De Crevecoeur is a writer with a divided reputation and a mysterious and fascinating past. Crevecoeur rewards the reader’s close attention but only rarely provides firm conclusions about the author’s views and intentions. In “What Is an American?”–the most famous essay in his internationally acclaimed Letters from an American Farmer (1782)–Crevecoeur offers an idealistic portrait of the soon-to-be United States, one that resonated with later depictions of the nation as a melting pot and a land of opportunity. Farmer James, Crevecoeur’s persona in the Letters, is at his happiest and most hopeful here, and these qualities have sometimes been taken as his creator’s entire understanding of “the American, this new man”; however, the full text of the Letters tells a different story. It includes a shocking depiction of a slave suffering a brutal punishment; and it ends with Farmer James having moved his family to a frontier Indian village out of despair over the fratricidal violence unleashed by the Revolution. The complexity of Crevecoeur’s stance toward Revolutionary-era American society is greatly magnified by the uncertainties surrounding the author’s ultimate commitments. The uncertainties associated with the work itself are amplified by the differences between the English and French editions.
Born Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur in Caen, Normandy, he was the son of a minor nobleman. He came to reject Catholicism as oppressive, and perhaps for this reason he broke with his father as a teenager, sailed to England, and lived there with distant relatives. He traveled to French Canada and enlisted in the militia. He was wounded in the defense of Quebec during one of the major battles of the French and Indian War (1754-63). He later traveled to New York and was naturalized as a British colonial subject in 1765 and changed his name to Hector St. John. Sometimes he went by James Hector St. John, a moniker suggesting that he identified with his persona Farmer James. Crevecoeur traveled extensively in the colonies as a surveyor and a trader with American Indians. He married a wealthy Protestant woman, bought land in New York and settled into life on his farm. They had three children. In his first year at Pine Hill, Crevecoeur began to write a series of essays about America based on his travels and experience as a farmer.
He was arrested and imprisoned as an American spy in 1779, when he tried to sail from the British-held port of New York. Crevecoeur reached London in 1780 and sold his manuscript to a publishing house there, leading to the 1782 edition of Letters. There is evidence to suggest that the British edition was partially rewritten by an unknown editor to draw out its republican themes. He reconciled with his father then moved to Paris. The French translation of the Letters (1784) was recast more favorably toward France.
In 1783, Crevecoeur returned to the now victorious United States. He then learned that his farm had been burned in an Indian attack, his wife was dead, and his children were housed with strangers. After regaining custody of his children and moving to New York City, Crevecoeur was made French consul to New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. He was a great success as a diplomat. He later became an adopted member of the Oneida Nation.
Farmer James writes his letters in response to queries from an English visitor, who wishes to better understand America. The personal letter was a central genre in eighteenth-century literary culture, featured in epistolary novels as well as popular travelers’ and naturalists’ accounts, both factual and fictional. The American farmer was already a well-established figure in the political and social debates of the day.
Crevecoeur’s Letters engage the revolutionary-era debates over human nature and political organization vividly but unspecifically. He inserted himself into the same transatlantic debates over Americanness and its effects on humankind. Crevecoeur’s philosophical themes are woven through his work rather than presented discursively. This allusiveness distinguishes Crevecoeur’s Letters from the political writings of the day and lends the collection its lasting fascination.
From Letters from an American Farmer
From Letter III. What Is an American?
Begins lyrical and lofty in tone. The new continent is vast. Modern society, but different. No aristocratic families, no kings, no invisible power for the few. No great manufacturers employing thousands, few luxuries. Rich and poor closer to each other than in Europe. United by silken bands of mild government, all respecting laws, without dreading their power because they are equitable. Wants to convey the image that we are all equal and well taken care of. We have no princes. We are the most perfect society now in the world. We are a nation of immigrants. There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time.
Crevecoeur writes of how much better this country treats her people. Laws protect people as they arrive and people are rewarded for their labors. People can buy land. Our government sets up the laws.
Crevecoeur sets out his definition of being an American. He mentions language, land, bread, protection and consequence. We all come from other countries and marry people from other countries. “He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men…” We can see our labors changing the world. Arts, sciences, vigor and industry. Incorporated into one fine system. We have new ideas and opinions. Simple subsistence. We are shaped through nurture and find little crime.
