Michel-Guillaume-Jean De Crevecoeur
an American Farmer, written in 1783
He was born in Caen, Normandy, France, to the Comte and Comtesse de Crèvecœur.
For the next fifteen years, he farmed land in Orange County, New York and wrote his Letters from an American Farmer. The following excerpt is from his third and most famous letter, "What is an American?"
Here is his letter:
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 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 every thing, 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 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
cabbin, 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 traveled half
the extent of this mighty continent! ...
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 vegetative 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 list 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 that governments
It is derived from the original genius and strong desire of the people
ratified and confirmed by government. This is the great chain which
links us all, this is the picture which every province exhibits, Nova Scotia
excepted. There the crown has done all; either there were no people
who had genius, or it was not much attended to: the consequence is, that
the province is very thinly inhabited indeed; the power of the crown, in
conjunction with the musketos, has prevented men from settling there.
Yet some part of it flourished once, and it contained a mild harmless set
of people. But for the fault of a few leaders the whole were banished.
The greatest political error the crown ever committed in America, was to
cut off men from a country which wanted nothing but men!
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 man, 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 change 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.