Letters from an American Farmer Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“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.”

Summary Overview

The following selection comes from Letters from an American Farmer, a collection of essays that give a firsthand account of various aspects of eighteenth-century American life. The letters, penned by the French American writer J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur, explore topics such as farming, social customs, religion, education, and slavery. This particular excerpt illustrates the cleavage in the sociopolitical and economic circumstances of Europeans and Americans. More importantly, he attempts to define the term American and initiates the concept of America as a melting pot of people with diverse ethnic backgrounds. Individualism, a key topic in the document, reflects the growing influence of Enlightenment ideologies on the British colonies vis-à-vis the burgeoning Atlantic community. By juxtaposing the new American with the European, de Crèvecœur highlights several of the inadequacies of the European social and political order while hinting at a nascent American nationalism.

Defining Moment

Though the Enlightenment had begun in the seventeenth century—made possible by the scientific revolution—it reached its apex in eighteenth century, giving birth to great minds like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant, Baron de Montesquieu, and Thomas Jefferson. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) recognized individual reasoning capacities and articulated the logic for a representative government. In 1748, Montesquieu built on Locke’s work with The Spirit of the Laws, which illustrated the need for a separation of powers. De Crèvecœur’s work, Letters from an American Farmer, engaged with many Enlightenment ideologies, particularly those that favored individualism while lamenting the socioeconomic disparities between the rich and the poor. The third letter of the collection, most likely written in 1774 or slightly earlier, traced a connection between the state and the welfare of its people. Like others before him, de Crèvecœur observed greater liberties in America as opposed to Europe. Prosperity depended on an individual’s labor, not the social station into which he or she was born. De Crèvecœur left North America during the American Revolution, taking his manuscript for Letters from an American Farmer with him. He sold the work to a publisher in London in 1782 and enjoyed great literary fame as a result of its popularity. He later translated the work into French, catapulting him to prominence among French thinkers as well.

De Crèvecœur’s essays provide a window into the everyday existence of an eighteenth-century American farmer. Writing under the guise of James, the fictional character of Letters, de Crèvecœur paints a picture of rural life in the colonies. He makes sure to emphasize James’s humility and humble origins—a marked distinction from de Crèvecœur’s own noble French upbringing. More importantly, James depicts the colonies as a utopian world, abundant in land and natural resources and devoid of conflicts and religious oppression. While James was only partly correct, de Crèvecœur rightly noted the greater religious toleration existing in the colonies by the mid-1700s. Nevertheless, de Crèvecœur’s work touts the virtues of pursuing a rural, domestic life. Farmers, he notes, derived from a variety of ethnicities such as English, French, Irish, Swedish, and German, but because of the amalgamation of environmental and sociopolitical factors, the inhabitants of the colonies coalesced into one nationality: American. Recognition of this colonial unity, perhaps first realized in 1763 after the defeat of the French in the French and Indian War, escalated over the next decade as a British colonial identity steadily languished in favor of an independent American identity.

Author Biography

Born to Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur and Marie-Anne-Thérèse Blouet on January 31, 1735, in Caen, France, Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur cultivated his affection for describing the landscape and objects near him at an early age. Born to an affluent family, de Crèvecœur received an education at a school in Caen run by Jesuits, a religious order founded on the principles of obedience, chastity, and poverty. Later in his life, de Crèvecœur depicted the period as severe and a time of great unhappiness for him. He did excel, however, in mathematics while there. After completing his instruction, de Crèvecœur travelled to Salisbury, England, in the early 1750s, staying with his uncle Jacques de Crèvecœur. After leaving Salisbury, de Crèvecœur travelled to Canada in 1755, serving as a lieutenant and mapmaker with the French army during the French and Indian War.