Crevecoeur describes different characteristics according to where people live. He mentions those that live near water, and those that live near the center of the country. More people are moving toward the center. The general indulgence leaves everyone to think for themselves in spiritual matters. He describes backwoods people saying they are the wildest bunch being the furthest away from the government. Where you live differentiates you from people living in other areas.
Various Christian sects introduced wear out, and religious indifference becomes prevalent. The nearer the church, the stronger the zeal. The strict modes of Christianity as practiced in Europe are lost. He gives an example. We do not care what religion you practice, so long as you are peaceful, who cares? Your religion doesn’t make you any better or worse than the next guy. “Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents.” The fury of making proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time, the seasons call for all their attention. One may try a different religion’s church because it is nearby; others may stop attending altogether. Thus all sects are mixed as well as all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest characteristics of the Americans. Zeal evaporates in the great distance it has to travel. It burns away in the open air.
Woods people have to keep predators away. The farmer becomes the hunter. Woods people experience a lawless profligacy. Their wives and children live in sloth and inactivity; and having no proper pursuits, you may judge what education the latter receive. Half civilized, half savage. They are lonely and eat wild meat. No place of worship. They adopt the moroseness of ferocity of a native, without his mildness or his industry at home. As hunters it is divided between the toil of the chase, the idleness of repose, or the indulgence of inebriation. If European backwoods men can become so wild just imagine the Indians!
This place is settled by freeholders, the possessors of the soil they cultivate, members of the government they obey, the framers of their own laws, by means of representatives. The idle may be employed, the useless become useful, the poor become rich by cleared lands, cattle, good houses, good clothes. New arrivals meet with hospitality, kindness and plenty. We seldom hear of punishment or executions. We have elegant towns, industry and freedom. We have rural districts, convenient roads, good taverns and many accommodations.
If you want to work we have bread for you. America will also provide for your children, which is every parent’s fondest wish. “Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful, and industrious.”
From Letter IX. Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene
Charles-Town is a capital in the north and one of the richest provinces. Carolina produces commodities, has thriving industries and displays its riches and luxuries. It was build at the confluence of two large rivers. It have warfs, docks, and warehouses which are extremely convenient to facilitate this great commercial business. Inhabitants are the happiest and at the center of the beau monde. They have the richest planters with the best health and pleasure. Our space provides better health than the West Indians could ever dream. The growth of this town and province has been astonishingly rapid. The weather is temperate though sometimes when they have no sea breezes the sun is too powerful. There are elegant houses with sumptuous furniture and table settings. The three principal classes of inhabitants are lawyers, planters and merchants. The richest spoils are to them and nothing can exceed their wealth, power and influence. These men are more properly law givers than interpreters of the law. They have the skill and dexterity of the scribe with the power and ambition of the prince. We are a litigious society as well.
At the same time, scenes of misery overspread the country. They neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds. Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen; and no one thinks with compassion of those showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans, daily drop, and moisten the ground they till. [See ninth edition page 647 for deeper discussion of a slavery.]
A clergyman comes in to soften hearts against slavery. The people got upset and asked him to stick to the bible. We try to conceive of slavery as not so bad since it has been known in all ages and all countries. Does the cosmic order abandon mankind to all the errors, the follies, and the miseries, which their most frantic rage, and their most dangerous vices and passions can produce? Everywhere one part of the human species are taught the art of shedding the blood of the other; of setting fire to their dwellings; of leveling the works of their industry; half of the existence of nations regularly employed in destroying other nations. This displays the violence of colonization. Man is neither civilized in nature nor in city. I prefer the country. Too many people equals more trouble. These are my melancholy reflections. While on a walk I perceived a Negro suspended in a cage and left to expire . I gave him a drink of water. The reason for this slave being thus punished was on account of his having killed the overseer of the plantation.
From Letter X. On Snakes; and on the Humming Bird
While on a walk I came across two snakes, one pursuing the other. The aggressor was of the black kind, six feet long; the fugitive was a water snake, nearly of equal dimensions. They mutually tried with open jaws to lacerate each other. The scene was uncommon and beautiful; for this opposed they fought with their jaws. The black one pulled the water snake back from the ditch. Victory seemed doubtful, inclining sometimes to the one side and sometimes to the other. They both plunged into the ditch. The black snake seemed to retain its wonted superiority. It incessantly pressed down under the water, until the water snake was stifled and sunk. The black snake returned to shore and disappeared.