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Abstract

In the early-nineteenth century, German intellectuals crafted a cultural identity to coalesce the German-speaking people into a distinct Volk. They reformed the universities to produce a new Bildungsbürgertum (educated middle class) that would lead the masses in the cultural politics of asserting German exceptionalism. Key to this transition was Bildung, a philosophical concept that linked human progress to cultural diversity. Clergy from the Bildungsbürgertum immigrated to Cincinnati during the antebellum era, eager to live according to these Romantic ideals. Each of them also edited newspapers for their Catholic, Methodist, Evangelical Protestant, or Jewish Reform denominations, and each upheld German exceptionalism, based on their theological beliefs about the biblical End Times. This project recovers the existence of a religious component to Bildung and provides nuanced attention to the ethnic and denominational diversity of German immigrants in the American West during the antebellum era. Traditionally, America has been portrayed as a melting pot or a nation of immigrants that incorporates the best characteristics of each ethnicity into an exceptional American identity. For four German editors in Cincinnati, however, acculturation resulted in a dangerous homogenization of cultures that destroyed God’s vision for his human creation. Instead of studying human difference in America, these German Americans looked to the geographies where each Volk lived in its native habitat and where the imperialists had not yet destroyed cultural diversity. This dissertation shows that even though the Germans insisted that race was merely a social construct (they rejected the biological determinism of their contemporaries), they were unable to create an equitable social model for human existence. Instead, the religious Bildungsbürgertum turned to an alternate source of human difference from which to assert their exceptionalism. They replaced “race” with “Volk”; they framed progress as the restoration of a religiously exclusive but culturally diverse human population; and they participated in the German project of identity formation before the instantiation of the German nation-state through the transatlantic circulation of their newspapers.

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