This extraordinary book, Letters from an American Farmer, which posed the question, "What is an American" in 1782, and answered it in a way to win the enthusiastic assent of any modern Tea Partyer, was written by a man who lived the sort of adventurous life so common in America at that time - but he was a Frenchman.
J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813) was well educated at a Jesuit school, and at the age of 19 went to visit relatives in England, where, symbolizing his attachment to things English, he became engaged to a local girl. There was no marriage, however, because the girl died, and the next year he sailed as a soldier to New France, where he was mentioned in dispatches to Luis XVI as a skilled cartographer. By 1759 he was a lieutenant. He was wounded in the battle on the Plains of Abraham that settled the French and Indian war and ceded Canada to Great Britain. When Crevecoeur recovered he sold his commission and traveled to New York City where he became a salesman, cartographer, and surveyor, traveling the length and breadth of the colonies and even beyond the Appalachians to St. Louis and up the Mississippi to the Great Lakes.
In 1765 he became a naturalized subject of Great Britain in the colony of New York. Four years later he married the daughter of a prominent Tory family and bought land in Orange County, where he made a farm and wrote the Letters (in English). These were the happiest years of his life, farming, writing, consorting with a circle of cultivated acquaintances. The War of Independence, the bitter struggle between loyalists and patriots, brought an end to Crevecoeur's idyll. Caught in the middle, he left his wife and three children in the hands of friends and fled to the city, where the British imprisoned him as a spy. Freed, he suffered a nervous breakdown. It was only in 1780 that he was allowed to sail to England, where he sold the manuscript of Letters to a London publisher.
He traveled to France, and as the fame of his book spread, he joined a circle of intellectuals in Paris that included Buffon and Ben Franklin. He wrote a comprehensive report on the American colonies for the French government, and as a result was made the French consul in New York City, where he returned in 1783. Indians had burned his farm buildings, his wife had died, and his three children had vanished. Eventually he learned that they had been taken to Boston, and that's a story in itself: in 1781, just returned to France, he met and succored five seamen from Boston, cast on the shore. When they returned home, they got a fellow townsman to make the trip to Crevecoeur's farm, where he rescued the children (one of the daughters, named America-France, had Thomas Jefferson as a guest at her wedding).
As a consul, Crevecoeur was very successful, establishing a packet line to France, encouraging French imports, writing newspaper articles on agriculture, founding botanical gardens, and furthering the cultivation of alfalfa. After seven years he went back to France where he wrote more sketches, going over some of the same ground as the Letters, but these were not discovered and published until the 1920s.
The book consists of twelve letters: the first three are general, four through eight are about the maritime settlements, Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard, nine purports to describe Southern agriculture, but is largely a diatribe against slavery, ten is about odd and fantastic phenomena in Nature, eleven is an interesting account of a visit to George Bartrams's botanic garden outside Philadelphia, and the last letter, "Stresses of a Frontier Man," is a long lament about his situation during the Revolution.
From our point of view, the book suffers from two defects: written in the style of the 18th century, we are apt to think it rather prolix, much of it is irrelevant to our interests. The first three letters, directly concerned with the theme of Americanness, are the ones to read. The letters about Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard are factually interesting about whaling and the cod fishery, and the visit to Bartram's is valuable for his description of dike farming, but that's about it.
Letter one is an introduction which settles the fictional terms of the work: an Englishman from Cambridge, "Mr. F. B.," once a visitor at the farm of the speaker, James, has asked him to describe "our American modes of farming, our manners and our peculiar customs." James' wife mocks the idea: " . . . wouldst thee pretend to send epistles to a great European man who hath lived abundance of time in that big house called Cambridge . . . ?" but the minister intervenes to persuade James to undertake the task, advising him to write as if he were speaking to the man. Since the speaker is going to be anything but deferential to Europeans, we see right away a vein of that ironic humor so common in American writing - think of Twain, Melville, and Lardner.
The second letter, "On the Situation, Feelings, and Pleasures of an American Farmer," begins to delineate the subject, and we learn that the sine qua non of the American situation is private property:
The instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence, exalts my mind . . . on it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens, our importance as inhabitants of such a district . . . this is what may be called the true and the only philosophy of an American farmer.
These passages are interspersed with warm descriptions of the speaker's work on the farm as well as of natural phenomena, some quite fabulous in the ironic mode, as when, telling about the depredations among his honeybees caused by kingbirds, he kills one and finds 171 bees in its craw, 54 of which shake themselves and fly off! I can testify that most of his accounts of farm life are authentic. I was particularly interested in his description of the way he hunts for wild bee trees, having done it just the same way myself.
Letter three, "What Is an American?" enumerates the conditions of American felicity: "The rich and poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe." He goes on to speak of "the poor of Europe" coming to our shores:
Everything has tended to regenerate them: new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men. . . . By what invisible power that this surprising metamorphosis been performed? By that of the laws and that of their industry. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men . . . the American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labor, he has passed to the toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. This is an American.
Contrasting Europe with America is a constant theme, dramatizing the significance of our exceptionalism. Nor is it hyperbole. In this letter Crevecoeur cites as an example (which I can verify) of Nova Scotia: "there the crown has done all . . . the power of the crown . . . in conjunction with the musketos has prevented men from setting there." Two centuries later it was still true.
Although he limned a very attractive picture of his life on the farm, Crevecoeur was quite explicit about the labor involved in that endeavor. One example of his realism is his treatment of the waves of settlement. The first wave, the frontiersmen, are rude and coarse, corrupters of Indians (his conception of Indians, despite his close knowledge of them, seems to have been tinged by Rousseau's Noble Savage), and lawless, but they are succeeded by the next wave: "The true American freeholders, the most respectable set of people." Well, that's a libel on frontiersmen, but certainly life at the sharp end was no picnic. And he is definite about what is required for success here:
It is not every emigrant who succeeds; no, it is only the sober, the honest, and industrious.
I was amused by a note of realism in the midst of a paean to the American "scene of happiness, interrupted only by the folly of individuals, by our spirit of litigiousness . . . " I hadn't realized that problem was of such an ancient date!
Crevecoeur is no de Tocqueville, but from his point of view, that of an educated, intelligent farmer, he was very observant, and he certainly grasped the essence of the American promise. It is heartening to read these pages in these parlous times. *