After the war, de Crèvecœur journeyed south, becoming somewhat of an itinerant purveyor and trader exploring the British colonies. He spent time exploring Pennsylvania, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Connecticut, and other areas, surveying the land and customs of the inhabitants. He Anglicized his name to John Hector St. John, and became naturalized in New York in 1765. On September 20, 1769, de Crèvecœur married Mehitable Tippet. During the same month, de Crèvecœur bought 120 acres of land, solidifying his status as an American farmer. He called his enclave Pine Hill. Mehitable gave birth to their first child, a daughter appropriately named America-Frances, on December 14, 1770. De Crèvecœur and his wife welcomed two sons, Guillaume-Alexandre and Philippe-Louise, in 1772 and 1774, respectively.

Against the backdrop of increasing tension between Great Britain and its North American colonies, de Crèvecœur began to write extensively. He penned his most notable work, Letters from an American Farmer, around 1774. Though he harbored Loyalist sentiments at the inception of the American Revolution, he remained neutral. Instead, de Crèvecœur returned to France, leaving his wife and children at Pine Hill to take care of the farm. In France, he joined the ranks of the French intellectual elite, known as the philosophes. By his 1783 return to America, his wife had died and his property was in ruins. Despite these hardships, de Crèvecœur moved to New York City with his children and continued to write and to promote Franco-American relations as French consul.

The compendium of de Crèvecœur’s works, in addition to Letters, include Eighteenth-Century Travels in Pennsylvania and New York, and a posthumously published work, Sketches of Eighteenth-Century America. After serving as French consul for nearly seven years, de Crèvecœur returned to France in 1790, just as the French Revolution was beginning to gain momentum. He joined the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of Blacks), an antislavery group founded in Paris in 1788. He left Paris as the revolution became more radical, dying in France on November 12, 1813, at seventy-seven.

Document Analysis

In the years leading up to the American Revolution, male colonists of all socioeconomic backgrounds in British North America became more politically conscious. Whether colonists supported the causes of Loyalists or Patriots, many grew cognizant of concepts like tabula rasa and free will. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 work The Social Contract, which called for a government established by the will of the people, became enormously popular to enlightened thinkers. While Enlightenment ideologies certainly fostered cohesion among the radicals who fought for independence from Great Britain, they also had to overcome sharp ethnic disparities and different cultural traditions to coalesce around a new national identity. De Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer observes a new American nationalism that subverts previous ethnic and national identities. A new vision of masculinity, drawn from manual labor and taming nature, rewarded men through bread and citizenship. The European landscape, de Crèvecœur suggests, pointedly differed from American modernity. These conditions, when taken together, allowed men of diverse European backgrounds to converge and crystallize a new identity. De Crèvecœur discusses a new American race based on idealized forms of masculinity, modernity, and ethnic amalgamation, while simultaneously recognizing the peripheral role of women and non-Europeans to American nationality.

American Masculinity

In the early modern era, social standing largely determined one’s measure of masculinity. Men without land, lineage, or wealth lacked a political presence and therefore did not qualify as masculine in the eyes of others. Shifts in English society—namely the enclosure system—compounded the chasm between rich and poor. Men traveling to North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, could improve their situation through the acquisition of property. In British North America, a new formula for masculinity emerged. As de Crèvecœur suggests, maintaining control over one’s labor and taming nature became the new measure of masculinity, easing the availability of bread, or subsistence, and extending masculine consciousness to individuals of the lower social strata.

One of the essential elements for inclusion in a new American masculine identity involved performing physical labor. Labor, de Crèvecœur writes, “is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest.” Rural colonists, particularly farmers, maintained autonomy by way of their work. The output of a man’s labor, or that of his family, benefitted him directly. Excepting individuals in urban settings, de Crèvecœur explains that people “are all tillers of the earth,” describing them as “a people of cultivators.” Farming in the eighteenth century, without the use of modern machinery, proved no easy task. It often required support from one or more family members, including children or wives. He praised the women and children who “gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise and feed and clothe them all.” Rural agricultural families largely became self-sustaining, producing the materials needed for subsistence. Those who labor faithfully, de Crèvecœur notes, “receive ample rewards” which allow them to acquire additional property. Property ownership not only denoted economic independence, but also, if of a sufficient quantity, enfranchised the owner. In mid-eighteenth century Virginia, for instance, a man became enfranchised after acquiring twenty-five acres of land.

