The American Beginning

The dark side of Crèvecoeur's "Letters from an American Farmer"

by Alan Taylor | July 18, 2013

photo credit: Rob Pybus

“What, then, is the American, this new man?” In Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur posed this celebrated question at a pivotal moment in American history: during the founding generation for both the republic and its national literature. First published in 1782, the question struck a chord: more than any other people on the planet Americans wonder who they are and seek praise in reply. In his much reprinted third letter, Crèvecoeur provided the canonical answer to his question. His American was an immigrant transformed into the antithesis of his European past: “This great metamorphosis ... extinguishes all his European prejudices; 
he forgets that mechanism of subordination, that servility of disposition which poverty had taught him.” Fleeing from crowded and contentious domains ruled by exploitative aristocrats and kings, immigrants flocked to “this great American asylum,” where they felt liberated by the abundant and fertile land of a vast continent. At last, thousands of poor men could own their own farms instead of working for a landlord or employer. “The instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence exalt my mind,” effused Farmer James, Crèvecoeur’s narrator. The new man becomes resourceful and enterprising, energized by the ability to keep the fruits of his own labor. “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.” Codifying the American dream, Crèvecoeur concludes that “it is here, then, that the idle may be employed, the useless become useful, and the poor become rich.” 

The Americans, in Crèvecoeur's account, created a new society that sustained their new freedom and prosperity. A land of rough equality, America had “no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops ... no great manufactures employing thousands.” Instead the colonists were “united by the silken bands of mild government” that demanded few taxes. In this golden land of equal opportunity, almost everyone was “animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself,” instead of serving a powerful landlord, employer, king, or bishop. “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.”

No one has better stated what Americans have most wanted to believe about themselves and their society. Crèvecoeur seems especially persuasive because he claimed to be a common American farmer—a pose rendered plausible by his richly detailed and affectionate descriptions of nature and rural work. But Crèvecoeur was no mere celebrator of American materialism. He understood that abundance could corrupt as well as liberate. Nor was he any champion of rugged individualism. He regarded social bonds as essential to sustained prosperity in the new land. In his second letter, he lovingly describes the cooperative activity of bees, quail, cattle, pigeons, hornets, and wasps in order to cast sociability as a natural imperative. And in his third letter, Crèvecoeur dwells on the evolution of Andrew the Hebridean into an American with the help of benevolent patrons and sympathetic friends. The key moment in his success comes not through his individual exertions but when neighbors gather to help him to clear two acres of land and to build his first log cabin. They work voluntarily, receiving only food and drink, because all recognize their mutual need for support. So Andrew “found himself in a few years in the middle of a numerous society. He helped others as generously as others had helped him.” Crèvecoeur championed the eighteenth-century notion of society as distinct from government and characterized by the mutual affinities and sympathies of neighbors: a set of natural bonds.

No one has better stated what Americans have most wanted to believe about themselves and their society.

Shifting to a larger case study, Crèvecoeur devoted five letters to Nantucket, an island off the southeast coast of Massachusetts. Little more than a “sandbank,” Nantucket 
lacked the space and the fertility of the nearby continent, and yet its inhabitants prospered. Their secret lay not in an abundant land but in the culture of its people, which promoted mutual support and hard work. “Had this island been contiguous to the shores of some ancient monarchy, it would only have been occupied by a few wretched fishermen ... always dreading the weight of taxes or the servitude of men of war.” Remote from exploitation by a king and settled by pious Quakers and Congregationalists (although Crèvecoeur calls them “Presbyterians”), the islanders prospered because everyone expected morality, temperance, and labor and all could keep “the full rewards of their industry.”

Rather than tell a modern conservative parable of some individuals deserving to become richer than others, Crèvecoeur celebrated the absence of extreme wealth and poverty on Nantucket. He credited the broadly shared prosperity to the cooperative labor of groups of men with equal access to the common grazing lands and to the codfish and whales offshore: “The sea, which surrounds them, is equally open to all and presents to all an equal title to the chance of good fortune.” In effect, the right culture and common resources empower the inhabitants to work wonders on their sandy mountain breaching the Atlantic. And the community took care of the unfortunate: “As fellow Christians ... they love and mutually assist each other in all their wants.” No champion of competitive individualism, Crèvecoeur regarded unity, mutuality, sociability, and equality as essential to healthy communities and their families.

