Excerpt from Letters from an American Farmer
Written in 1782
A French immigrant writes about the advantages of being an American
"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 labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. — This is an American."
In 1782, a French immigrant to North America, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735–1813), published a series of essays titled Letters from an American Farmer. It was one of the first presentations of the idea that settlers in the newly independent United States would constitute a new nationality based on a shared dream of freedom and equality. The American, he declared, would be distinct from the various European nationalities from which Americans had originated. De Crèvecoeur had no way of knowing when he wrote his essay in 1782 just how complex the question of American nationality would become. But his idea, written midway between the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the adoption of the Constitution of the United States (1788)—milestone documents that established the United States as a nation—laid out an ideal that became popular in the American imagination, even if it fell far short of the reality of a nation of immigrants.
Most people in America can trace their ancestry to some other place. In some cases, citizens were born on another continent and came to the United States as immigrants, or they are the children of immigrants. In other cases, their last name—O'Reilly, Schmidt, Ferraro, or Li, for example—suggests that a long-forgotten ancestor emigrated from Ireland, Germany, Italy, or China to the United States.
Almost from the beginning, residents of the United States had two ideas about their nationality. On the one hand, they were Americans, citizens of a new republic who had over-thrown the rule of a king and governed themselves by voting for the people who served in a type of government called a democracy. (A republic is a government without a king, based on the popular will of the people; a democracy is a government chosen by the citizens through the process of voting.) On the other hand, they remembered their ancestors from another place, and in some sense thought of themselves as English or Italian or Chinese but living in North America, even if they personally had never visited their ancestors' country. Indeed, the leaders of the American revolution against British rule in 1776 gave as one reason for demanding independence their belief that their political rights as Englishmen had been violated by King George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820) of England.
Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur, better known as Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, was a native of Normandy, in France, who had come to the United States in 1765. He lived in New Jersey and wrote a series of essays titled Letters from an American Farmer. They were among the first essays to suggest that coming to North America to seek a fortune under the freedom of a new democracy made residents of the United States somehow different than people still living in Europe.
The essential traits of this new nationality, de Crèvecoeur wrote, were a belief in the equality of all men, and a desire to go about their business without undue interference from the government or from an organized church. For de Crèvecoeur, the essential nature of Americans was their common political beliefs.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from Letters from an American Farmer:
- The author, in viewing the new nationality called Americans, left out one important group: Africans. The slaves who tilled the fields of America—not just only in the South, but also in the North when de Crèvecoeur wrote—had not come voluntarily and did not participate in the joys and benefits of a newfound freedom. To the contrary, they suffered generations of slavery, toiling without compensation or hope of freedom, watching their children or even their spouses sold away like cattle. The inability of Africans to participate in de Crèvecoeur's vision was for hundreds of years a living contradiction to his theory.
- De Crèvecoeur also ignored the existence of Native Americans, who had inhabited North America and established well-organized societies long before any Europeans ventured across the ocean. Instead, he pretended that Europeans discovered a new and empty continent where they could conduct a new experiment in a society comprised of people who had dreamed of freedom from European customs and prejudices, even if it meant pushing the native inhabitants off their land by violence.
- The author thought in 1782 that Europeans from many backgrounds would come together to form new families whose common nationality was American. "I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations," he wrote in Letters from an American Farmer. The reality was somewhat different. For most of American history, immigrants have remained attached to their original national identity, tending to marry people of the same nationality and remaining in touch with communities of people of the same original nationality.
- De Crèvecoeur's account of immigration to the United States before 1782 was idealized. Some Europeans had come to the United States as indentured servants, individuals who were obligated to work for little or no pay for a set period, usually seven years, in exchange for their passage. These Americans were not participating in new visions of freedom; they were, for a period, essentially slaves who did not have the freedom to strike out into the American frontier to make their fortunes. Women also had few political rights in the United States.
- For most of the nineteenth century, de Crèvecoeur's essays were ignored. After being first published in London in 1782, the essays were published once in Philadelphia in 1793. After that, there is no record of a reprinting until 1904. The fact these essays were published in 1904 is significant because this was a period when waves of Europeans were immigrating. De Crèvecoeur's book contributed to the notion of Americans as a new nationality just at a time when some Americans worried that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe might dilute the nature of the American character. Although it was written in the eighteenth century, the real significance of Letters from an American Farmer lay in the early twentieth century.