Through land ownership, men prevailed against nature, clearing the land of foliage and forest to create a modern rural landscape. Defining British North America as “1500 miles” of coast and “200 [miles] wide,” de Crèvecœur remarks with pride that “an hundred years ago all was wild, woody and uncultivated.” Prosperous farms and grand cities emerged throughout the colonies in a matter of little over a century as a result of people’s victory over nature. Colonial products, like tobacco and wheat, became staples of the British Empire. The land’s abundance, de Crèvecœur suggests, had the ability to feed “millions” without reserve, unlike the starved lands in Europe. Along with the material benefits derived from the landscape, de Crèvecœur suggests that the land proffered therapeutic qualities. He writes, “the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow.” Put simply, men derived their masculinity from their environment just as they did through their labor and land ownership.

A man’s ability to provide subsistence for his family further distinguished American masculinity from European models, according to the author. De Crèvecœur, while not coming from an impoverished background himself, explains that the British North American population consists largely of immigrants or their descendants who had lacked economic stability in Europe. As a result, they pursued economic independence in various colonies where land and greater personal autonomy was a possibility. Large waves of European immigrants journeyed to the “American asylum,” which welcomed “the poor of Europe” to partake in forging a new race of people. In his third letter, de Crèvecœur invokes a Latin proverb, Ubi panis ibi patria, or, “Where there is bread, there is my country,” underscoring the importance of owning one’s labor and, more importantly, controlling its harvest. Ties through language or tradition, he explains, mattered little when people “were mowed down by want, hunger, and war.” Germans comprised the largest group of immigrants to venture to America during the first half of the eighteenth century. Induced to leave Europe by a combination of rampant warfare and little opportunity for economic advancement, Germans flocked to British North America in the thousands. The situation in Europe, de Crèvecœur writes, could render a man “a wretch,” leaving him devoid of masculinity, subject to the “frowns of the rich,” and without the means to earn bread. These hardships, he explains, severed immigrants’ loyalty to their nation of origin.

Whereas de Crèvecœur’s notion of masculinity evaded the majority of male immigrants in the British colonies during their residency in Europe—a result of the elite’s monopoly on defining what was masculine as well as a socioeconomic system that excluded all but a subset of the population—de Crèvecœur argues that America offers the elements necessary for men to become masculine. He calls the process a “metamorphosis,” or evolution, made possible by colonial laws. While in Europe, laws derived from various parliamentary bodies or absolutist rulers, in colonial North America, people helped formulate colonial laws. De Crèvecœur explains that colonial governments work in sync with the people, providing incentives for hard work, the possibility for land purchase, and the acquisition of “the title of freemen.” The homology of colonial governments helped crystallize a “great chain” that “links” British North America.

European Feudalism Contrasted with American Modernity

De Crèvecœur grew up in a socially segregated society. The French social order in the eighteenth century was divided into three groups: the clergy, the aristocracy or nobility, and the commoners. Born to an influential aristocratic family, de Crèvecœur witnessed social divisions as a child and the inequities that resulted from them. Though commoners comprised the majority of the population throughout Europe, they received no tangible compensation for their toils. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a small percentage of the population represented, to de Crèvecœur, an image of the past that remained irreconcilable with modernity. Conversely, the British North American colonies—aided by fertile land and just laws—provided a more favorable picture.

