Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Crevecouer’s “What is an American?” are two seminal essays describing Americans. These texts are easily applicable to modern-day American citizens. In order to answer your question fully, let’s examine important quotes from each of these essays.
“The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.” Crevecouer describes the relative uniformity of America’s social classes in this quote. However, in 2018, many scholars have noted the ever-widening gap between the top 1% of earners in the U.S. with the rest. Contrary to Crevecouer’s observation in the 18th century, modern Americans are starkly divided according to socioeconomic status.
“We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory. . . united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable.” Crevecouer explains that Americans respect their government because of its just laws and restraint. However, Crevecouer wrote this at a time when slavery was still legal throughout the territories. This shows Crevecouer’s limited understanding of an equitable government. Today, many would argue our laws are still unjust (note the current immigration debate and police brutality protests), and no one would suggest that everyone respects and trusts the government.
“There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time.” Crevecouer praises the innovation and grit of American people, whom he views as taming a once-untamable wilderness. Many Americans still cling to this belief in American exceptionalism, which shows how Crevecouer’s ideas have endured.
“Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.” This “melting pot” idea has been a central point on every list about America’s greatness since Crevecouer wrote this essay. The belief that Americans are without race, ethnicity, or any other unique identifier is what drives modern Americans to avoid discussing these topics. Many Americans still expect foreigners to assimilate fully into American society or “go home.”
“To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.” This famous quote seems to concur with Crevecouer’s assertion that Americans possess a level of unparalleled innovation, even when it comes to ideas. This idea is also part of the American exceptionalist rhetoric we see today.
“Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. The virtue in most request is conformity.” This is where Emerson and Crevecouer differ. While the latter praises the equity in American society, Emerson derides it, saying it is an enemy of enlightenment. Emerson criticizes society because he thinks it makes individuals carbon copies of one another, which he views as a blocker of innovation. The belief in non-conformity is reflected in modern America via the mantra of “uniqueness.” Messages from the media and artists tell adolescents to be true to themselves, and our collective emphasis on pleasing oneself carries these ideas into adulthood.
“Then, again, do not tell me, as a good man did to-day, of my obligation to put all poor men in good situations. Are they my poor? I tell thee, thou foolish philanthropist, that I grudge the dollar, the dime, the cent, I give to such men as do not belong to me and to whom I do not belong.” This statement vehemently contradicts Crevecouer’s idealized description of America. While he prizes the equitable treatment of the poor, Emerson asserts it is not anyone’s responsibility to care for them. This attitude is certainly prevalent in modern America, with many denigrating the homeless and critically poor, often blaming them for their predicaments.
“Every true man is a cause, a country, and an age; requires infinite spaces and numbers and time fully to accomplish his design; — and posterity seem to follow his steps as a train of clients.” This idea aligns with Crevecouer’s views of America’s impact on the future. However, Emerson distinguishes his opinion by hinging this impact on the individual rather than the country as a whole. Modern Americans are still concerned with their legacy and impact, which once again relates to the exceptionalist ideology.
“. . . The wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still.” Emerson criticizes traveling and worrying about the global state of things. In contrast, Crevecouer directs his essay at a European visitor in America who would be impressed with the young country’s accomplishments. Emerson argues that an individual—even a country—should not be concerned with anyone but himself alone. While this idea is not the overruling feeling of the majority, modern American libertarians certainly advocate for this isolationist policy regarding foreign affairs, states rights, and social welfare programs.
Overall, the majority of the ideological views espoused in both texts are still prevalent among modern Americans. Crevecouer’s idealized version of America, however, is not nor has ever been the reality, but that hasn’t stopped Americans from wishing it were true. The bold individualism of Emerson is also reflected in Americans’ attitudes and behaviors in both private and public life.
Emerson's "Self-Reliance" celebrates originality and nonconformity. He was opposed to people imitating others and famously wrote:
There is a time in every man's education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion.
Emerson believed that true genius lay in following one's unique instincts and proclivities and not in copying others.
Emerson also believed that Americans should not emulate Europeans but should instead cultivate what made them special. He wrote,
It is for want of self-culture that the superstition of Travelling, whose idols are Italy, England, Egypt, retains its fascination for all educated Americans. They who made England, Italy, or Greece venerable in the imagination did so by sticking fast where they were, like an axis of the earth.
In other words, Emerson believed Americans should not try to imitate Europeans, as Europeans became great by fostering what was special within their own cultures. If Americans wanted to become great, Emerson thought, they should stay on their own land and cultivate what was uniquely American.
Similarly, Crevecoeur, a Frenchman, was in awe of the unique spirit that he felt animated America. He wrote of the visitor to American shores: "He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemptation, different from what he had hitherto seen." Crevecoeur noted the distinctiveness of American culture from European culture and celebrated this distinctiveness.
Crevecoeur, unlike Emerson, believed Americans had surpassed Europeans' greatness. He said of Americans:
Everything has tended to regenerate them; new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men: in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegitative mould, and refreshing showers; they withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger, and war.
While Emerson believed each person should cultivate greatness where he or she lived and that Americans and Europeans were each great in their own way, Crevecoeur believed Americans enjoyed a unique sense of freedom and liberty that was far superior to what Europeans had.
Americans today do not tend to want to emulate Europeans and generally believe in what is called "American exceptionalism"--the idea that Americans have a unique sense of freedom and a particular destiny that is special in the world. Therefore, modern Americans' self-conceptions could be generalized as similar to those of Emerson and Crevecoeur.