This is a strange little Colonial-era book that, nonetheless, tells us something about America today. It was written by a protean Frenchman, J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur. Born French, in Caen, he fought on the Plains of Abraham for Montcalm, and was wounded. He then became a British citizen, married, and settled down to farm in the Hudson Valley in 1769. But he did not want to take sides in the War of Independence, so he went back to France, and returned to America only in 1783. This book was published to wide acclaim in 1782, and the most interesting part of it, by far, is Crèvecœur’s anguished description of how, despite his hopes for the Enlightenment making all men better, it didn’t, as shown by the hatreds and violence engendered by the war.
The facts of Crèvecœur’s life are in dispute, since he was a very hard man to grasp. A British magistrate in New York described him in 1779 as “violent” and “capricious,” and much is opaque about him—including why he left the French army, under some type of cloud. For our purposes, though, the specifics of the truth of his life don’t much matter. The frame of the book is twelve undated letters from an imaginary American farmer to an English gentlemen of his acquaintance. The English, not Americans, were the audience for the book, which is presumably why the unnamed Englishman at whom the Letters are directed is treated with some degree of obsequious flattery, masked behind putatively plainspoken humility. The Farmer, named “James,” is depicted as modestly educated, but not sophisticated. He is generally assumed to be a partial stand-in for Crèvecœur’s opinions, though not his background (despite Crèvecœur’s stint at farming, he came from a family of minor nobility, and after the war served as consul for Louis XVI in New York). Therefore, the Letters are not as the actual letters of an American farmer would likely have been, instead, they are shot through with aggressive seasoning of the French Enlightenment, covered with a gloss of Americanism.
The first Letter is an Introduction; it describes the Farmer’s life and touches on some characteristics he sees as common in America. Notably, these include “the restless industry which is the principal characteristic of these colonies.” Similarly, the Farmer notes that in America “he that is near ending his career, drudges on as well as he who has just begun it; nobody stands still.” James describes his life as essentially idyllic, and contrasts it to supposed life in Europe, crowded, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. He lives in Pennsylvania, so there is much talk of Quakers. Optimism crowds the page, though the reader keeps being jarred by the juxtaposition of paeans to the happy American life with casual references to the Farmer’s “negroes,” that is, his slaves, who are all, we are told, just as happy as him, the first of numerous unlikely claims that intrude into the book.
The second Letter goes into more detail about farming and the farming life. James describes an agrarian libertarian paradise—productive land, no overlord, almost non-existent taxes, and minimal local government. There are also more unlikely passages, like the description of how he loves to have a hornet’s nest in his dining room, where the hornets eat flies and never bother anyone, “because kindness and hospitality have made them useful and harmless,” which I doubt. Much of this is simply a description of nature, a topic of great interest to Enlightenment thinkers, giving the book, to this point, a somewhat romantic feel, Rousseau-lite.
But it is the third Letter that is most famous (though, as I say, not the most interesting—that is the twelfth, and last). This is an attempt to describe American identity. James notes very low levels of inequality, high levels of agrarianism, and “mild government,” as characteristic of America. He talks about how “here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men,” perhaps the first use of that term in the American context. His point is not that all Americans are identical, or even that similar (as a read of Albion’s Seed will easily show in more detail), but that they have certain core principles in common, which he views as principles of the Enlightenment. True, some of the backwoods types (by which he means Scots-Irish) are violent and nasty, hardly enlightened, but, soon enough, they will become well-mannered or they will die off, “after the arrival of a second and better class, the true American freeholders.” Crèvecœur spends a great deal of time repeating that while there is limitless land, and limitless opportunity, in America, only the “sober” and “industrious” will succeed—not in isolation, either, but with mutual volunteer help from similar individuals and families, in a type of peaceful Jeffersonian agrarian paradise. The Farmer specifically calls out the Germans as the most industrious and the Irish as the least (“they love to drink and quarrel”). Generally, though, he sees a bright future for Americans, all emancipated from unchosen bonds, and all pulling, and improving, together.
In keeping with French Enlightenment principles, the Farmer denigrates actual religion of any type. But what Crèvecœur describes in this regard is much more the aspiration of the philosophes than actual religious practice of late eighteenth-century America. In his vision, which tends to confuse early American religious tolerance with unbelief, “strict modes of Christianity, as practiced in Europe, are lost also.” Because parents will, or do, fail to instruct their children in religion, which Crèvecœur sees as a good thing, “Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their parents.” Religion is to become, in essence, fungible, and therefore meaningless. While the Farmer’s description is anachronistically premature, this is certainly a good description of late American modernity, where, for the vast majority of people, their only “religion” is Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which is not a religion at all. No doubt Crèvecœur would be happy with this result, and to be fair, he did predict it.
The next five letters are pretty boring. They are about Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, when they were hardscrabble fishing settlements, before they became the playground of America’s dubious rich. The Farmer offers a lot of talk about how the local flora, fauna, and geography shapes the islanders. The shape given is, according to the Farmer (who supposedly visited there, though the geographic descriptions are wildly inaccurate), excellent, as the result of “a system of rational laws founded on perfect freedom.” In James’s Enlightenment belief system, more freedom leads to more good behavior, with no need of any external guidance, merely welling up from the natural goodness inside every man.