While Nantucket defined his ideal America, Crèvecoeur found his American hell in Charles Town (now Charleston), South Carolina, where inequality, irreligion, and greed prevailed. Far richer than Nantucket, Charles Town was an especially festive city of wealthy planters and merchants devoted to self-indulgence and self-illusion. 
Lacking sensibility and true sociability, they could “neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labours all their wealth proceeds.” On their rice and indigo plantations, masters worked slaves to death and denied them the uplift of education and the consolations of Christianity.

Crèvecoeur’s narrator clearly saw what his hosts had learned to overlook. Walking 
through the woods to a plantation, he found a black man blinded, whipped to a bloody pulp, and suspended from a tree in a cage to die slowly from starvation, dehydration, and sunstroke—while vultures gathered to eat his corpse. He suffered this excruciating death as punishment for rebelling against slavery by killing his overseer. Crèvecoeur concluded that American abundance did not automatically lead to American freedom and equality. Always at a crossroads, America could become either Nantucket or Charles Town.

Crèvecoeur also insisted that the frontier of an abundant continent invited a selfishness that perverted society. Too much freedom and too easy a subsistence threatened to barbarize the newcomers rather than redeem them. Aside from coastal Nantucket, Crèvecoeur located his ideal America in “the middle settlements”: the broad, agricultural zone between the older and more commercialized seacoast towns to the east and the raw new settlements to the west. That western frontier provided a haven for the drunken, the indolent, and the vicious to indulge in “the unlimited freedom of the woods.” Cursed with an easy abundance, the settlers allegedly could survive without hard work or banding together: “There, remote from the power of example and check of shame, many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our society.” He concluded: “They are often in a perfect state of war; that of man against man.... There men appear to be no better than carnivorous animals of a superior rank, living on the flesh of wild animals when they can catch them.”

In his early and optimistic letters, Crèvecoeur predicts that society ultimately will triumph over barbarism on the frontier, as proper farmers migrate westward to introduce true social bonds. The advent of respectable people compels the vicious early settlers to embrace civilization or to “recede still farther” west, “making room for the more industrious people.” He concludes that “thus are our first steps trodden, thus are our first trees felled, in general, by the most vicious of our people; and thus the path is opened for the arrival of a second and better class, the true American freeholders, the most respectable set of people in this part of the world.”

But the American Revolution soured Crèvecoeur’s optimism, as he discovered how readily people could dissolve the mutual 
bonds of society to indulge in violent retribution. During the war, passions suddenly erupted to silence reason and dissolve sociability, dividing communities and families. “How easily do men pass from loving to hating and cursing one another!” Prospering under British rule, Crèvecoeur saw no grounds for severing the imperial connection and thereby plunging the colonies into a brutal civil war between the Patriots and the Loyalists. His narrator felt “divided between the respect I feel for the ancient connection and the fear of innovations ... embraced by my own countrymen. I am conscious that I was happy before this unfortunate revolution. I feel that I am no longer so; therefore I regret the change.” 

He despised the Patriots for provoking an unnecessary conflict and for persecuting their wavering neighbors to compel their support for the war. And he derided the British for recruiting Indians to ravage the American settlements, indiscriminately killing Loyalists as well as Patriots, women and children as well as men. Instead of regarding the revolution as a heroic crusade by the common people, Crèvecoeur depicts the conflict as a bloody tragedy provoked and waged by greedy leaders on both sides: “The innocent class are always the victims of the few.... It is for the sake of the great leaders on both sides that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished, by the arms, the sweat, [and] the lives of the people.”

Apparently expanding before the war, his idealized middle settlements of agricultural 
society shrank dramatically during the revolution, as selfish barbarism raged throughout the land. “Why has the Master of the world permitted so much indiscriminate evil throughout every part of this poor planet, at all times, and among all kinds of people?” No longer did he see America as potentially an Edenic oasis beyond the brutality and exploitation of human life. Instead he depicted all human societies as perched precariously atop volcanoes of selfish passions. Ultimately, he indulged in a most un-American fatalism about individual action: “Our lot is to be the victims, the sport of fortune throughout all the winding mazes of the wheel.... We are but the herrings of a large shoal, driven here and there and devoured by the great porpoises of the sea.” Gripped by existential despair, he adopted, at least rhetorically, the deepest pessimism: “Life appears to be a mere accident, and of the worst kind; we are born to be victims of diseases and passions, of mischances and death; better not to be than to be miserable.” What is an American? Not better than the European, Crèvecoeur later answered: both were victims of powerful men and pawns of cruel fate. During the Revolution, his America became Charles Town instead of Nantucket. 

