complex and often paradoxical ways in which many Americans have managed the process of assimilation to their own advantage. Given their pioneering role in that process, their story illuminates the path that other immigrants and ethnic Americans would travel in the decades to follow.
Table of Contents
List of Illustrationsp. vii
Acknowledgmentsp. ix
Introductionp. 1
In the Bosom of the Statep. 11
Peasant Republicans and Pennsylvania Culturep. 27
Fighting for the Pennsylvania German Soulp. 47
Liberty and Ethnicity: The German Reformed "Free Synod" Schismp. 67
Social Reform or Cultural Tyranny? Pennsylvania Germans and the Public Role of Religionp. 89
Searching for American Kinship: Lutherans, Liberty, and Ecumenismp. 109
Pennsylvania Germans at Midcentury: Ethnic Americans in Their Own Landp. 129
Notesp. 145
Bibliographyp. 197
Indexp. 223
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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