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 Crèvecœur 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. Crèvecœur was a native of France, who - at the age of 20 - immigrated to North America. After a short military career in Canada, Crèvecœur purchased land in Orange County, New York, where he would experience the transformation from rootless European to American farmer.
Crèvecœur’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 Crèvecœur’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 Crèvecœur’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. Crèvecœur 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...
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