Excerpt from Letters from an American Farmer
Letter III. What Is an American.
I wish I could be acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must agitate the heart and present themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent. He must greatly rejoice that he lived at a time to see this fair country discovered and settled; he must necessarily feel a share of national pride, when he views the chain of settlements which embellishes these extended shores. When he says to himself, this is the work of my countrymen, who, when convulsed by factions, afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants, restless and impatient, took refuge here. They brought along with them their national genius, to which they principally owe what liberty they enjoy, and what substance they possess. Here he sees the industry of his native country displayed in a new manner, and traces in their works the embryos of all the arts, sciences, and ingenuity which flourish in Europe. Here he beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years ago all was wild, woody and uncultivated! What a train of pleasing ideas this fair spectacle must suggest; it is a prospect which must inspire a good citizen with the most heartfelt pleasure. The difficulty consists in the manner of viewing so extensive a scene. He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of cultivators, scattered over an immense territory communicating with each other by means of good roads and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself. If he travels through our rural districts he views not the hostile castle, and the haughty mansion, contrasted with the clay-built hut and miserable cabin, where cattle and men help to keep each other warm, and dwell in meanness, smoke, and indigence. A pleasing uniformity of decent competence appears throughout our habitations. The meanest of our log-houses is a dry and comfortable habitation. Lawyer or merchant are the fairest titles our towns afford; that of a farmer is the only appellation of the rural inhabitants of our country. It must take some time ere he can reconcile himself to our dictionary, which is but short in words of dignity, and names of honour. There, on a Sunday, he sees a congregation of respectable farmers and their wives, all clad in neat homespun, well mounted, or riding in their own humble waggons. There is not among them an esquire, saving the unlettered magistrate. There he sees a parson as simple as his flock, a farmer who does not riot on the labour of others. 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; nor is this pleasing equality so transitory as many others are. Many ages will not see the shores of our great lakes replenished with inland nations, nor the unknown bounds of North America entirely peopled. Who can tell how far it extends? Who can tell the millions of men whom it will feed and contain? For no European foot has as yet travelled half the extent of this mighty continent!
The next wish of this traveller will be to know whence came all these people? They are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called Americans have arisen. The eastern provinces must indeed be excepted, as being the unmixed descendants of Englishmen. I have heard many wish that they had been more intermixed also: for my part, I am no wisher, and think it much better as it has happened. They exhibit a most conspicuous figure in this great and variegated picture; they too enter for a great share in the pleasing perspective displayed in these thirteen provinces. I know it is fashionable to reflect on them, but I respect them for what they have done; for the accuracy and wisdom with which they have settled their territory; for the decency of their manners; for their early love of letters; their ancient college, the first in this hemisphere; for their industry; which to me who am but a farmer, is the criterion of everything. There never was a people, situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time. Do you think that the monarchical ingredients which are more prevalent in other governments, have purged them from all foul stains? Their histories assert the contrary.
In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together, and in consequence of various causes; to what purpose should they ask one another what countrymen they are? Alas, two thirds of them had no country. Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country? A country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a single foot of the extensive surface of this planet? No! Urged by a variety of motives, here they came. Every thing 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; but now by the power of transplantation, like all other plants they have taken root and flourished! Formerly they were not numbered in any civil lists of their country, except in those of the poor; here they rank as citizens. By what invisible power has this surprising metamorphosis been performed? By that of the laws and that of their industry. The laws, the indulgent laws, protect them as they arrive, stamping on them the symbol of adoption; they receive ample rewards for their labours; these accumulated rewards procure them lands; those lands confer on them the title of freemen, and to that title every benefit is affixed which men can possibly require. This is the great operation daily performed by our laws. From whence proceed these laws? From our government. Whence the government? It is derived from the original genius and strong desire of the people ratified and confirmed by the crown. This is the great chain which links us all….
What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge of the language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him: his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence: Ubi panis ibi patria, is the motto of all emigrants. What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. 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, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of the different climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord. Here religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these? 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 labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence. —This is an American….