Most readers know Crèvecoeur only from his famous third letter with its sunny optimism. That selective reading creates a misleading impression of his entire work, which ripens into a long exposé of the American Revolution as brutal, divisive, and hypocritical. Often misread as a champion of American independence and democracy, Crèvecoeur instead mourned the demise of British America. In its full arc, Letters reveals a descent into political madness: it better resembles Heart of Darkness than Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. The shocking transition from the early to the later Letters invites another question: who was J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur?1

The American Revolution soured Crèvecoeur’s optimism.

No simple American farmer, Crèvecoeur was a French-born gentleman cloaked in mysteries of his own making. Any attempt at biography gropes with the jarring turns of a strange life barely revealed by a partial 
documentary record and exuberantly distorted by his voluminous fictions presented 
as autobiography. Born in Normandy in 1735, he was the son of a minor local nobleman with deep roots in the province. As an adolescent, Crèvecoeur attended a Jesuit boarding school at nearby Caen. Although he received excellent training in languages, mathematics, and geography, he rejected Catholicism as 
intolerant. At the age of 15, he crossed the Channel to live with distant cousins and apparently to improve his English while escaping from his father, who struggled to learn of his prodigal son’s whereabouts.

By an unknown route, Crèvecoeur abruptly 
traveled to French Canada, probably 
arriving in 1755. Enlisting in the French colonial force, he became a military engineer who specialized in making maps. His 
enlistment record misdates and misplaces his birth: this was either a clumsy clerk’s error or Crèvecoeur’s bid to cover his tracks. Although an Anglophile, he fought against the British attempts to conquer Canada during the Seven Years’ War. In a few stray observations found by biographers, Crèvecoeur’s fellow officers suggest a mixed picture of his service. Sometimes they praised his maps and courage; more often they hint that he was an odd duck who did not get on well with them.

Wounded in 1759 during the failed defense of Quebec against British capture, Crèvecoeur resolved to leave the French army and stay in North America rather than accept repatriation to France. Many other former officers forsook the service but remained in Francophone Quebec. Crèvecoeur, by contrast, made the unusual choice of moving south to live among his former enemies, the colonists of the British Empire.


J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, 1786

He reached New York City in late 1759, but surviving records reveal nothing more until 1765, when he was naturalized as a British colonial subject under a new name. By becoming Hector St. John, he obscured his French origins. Sometimes he went by James Hector St. John as he apparently merged his own identity with Farmer James, the fictional narrator of most of his Letters. He briefly revived his French Catholic baptismal name in 1769, when he married (in a Protestant service) Mehetable Tippett, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Westchester County. We can only wonder how a French newcomer and a recent military foe without evident property won his way into a prosperous and long-standing family in a rural county.

Somehow he also obtained the capital and credit to run a mercantile business in the city and to buy 250 acres of prime farmland in Orange County, New York, for £350: a small fortune for the time. Crèvecoeur then built a substantial two-story farmhouse with glass windows and a piazza, and he probably acquired three enslaved blacks: more than most of his Orange County neighbors. Although he Anglicized his own name, he chose French names for his three children born during the early 1770s: America-Frances, 
Guillaume-Alexandre, and Philippe-Louis. 

Crèvecoeur also claimed to travel widely, apparently visiting Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Nantucket and perhaps even descending the Ohio River to reach St. Louis on the Mississippi. But the evidence for the travels primarily comes from his highly literary and much later publications, which are often sketchy in details and flamboyant in broader claims. He apparently borrowed from, and elaborated upon, travelogues by other writers: a common practice in his time. As with everything written by Crèvecoeur, the fictional and the factual are too densely interwoven for clear disentangling.

He avoided writing to his French relatives, who knew neither his whereabouts nor whether he still lived. Instead he corresponded widely with gentlemen in New York City and England. A suspicious investigator later reported, “He has carried on a most Extensive Correspondence to Various parts of Europe.... He would Receive upward of Twenty Letters by one packet [ship] from England.” Few colonial farmers cultivated a far-flung correspondence with European gentlemen.