In Letters, de Crèvecœur contrasts modernity to a European system that operates on decadence and is funded by the subjugation of a significant portion of the population. The prevailing justification in the eighteenth century for maintaining rigid social divisions was a belief that it was God’s will. Absolutist monarchs claimed that their position derived from divine rule; nobility, by extension, maintained that their privileged position also derived from God’s good will. French king Louis XIV and his palace in Versailles represent, perhaps, the most fervent example of aristocratic decadence. Costing approximately 116 million livres, the palace could house several thousand people. Courtiers took up residence at the palace, performing a symbolic role as the king’s court. European aristocracy, which consisted of nobles and elite members of the clergy, exercised control over the rural peasant populations by way of their labor. De Crèvecœur writes that the rural European terrain functioned under a system comprised of “the hostile castle, and the haughty mansion” that drew their wealth from peasants residing in “the clay-built hut and miserable cabbin.” Unlike the colonial freemen, peasants did not own the produce derived from their labors. Rather, landlords rented peasants small tracts of land for farming. The laborers turned over a significant portion of the produce to the landlord to pay for the rent. This arrangement, he notes, resulted in “penury, and useless labour,” leaving peasants “afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants.” Whereas “a despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a mighty lord” could revel in “great refinements of luxury,” a large segment of the population remained destitute.

In comparison to the social setting of Europe, the American colonies exhibited several signs of modernity. Eschewing concepts of divine right in favor of enlightened ideologies, de Crèvecœur charts a connection between nature and a society that functions according to individual labor. He writes, “We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most perfect society now existing in the world.” A man’s natural state, he remarks, is that of a freeman working in tandem with the earth. Although social divisions existed in the colonies, de Crèvecœur remarks that the “rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other.” In other words, whereas in Europe peasants lived in clay huts while lords resided in manors, Americans dwelled in homes of “pleasing uniformity.” Even the poorest of these homes provided their owner comfort and protection from the natural elements.

Colonists abandoned “ancient prejudices” that marginalized all but a few of the population and adopted a “new mode of living” based on new visions of masculinity and updated conceptions of honor, the sense of which was often drawn from labor. Drawing strength from nature, the “new man” created a modern society by developing and implementing new principles, ideas, and opinions. Modernity successfully fused the integrity and dignity of the farmer with the intellectual currents of the sciences and arts. Therefore, Americans not only lauded the farmer who wore homespun apparel but also the academic. Taken together, America proffered a social landscape that was sharply different from European models.

The New American Man

Like de Crèvecœur, historians have noted the heterogeneous makeup of colonial North America in the years leading up to the American Revolution. By the early eighteenth century, immigrants from Scotland and Germany eclipsed English immigration. Of equal importance was the forced migration of thousands of Africans. African slaves in southern colonies significantly outnumbered white colonists, a result of the growing need for slave labor to produce staple crops. Moreover, the presence of American Indians, while considerably diminished from the seventeenth century, nevertheless constituted another layer of ethnic diversity. In describing the new American, de Crèvecœur draws exclusively from European immigrant populations, reflecting his Eurocentric perspective in defining American nationalism. By defining an American race as solely derived from Europeans, de Crèvecœur excludes American Indians and Africans from the American national identity.

De Crèvecœur observes that the new American evolved from an amalgamation of a variety of European ethnicities. Acting as a tour guide to his reader, his fictional character, James, writes that Americans “are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes.” An exception to the ethnic diversity, James suggests, is New England; he explains that that area remained primarily in the hands of the British. While de Crèvecœur was correct in that Englishmen did constitute a large percentage of the population in those colonies, immigrants started to chip away at those majorities by the mid-eighteenth century. Marriage across ethnic borders helped erase cultural divisions. James boasts of knowing a family with English, Dutch, and French ties, a result of each generation marrying across ethnic boundaries. He explains that “individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men,” abandoning all adverse qualities and “ancient prejudices and manners.”