After a foreigner from any part of Europe is arrived, and become a citizen; let him devoutly listen to the voice of our great parent, which says to him, "Welcome to my shores, distressed European; bless the hour in which thou didst see my verdant fields, my fair navigable rivers, and my green mountains!—If thou wilt work, I have bread for thee; if thou wilt be honest, sober, and industrious, I have greater rewards to confer on thee—ease and independence. I will give thee fields to feed and cloath thee; a comfortable fireside to sit by, and tell thy children by what means thou hast prospered; and a decent bed to repose on. I shall endow thee beside with the immunities of a freeman. If thou wilt carefully educate thy children, teach them gratitude to God, and reverence to that government that philanthropic government, which has collected here so many men and made them happy. I will also provide for thy progeny; and to every good man this ought to be the most holy, the most Powerful, the most earnest wish he can possibly form, as well as the most consolatory prospect when he dies. Go thou and work and till; thou shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful and industrious."
What happened next …
Initially, laws of the United States were in accord with de Crèvecoeur's vision. People from any nationality were free to become citizens after living in the country for a period of years, with one notable exception: to become a citizen, a person had to be "free and white," according to the nation's first naturalization law passed in 1790. (Naturalization is the process by which an immigrant achieves the rights of a citizen, notably the right to vote in elections.) Even after people whose skin was regarded as "black" achieved equal rights, people from Asian ancestors continued to be denied the right to become citizens. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (see chapter 8), for example, banned immigration of Chinese people to the United States for ten years, a period later extended until 1944. Chinese were also excluded from being naturalized.
Although de Crèvecoeur wrote of a society in which there were no great distinctions between rich and poor, as in Europe, over the course of the next century enormous distinctions developed between rich business owners and poor workers or small farmers. By the beginning of the twentieth century, when Letters from an American Farmer was republished for the first time since 1793, the social and economic conditions of the United States had changed dramatically. Huge factories had risen in cities, employing thousands of European immigrants for wages barely high enough on which to live. On the other end of the economic scale, men like John D. Rockefeller (1839–1937) and Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919) had built huge fortunes in oil and steel respectively. Their wealth was so vast that they were nicknamed the "Robber Barons," using an ancient title of European aristocrats to convey a sense that in the United States, the old ideal of equality had been replaced by the reality of a huge gap between the wealthy and their workers—a sharp contrast to the picture painted by de Crèvecoeur. Nevertheless, the idealistic portrait of a country populated by hard-working independent farmers was a powerful myth, one kept alive in part by twentieth-century reproductions of the essays of de Crèvecoeur.
The idea of an American "melting pot" has not always been favored in the United States. Throughout the nineteenth centuries, there were movements that objected to the immigration of people from outside northern Europe. The Know-Nothing Party, for example, ran presidential candidates in 1848 and 1852, advocating an end to the immigration of Roman Catholics from Ireland and other people who did not fit the mold of a Protestant, white, northern-European population. The Workingman's Party of California became a strong, though short-lived, influence in 1878 and 1879 in reaction against immigration by Chinese. In more modern times, political movements have tried to control the character of American society by insisting that all public school classes be taught in English, a position widely understood to be aimed at Spanish-speaking immigrants from Mexico and Central America.
Did you know …
- The idea that American society is a "melting pot" started gaining popularity in the early twentieth century. The term referred to a process in which the habits and characteristics of immigrants from many different countries merge together and become a new nationality. The phrase "melting pot" dates from a play by that title written by a Jewish immigrant, Israel Zangwill (1864–1926). The play was first produced in Washington, D.C., in 1904.
- De Crèvecoeur himself did not become an American, about which he wrote. After living in New Jersey, he was appointed the French consul (representative) in New York City. He later returned to Europe, where he died in 1813.
For More Information
De Crèvecoeur, Hector St. John. Letters from an American Farmer. London: J. M. Dent and Sons Ltd, 1782. Multiple reprints.
Glazer, Nathan, and Daniel P. Moynihan. Beyond the Melting Pot: The Negroes, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish of New York City. 2nd ed. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970.
O'Neill, Teresa, ed. Immigration: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego, CA: Greenhaven Press, 1992.
Zangwell, Israel. The Melting-Pot: Drama in Four Acts. New York: Macmillan, 1909. Reprint, Arno Press, 1975.
Wortham, Anne. "The Melting Pot—Are We There Yet?" World and I (September 2001): p. 261.
Woodlief, Ann M. "Negotiating Nature/Wilderness: Crèvecoeur and American Identity in Letters from an American Farmer." English Department, Virginia Commonwealth University. http://www.vcu.edu/engweb/crev.htm (accessed on January 26, 2004).