The definition of what America is, and furthermore what an American is, has been eternally elusive. However, it can be reasonably said that the vision of America rests upon freedom of expression, the right to property, and self-determination. These ideas are explored in one European’s examination of American agricultural society in the late 18th century. Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John de Crevec?ur illustrates the gilded nature of the early vision of America; one that appears to be simplistic and based in freedom, but lies on a foundation of oppression and greed.
Crevec?ur was a native of France, who – at the age of 20 – immigrated to North America. After a short military career in Canada, Crevec?ur purchased land in Orange County, New York, where he would experience the transformation from rootless European to American farmer. Crevec?ur’s Letters seems to be written in direct opposition to the works of Thomas Paine, specifically Common Sense. In this work, Paine advocates and rationalizes a political awakening by the peoples of America, and a violent overthrow of the established order.
The basis of Crevec?ur’s utopian American society lies in a pastoral lifestyle. This agrarian society breeds tranquility among neighbors due to the lack of religious strife or governmental interference. This society is destroyed (at least in Crevec?ur’s view) by the American Revolution, and the new political and economic society that it ushers in. The third letter in the collection, What is an American, goes into great detail about how national identity is derived in the New World as opposed to Europe.
Crevec?ur contends that in Europe, the connection to one’s country is very weak because of the the lower class’ detachment from the land. However, in America, one can identify with their nation directly through cultivation of the land: “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 he motto of all emigrants. ” (Crevec?ur 607) In this society of farmers, there would be almost no strife among citizens, as people live very far from one another, and therefore have less to infringe upon. The American farmer is his own landlord, and is content with a precedent of continual work, and limited governmental interference in his business. (Plotkin 392)
He goes on to state that the continual flow of immigrants into America will facilitate the eventual civilization of far western lands. In this onward march westward, “… industrious people… ill change in a few years that barbarous country into a fine fertile, well-regulated district. Such is our progress, such is the march of the Europeans toward the interior parts of this continent. ” (Crevec?ur 609) This early reference to manifest destiny puts on display, for the European reader, the sheer vastness and availability of land in the New World, as opposed to the marked lack of such available land in Europe. Crevec?ur also makes reference to the fact that the citizens of America cannot possibly draw from one single European culture, due to the diverse background of immigrants.
This ‘melting-pot’ milieu of peoples is part of the foundation upon which Crevec?ur’s America, because it prevents monolithic identification with one European background. (Cunliffe 130) Possibly the largest difference between European and American, according to Crevec?ur, is “religious indifference” among citizens. It should be pointed out that the only religions Crevec?ur was concerning were sects of Christianity. In a single community, there can be members of several different sects of Christianity.
In this community, a Catholic could interact with a Lutheran in entirely peaceable terms, something that was nigh impossible in Europe. Crevec?ur contends that while this peaceful mix of religious sects within a community does foster tranquility among citizens, he also says that this mix will eventually dilute religious identity, much like national identity. As generations of Americans pass, they will intermingle religiously, and religious zeal will soon disappear, and religious persecution with it. (611)
The letters following What is an American illustrate the slow breakdown of Crevec?ur’s agrarian utopia into a land marked by oppression and strife. His encounters with slavery leave him questioning the contradictory republican ideals of freedom of expression and right to self-determination with the existence of slavery. The most shocking and afflicting experience Crevec?ur had was with a slave, in a cage suspended from a tree branch, left in the sun to die. His eyes had been pecked out by birds of prey, and whose condition is such that Crevec?ur would have shot him to end his pain, had he a bullet.
The gaping maw that lies between the wealth of the planters and the slaves interferes with Crevec?ur’s egalitarian examination of American agricultural society. In Letter IX. Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene, this interference is apparent when Crevec?ur writes: “This great contrast has often afforded me the most afflicting meditation. ” (616) In Crevec?ur’s earlier model of American society, every citizen had a fair chance at success, and equal access to the vast physical wealth of the land.
However, as Crevec?ur now sees, this wealth has been distributed unevenly to wealthy planters, and that this wealth has been facilitated by the oppression of other peoples. Crevec?ur’s love for America subsides in Letter XII. Distresses of a Frontier Man, as he expresses a wish to travel to the most uninhabited regions of the earth, such as the polar areas of Russia. He no longer holds hope for the chance of an equitable agrarian society in America, writing “Once happiness was our portion; now it is gone from us, and I am afraid not to be enjoyed again by the present generation! (620) His utopia is then finally dealt a deathblow with the advent of the American Revolutionary War. The land he once knew as peaceful and simple is now convulsed with a conflict in which he has no interest. He writes, “Self-preservation is above all political precepts and rules, and even superior to the dearest opinions of our minds;” (621)
Crevec?ur contends that the preservation of one’s self and the preservation of family is paramount, and that the Revolution only seeks to destroy the perfect precedent of agricultural life in the American colonies. Rucker 201) Crevec?ur perceives the ideals of the Revolution to be only a thin veil for the interests of the power-hungry wealthy planters of the American colonies. Crevec?ur finally ejects entirely from American society, going to live “under the Wigwam. ” (622) He finds his society again through life in a Native American village, where “not a word of politics shall cloud our simple conversation; tired either with the chase or the labor of the field, we shall sleep on our mats without any distressing want… (624) Crevec?ur’s Letters display the binding forces of agricultural life that America offered to European immigrants in the 18th century. However, these forces are manipulated in time through an intrinsic human nature towards sloth and bellicosity. In Crevec?ur’s mind, the use of slavery not only instigates oppression, but detaches planters from the land that provides them food and wealth.
This in turn will lead to the planters becoming politically active and discontented, regardless of the nigh-perfect government already in place, which allows people of the lower class to flourish. The American Revolution leads to the complete destruction of Crevec?ur’s society, turning what were originally simple planters into members of an extractive society that abuses the weak and feeds off the fruit of the labor of others. For Crevec?ur, the vision of an American was as simple as connection to the land, and the right of a man to the sweat of his own brow.