profile of a farmer with an American flag in the background all contained within a circle set against a mountain backdrop

Letters from an American Farmer

by Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur

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What features, according to Crevecoeur, distinguish Americans from people in other countries?

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In his analysis of Americanism, Crèvecoeur focuses on two principal phenomena: first, the leveling factor of economic reality, in which the huge gulf between rich and poor that exists in Europe is absent from America; and second, the unprecedented ethnic and religious diversity that exists in the New World, which he supposes will have a positive effect on the newly formed society.

Much of what he observed in 1782 is even more true today. Most people whose families have been in the United States for more than a generation are of mixed ethnic background or "nationality." The mixing of European nationalities has now been significantly broadened to include those of non-European background. So a factor that was already present at the time Crèvecoeur wrote his Letters has continued into the present.

With regard to religion, his observations were and are both true and not so true. He felt that the differences between Christian denominations were less important in America than in Europe, and this was so at the time. The implication of this was also that religious belief in general was less strong in the New World. The United States was founded explicitly without an official religion of state. Ironically today, however, most people would observe that in comparison with Europe, religious belief is stronger in the United States, at least in some regions. At the same time, however, it was and is (as Crèvecoeur observes) a more ecumenical form of belief in America, precisely because of the intermingling of people of different backgrounds whose roots are in different regions of Europe and elsewhere.

Crèvecoeur saw this phenomenon in embryo, so to speak. In reality, there was to be an intense form of religious bigotry directed against Irish Catholics when they first arrived in the United States in large numbers in the 1840s. But few people today would think that any antagonism exists, at least between Christian denominations. It's a sad fact to have to qualify it in this manner, because recent political demagoguery at the highest level has encouraged many Americans to revert to a more intense form of bigotry against non-Christian religions.

Crèvecoeur also notes, in passing, that an English immigrant of his time will see that the national "genius" of his own country has animated America. For people from the Continent of Europe in the eighteenth century, Great Britain was seen as the one major country in which there was at least a degree of genuine liberty and democracy. The American Revolution was in some ways more a fulfillment of what existed in a rudimentary form, or as an ideal, in the home country than an overturning of the system that was developing through the English Constitution. Today we see a bonding between the US and British cultures that was never fully disrupted. Crèvecoeur noted, as we have seen, various elements of American culture that have sustained themselves or have been transmuted into somewhat different modes of thinking and of social reality over the past 240 years.

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Published in 1782, Letters from an American Farmer is a series of epistolary essays by the French-American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur. As you said, the central question of this work is "what is an American?"

Before we get into that, let's pin down a few essential facts that provide context. First, Crèvecoeur was French by birth, but at the time of writing, he was living and working on a farm in New York state. Letters, published in London, is like a postcard that he sent home to his family, friends, and countrymen; it's also like a study in cultural anthropology, and it's a political discourse. As much as it's intended for an audience "back home," it's also a text that sends a message to the community he's living in—people who aren't quite sure of their own identity, or of what it means to be an American.

Keep in mind that America was a brand-new country during those years. So the question of "what is American" is a complicated one. (Who can claim to be an American? We're not talking about native Americans: we're talking about a new nationality that doesn't have a well-defined character or established customs yet. And it's a population that consisted primarily, with the exception of slaves, of people who chose to go to America.)

Now, onto the key features of Americans that Crèvecoeur lays out in the letters.

What is an American?

Free and Equal

In the earlier letters, the author is optimistic about what it means to be American. In contrast with his native Frenchmen, Crèvecoeur suggests, Americans had "no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops ... no great manufacturers employing thousands." His vision here is practically utopian:

We have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed; we are the most perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free as he ought to be. 

Especially because the author describes himself as a relatively ordinary farmer, his view of this egalitarian society must have made quite an impression on his readers. Later, when he's highlighting the lack of wealth inequality on Nantucket, his language is equally flowery as he points to the sea as an open resource for all:

The sea, which surrounds them, is equally open to all and presents to all an equal title to the chance of good fortune.

Forward-thinking and open-minded

Europeans might enjoy visiting old Roman ruins, Crèvecoeur says, and reveling in melancholy pleasures. But the American is focused on the future, and on what he can build and grow in the new frontier. As he writes of the American:

Your mind is... a Tabula rasa where spontaneous and strong impressions are delineated with felicity.

Connected to nature

There's a lot of wide open land on the American frontier. This lack of civilization makes it possible for the American to be at one with nature. The letters are filled with idyllic descriptions of the land and environment. As Crèvecoeur writes early in the letters:

Who can listen unmoved to the sweet love tales of our robins told from tree to tree? 

Moderate

Crèvecoeur characterizes Americans as simpler and more moderate than their European counterparts, who, in his view, indulge in too many vices and excesses. 

Hard-working

The author's positive view of Americans continues with a description of hard-working, fair-minded, prejudice-free people:

Happy the people who are subject to so mild a government; happy the government which has to rule over such harmless and such industrious subjects! . . . I wish I had it in my power to send the most persecuting bigot I could find in —— to the whale fisheries; in three or four years you would find him a much more tractable man and therefore a better Christian.

All of these traits, taken together, form a strikingly idealistic image of what it means to be American. It's worth noting, though, that Crèvecoeur becomes less and less convinced of this ideal as time goes by (he was writing these letters for seven years) and he becomes more aware of the injustices that slaves suffer at the hands of their masters. 

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