In 1775 and 1776, revolution and war came to America, to Crèvecoeur’s despair and confusion. Impressed by the prosperity of the free colonists, he saw no good grounds for rebelling against the British Empire, which offered greater freedom, prosperity, and naval protection than any other empire. Although he disliked monarchies up close, Crèvecoeur cherished the relative weakness of the British king, who ruled at a safe distance from his colonies. Where a nearby monarch could exploit his subjects into submission, the distant monarch provided enough space for 
common people to thrive by developing their social bonds and making private property. Indeed, he exercised just enough authority to preclude local elites from dominating their neighbors. In sum, Crèvecoeur believed that a distant and weak king best ensured equal opportunity in the colonies. By rejecting his rule, the Patriot leaders could exercise a 
truly tyrannical power over their communities. One of Crèvecoeur’s characters denounces them as “malevolent men who have set the world to gaze at the majestic Tree of Liberty, which they pretend to have planted, whilst they are cultivating instead of it the most poisonous weeds.” 

Today we insist on remembering Americans of the revolutionary era as more united and resolute than we ever could be in our own politics. So we prefer to dismiss the active Loyalists as a few corrupt cranks and as closet aliens rather than real Americans. 
Our popular history also omits the many waffling people in the middle, who wanted to stay home on their farms rather than shed blood for either side. Crèvecoeur was one of the neutrals. A man of sensibility devoted to peace, he doubted that any political dispute could justify rancor and violence by either side.

Popular memory also treats the American Revolution as oddly restrained: a polite conflict led by gentlemen who could sully neither their reputations nor their silk clothes with atrocities. In fact, the Patriots faced a brutal struggle for survival, so they did not tolerate doubters in their midst. Either you are for us or against us, they insisted. It did not suffice merely to pay taxes and keep quiet at home. Every man had to serve in a Patriot militia and publicly commit by taking an oath to support the new revolutionary regime. In every county, the Patriots created committees charged with summoning suspicious men to take the oath and enroll in the militia. The committees could imprison and banish those who refused and could confiscate their precious farms. Often local vigilantes preempted the committees by hounding those in their midst suspected of sympathizing with or informing the enemy. Unpopular men had their windows smashed and their fences toppled, and could be whipped, hoisted by their thumbs, or even hung by the neck until near death or past it. 

Most neutrals succumbed to the pressure of Patriot neighbors and committees, but some became Loyalists by fleeing to the British. Those refugees included Crèvecoeur, who had suffered jail and fines for refusing to take the oath in Orange County. In February 1779, he escaped to British-occupied New York City as a destitute fugitive, taking along his son Alexandre but leaving his wife and two young children behind to preserve the family farm from Patriot confiscation. British officers inspected his trunk of papers and reported finding the draft of his celebrated Letters: “a sort of irregular Journal of America, and a State of the Times of some Years back, interspersed with occasional Remarks Philosophical and Political.” Since the political commentary tended “to favor the side of Government” and to disparage “the Tyranny” of the Patriots, the officers welcomed Crèvecoeur to Loyalist New York and returned the manuscript to him.

In the occupied city, Crèvecoeur worked as a surveyor who made detailed maps. This activity aroused the suspicions of more zealous Loyalists, who warned the British commander that Crèvecoeur was a spy for the Patriots. During the investigation, he remained in a rat-infested jail for three months, until he was released on bail. In this civil war, Loyalist Americans proved as fearful, arbitrary, and brutal as their Patriot rivals.

Freed by the British in September 1779, Crèvecoeur sailed for England a year later, taking along his nine-year-old son Alexandre. After a supposed shipwreck on the coast of Ireland, he hastened to London, where in May 1781 he sold his manuscript to the publishing house of Thomas Davies and Lockyer Davis for the generous sum of thirty guineas. In early 1782, the first edition of Letters appeared in London and was a best-seller, 
which led to a second edition a year later and to pirated versions published in Ireland.

Meanwhile, during the summer of 1781, Crèvecoeur slipped across the Channel to France despite the state of war between that empire and Britain. After reconciling with his father in Normandy and securing his landed patrimony, he moved to Paris, where his recently published Letters won him a great celebrity among the philosophes, who were delighted by his romantic portrait of American rural life. With their avid encouragement, he published his own French translation in 1784. Displaying his usual chameleon qualities, Crèvecoeur reversed the pro-British slant of the original Letters in the French Lettres

That shift and his own celebrity enabled Crèvecoeur to secure a coveted appointment as France’s consul in New York. The former critic of American independence became a diplomatic representative to the new nation, which in 1783 had made peace with the British. Upon returning to New York, he discovered that his beloved wife had died and his home had burned down. After retrieving his two youngest children from a benevolent Patriot army captain, Crèvecoeur settled in New York City and sold his cherished Orange County farm in 1785. Three years later, his superior, the French ambassador to the United States, aptly evaluated Crèvecoeur as prone to weave his fictions into his official reports: “The knowledge he has of the United States will become more useful when he has acquired the habit of carefully checking his facts,” which he “hastens to collect 
merely to show off.”