In spite of de Crèvecœur’s call for an end to social segregation, his definition of the American man marginalized American Indians and Africans, free and enslaved. Though he opposed slavery, a fact confirmed by his joining the Société des Amis des Noirs, he did not include blacks in his composition of the new American race, explaining that “Americans were once scattered all over Europe.” Indian populations continued to lose influence with colonists, as European immigrants continued to push west, bringing with them grains and animals that wrought unprecedented changes to the environment and affected Indian hunting patterns and access to trade goods like furs. African slaves, under the threat of corporal punishment, toiled on tobacco, rice, and wheat plantations, built roads and homes, worked as house servants, and a variety of other tasks. Despite these contributions, de Crèvecœur excluded them from a part in the American project.

De Crèvecœur observed the emergence of American nationalism. As articulated in his third letter, he felt America to be a perfect society, made possible by individuals shedding past prejudices and social divisions. A new masculinity, driven by labor and taming nature, afforded men the ability to provide food for themselves and families as well as the opportunity to become freemen. A European society fraught with opulence and surviving on the toils of the peasantry paled in comparison with a modern American landscape that rewarded men for their work through land and citizenship. De Crèvecœur believed that the new American, however, derived exclusively from European blood. American Indians and Africans performed no substantial role in the race’s creation.

Essential Themes

By 1774, as de Crèvecœur began to pen Letters from an American Farmer, the amalgamation of diverse ethnic groups had coalesced around a new national identity. Germans coming to Pennsylvania felt little loyalty to Great Britain’s King George III and Parliament. The Atlantic Ocean separated colonists from Old World traditions, customs, and laws, allowing freemen to devise new codes that pertained to them directly. The unity that de Crèvecœur describes in his third letter underscores the uniqueness of individuals of different backgrounds coming together around a political cause, namely the American Revolution.

That de Crèvecœur excludes American Indians, Africans, and African Americans from the American identity should not be overlooked. European immigrants held firm prejudices against these groups, finding their social orders and customs backwards. Before the American Revolution, Cherokee women farmed while the men engaged in fur trading. These women produced corn, squash, and other produce, served on tribal councils, determined the fate of war captives, and engaged in local trade. Europeans viewed Cherokee men as lacking in masculinity as a result of their disengagement from agriculture. African men, likewise, traditionally hunted while women farmed. European travel narratives decried these divisions of labor, calling the men effeminate and the women beasts devoid of pain. Indian and African American exclusion continued into the new republic. The authors of the United States Constitution did not extend liberty to those enslaved across the colonies, leaving the decision of emancipation up to individual states. Under the aegis of President Andrew Jackson, the Cherokee and other nations were forced to resettle in Oklahoma in the 1830s.

De Crèvecœur’s concept of America being a melting pot did not come to fruition until the twentieth century. The end of slavery in 1863, made possible by President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, did not quell racism. A Jim Crow South emerged by the end of the nineteenth century, ensuring a racially divided society. Blacks served in segregated military units until the late 1940s and continued to face scrutiny and repression when trying to cast their votes as late as the 1960s, before the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 1960s pushed Congress to enact long-sought protections. Despite increased tolerance for ethnic diversity, immigration continues to inspire heated debates in American border states into the twenty-first century.

Bibliography
  • Butler, Jon. Becoming America: The Revolution before 1776. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2000. Print.
  • de Crèvecœur, J. Hector St. John. More Letters from the American Farmer: An Edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecœur. Ed. Dennis D. Moore. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1995. Print
  • ---. Sketches of Eighteenth Century America: More “Letters from an American Farmer”. Ed. Henri L. Bourdin, et al. New York: Blom, 1972. Print
  • Nye, Robert. Masculinity and Male Codes of Honor in Modern France. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Allen, Gay Wilson, and Roger Asselineau. St. John de Crèvecoeur: The Life of an American Farmer. New York: Viking, 1987.
  • Bailyn, Bernard. Voyagers to the West: A Passage in the Peopling of America on the Eve of the Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1986. Print
  • Berlin, Ira. Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Cambridge: Belknap, 1998. Print.
  • Morgan, Jennifer. “Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder”: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500–1770.” William and Mary Quarterly 54.1 (Jan. 1997): 169. Print.

Categories: History Content