By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The United States was such a new and different form of social organization that it caused much consternation and confusion in Europe. For most European writers and thinkers, the American was a strange and mysterious person—some people going so far as to exclude Americans from mankind. An interesting counternarrative to this is found in Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer.
British Perspectives on Americans
If Americans found dealing with Europeans—especially the warring French and British—a torturous proposition, Europeans were no less perplexed by Americans. The great dictionary-maker, Samuel Johnson, said, “I am willing to love all mankind except an American.” That at least is what he told his amanuensis, James Boswell.
Nor did the American experiment in popular sovereignty gain much applause from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism and otherwise the great proponent of free will, “No governments under heaven are so despotic as the republican,” Wesley said, “No subjects are governed in so arbitrary a manner, as those of a commonwealth.”
As for culture in America, one might as well forget that entirely. Thomas Cooper, in Some Information Respecting America in 1794, scorned American literature as nothing more than commercialism. “In America, there is not as yet what may be called a class of society whose profession is literature. Literature in America is an amusement only…”
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French and Dutch Reactions
The French were no less dismissive. Thomas Jefferson was incensed to discover, during his sojourn in Paris in the 1780s, that the popular historian and economist, Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, had tossed off the claim that “America has not yet produced one good poet, one able mathematician, one man of genius in a single art or a single science.”
A more serious blow, Jefferson discovered, had been landed by the formidable French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, the Comte de Buffon, whose 36-volume Histoire Naturelle took time to treat America as a barren land, degrading every species which grew in it. Jefferson was sufficiently angered by Buffon’s brush-off to be provoked into writing his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia.
Even the Dutch had little good to say about America. Cornelius de Pauw’s Philosophical Inquiries Concerning the Americans mentioned that North America is “so ill-favored by nature that all it contains is either degenerate or monstrous.”
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Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
However, Jefferson could take consolation from one Frenchman’s very different view of Americans, and he was Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur.
Born in Normandy in 1735, Crevecoeur had served as an officer in the French Canadian militia, and after France’s defeat and the surrender of Canada to Great Britain, he stayed on in America, eventually migrating to upstate New York, and marrying an American woman, Mehitable Tippet. Briefly marooned in Britain during the latter part of the Revolution, Crèvecoeur published Letters from an American Farmer, which frankly contradicted the viewpoint of Johnson, Wesley, and Cooper.
“The American is a new man,” Crèvecoeur wrote, “and it is only because he is such a complete novelty in the history of the world, the Europeans cannot see how unusual he is.” Partly, this “new man” was a product of republican government and the abolition of aristocracy. America “is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything and of a herd of people who have nothing. 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.”
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Space in America
A great deal of what made the American new was the newness of the space he occupied. In Europe, vast numbers of people were crowded into a small amount of land and were labeled, confined, organized around varying creeds, kings and languages. In America, this proposition was completely reversed.
America had an apparently infinite amount of space and comparatively few people, and that vast space allowed the competing identities of the old nations and dogmas to dissolve into the pursuit of self-interest.
Crèvecoeur triumphantly concluded,
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 Alma Mater.
Crèvecoeur’s Fame in America
It will be easy to wave away Crèvecoeur’s love-affair with America as the passion of a convert.
However, Jefferson included him in his circle of correspondents; and George Washington cited Crèvecoeur in his constant projects for land development. Washington thought Letters from an American Farmer contained “a great deal of profitable and amusive information, respecting the private Life of the Americans; as well as the progress of agriculture, manufactures and arts” in America.
Benjamin Franklin had Crèvecoeur elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1789. And any picture of Americans at the end of the 18th century which emerges from the statistics gathered by the first national census under the Constitution in 1790 will give Crèvecoeur more than a little credit for correctly understanding the newness of the new American.
Common Questions about Crèvecoeur’s Perspective on America
John Wesley was dismissive about the American system. “No governments under heaven are so despotic as the republican,” Wesley said, “No subjects are governed in so arbitrary a manner, as those of a commonwealth.”
Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur had served as an officer in the French Canadian militia, and after France’s defeat and the surrender of Canada to Great Britain, he stayed on in America, eventually migrating to upstate New York, and marrying an American woman. For Crèvecoeur, the American was a unique person and America was the most perfect society then existing in the world.
Crèvecoeur was appreciated by Jefferson and Washington, among others. Benjamin Franklin had Crèvecoeur elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1789.