In the spring of 1790. he sailed back to France, never to return to the United States. He found France both convulsed and 
invigorated by a revolution even more bloody and destructive than the American. He lost his post as consul and laid low to avoid the sanguinary revolutionary tribunals. A decade later, the French Revolution soured into the despotism of Napoleon, which at least restored public order. Resuming his public life, Crèvecoeur published in 1801 a three-volume sequel to Letters titled Voyage dans la haute Pensylvanie et dans l’état de New-York, but the turgid new work lacked the charm—and the readers—of the original. His death in 1813 received scant notice in France, Britain, or the United States. Not until the next century did literary critics revive an appreciation of his Letters, although they usually dwelled on just the third one, giving a misleadingly roseate glow to Crèvecoeur’s reputation.

Throughout his adult life, Crèvecoeur acted suspiciously like someone’s spy, changing languages and sides, making detailed notes and maps, writing far and wide, sometimes hiding information and often casting fictions as the truth. In New York in 1779, the lead Loyalist investigator discovered that, “When he came into this City, from among the Rebels, he brought with him Some Boxes in which he had curious Botanical plants and at the Bottom of those Boxes under the Earth in which the plants were, he had private Drawers or Cases in which he had papers.” The papers within had been too damaged by water to reveal anything incriminating. Perhaps a new document eventually will emerge to link Crèvecoeur with some nation’s spy service. But I doubt it. He probably acted suspiciously as a congenital quirk of his personality, which delighted in hinting that he knew important people far away and knew far more than he would reveal.

Cultivating an aura of mystery, Crèvecoeur apparently enjoyed provoking speculation. His introductory letter slyly hints that appearances will deceive in the interplay of personas and information within his collection. He introduces Farmer James as a simple, unlettered colonist surprised by a written invitation to correspond with a worldly English gentleman. The Farmer’s savvy wife revealingly responds: “James, thee must read this letter over again, paragraph by paragraph, and warily observe whether thee canst perceive some words of jesting, something that hath more than one meaning.” As the author’s true surrogate, the wife hints that hidden meanings abound in letters. She also warns James that his correspondence will inspire gossip among their rural neighbors: “Who would wish to become the subject of public talk? ... Therefore, as I have said before, let it be as great a secret as if it was some heinous crime.” But Farmer James relishes becoming the master of covert information for foreign rather than local consumption, for he assures his genteel patron that his correspondence would “let you into these primary secrets.” As John Le Carré’s novels have shown, gathering secrets and fabricating fictions are closely related skills.

In this new edition of Crèvecoeur's great book, Dennis D. Moore has carefully 
assembled and corrected twenty-five of Crèvecoeur’s most important essays. But his introduction reveals remarkably little about Crèvecoeur’s life, devoting no more than two terse pages to the bare outlines of his biography. Oddest of all, Moore slights the reports that Crèvecoeur opposed the American Revolution and suffered for it: surely relevant information for assessing the arc of his Letters

Acting out our most cherished fictions is as American as apple pie.

Moore reacts against the naïve scholarly tradition that equates Crèvecoeur with Father James and that reads the Letters as autobiography. Overcompensating, Moore swings to the other naïve extreme, and presents the writings as pure literature disconnected from biographical context.2 If never a simple farmer, Crèvecoeur must have been a masterful author simply trying out a variety of narrative voices as pure artifice. Casting the Letters as “ambitious epistolary fiction,” Moore insists “that Crèvecoeur’s attitude toward Farmer James was fundamentally satirical.” Rather than read the drift in the letters toward existential despair as the author’s personal journey, Moore detects a consistent narrative strategy meant to expose Farmer James as a self-deluding fraud.

By so radically disconnecting Crèvecoeur’s life from his words, Moore misses the main point, for Crèvecoeur embodied and enacted his greatest and most powerful fiction by claiming more secrets than he really possessed. As such, he was his own best answer to the question: “What, then, is the American, this new man?” Acting out our most cherished fictions is as American as apple pie. As a make-believe spy, Crèvecoeur could more clearly see and more eloquently describe both the light and the dark of American life.

Alan Taylor is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California at Davis and the author, most recently, of The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies (Knopf).

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