On a practical level, “Idleness and poverty, the causes of so many crimes, are unknown here.” This is because of what would today be called “human capital,” since the physical resources of the islands are small, and there is little way to make a living other than fishing, which is difficult and dangerous. There are few lawyers in the islands, too, which makes them much better places to live (the Farmer frequently complains that lawyers are a typically American plague, and that it is “a pity that our forefathers . . . did not also prevent the introduction of a set of men so dangerous!”). There are no extremes of wealth. Again, there are weird passages, such as the allegation that all the islanders, men and women, take opium every morning, and cannot function without it. Maybe, but again, I doubt it. With good reason, this part of the book is little remarked upon today.
The ninth letter is the second-most-famous letter; it is a brief one, about Charleston, seat of planter wealth. Crèvecœur contrasts the lack of virtue and corruption of Charleston with the firm virtue of Pennsylvania and New England, though he does not tell us why the regions differ in virtue, other than noting contrasts in wealth, and the huge numbers of lawyers in Charleston. Most of all he bemoans the terrible lot of the slaves, ending with a well-known and gruesome description of a protracted slave execution by exposure. It’s hard to say if Crèvecœur really visited Charleston, but his descriptions are accurate enough, historically speaking. Still, the reader finds it hard to ignore that the Farmer sees little or no contradiction between his owning slaves and the planters owning slaves; in his mind, his own slaves are little distinct from free, and happy, hired hands. Again, this is very unlikely to have been true.
This slippery treatment of slavery highlights, and to an extent explains, how the Enlightenment not only tolerated, but essentially ignored, slavery, something about which I have wondered in the past. It seems odd that the Enlightenment project was all about emancipation, on paper, but the Enlightenment’s main figures, both in America and in England and France, were not concerned with addressing slavery, though occasionally they paid lip service to it being less than wholly desirable. In truth, all the actual work of ending the slave trade was done by English Christians, as Christians, not as heralds of the Enlightenment. I think it’s a little unfair, perhaps, to give Christianity all the credit, since the flavor of the times, spiced with the Enlightenment, probably moved abolitionists to more aggressively turn the focus of their Christian belief onto slavery. But if one grasps that, as the Farmer does, Enlightenment thinkers effectively divided their beliefs about slavery into “good slavery” and “bad slavery,” their failure to do anything about slavery becomes a bit more comprehensible, though that does not explain their unwillingness to lift a finger to end the type of slavery on display in and around Charleston. Maybe it was just personal economic interest, since many Englishmen profited, directly or indirectly, from the slave trade. Such hypocritical and self-interested behavior has always been characteristic of the Left; it finds its modern equivalent, in intellectual soundness at least, in progressives who shriek how global warming is going to kill us all in twelve years, while they jet around the world on luxury vacations and are chauffeured in their giant SUVs. It appears that leftist virtue signaling, especially the kind that imposes all costs on others while making leftists feel superior, isn’t just a modern phenomenon, but was there when the Left was spawned in the eighteenth century.
It is in this ninth letter that the Farmer starts being less pleased with America, bewailing the fate of mankind, making numerous comments about the irredeemably brutal lot of all human life. In the context of slavery, this is perfectly apt, but he is reaching much further, undermining the sunny Enlightenment optimism of the earlier Letters. The tenth and eleventh letters revert to descriptions of nature. The tenth makes more strange and overtly false statements, such as that rattlesnakes are less poisonous than copperheads, that efficacious antidotes to rattlesnake venom were generally available to American colonists, and that rattlesnakes could be tamed and trained to come when they are called. The eleventh is a letter-within-a-letter, supposedly from a Russian who visited the (real) botanist John Bertram (actually Bartram), at the Farmer’s request. The main point of the letter is, though, to contrast the supposed superiority of American plain acting to fancy manners and “polite expressions,” a point the letter writer beats like a kettledrum, presumably another example of early leftist virtue signaling.
In this last Letter, the Farmer changes his tone completely, to one of anguished emotion. He is writing to tell his English friend that the violence and havoc of the Revolutionary War has swept over his homestead, in western Pennsylvania. Mostly this involves Indians allied with the English killing American farmers and their families, but beyond that, the Farmer’s point, and the immediate cause of his anguish, is that neutrality is not an option. The Indians don’t care, and the Americans won’t tolerate it. “As a citizen of a now-smaller society [than England]; I find that any kind of opposition to its now-prevailing sentiments immediately begets hatred.” He notes that in such situations, all that matters to a man is the safety of his family.
James’s horror seems to be largely at the failure of his beloved Enlightenment principles to avoid violence. He now realizes, even if he does not explicitly admit it, that it is false that emancipatory freedom fixes the faults of men. It is quite apparent to him now that more violence is coming for Americans, and that only violence can decide the questions at hand, yet James shrinks from that conclusion, since his ideology tells him emancipation and unfettered freedom prevents war, because human nature is good. But reality has intruded on his ideology, the constant failing of leftist ideology for three hundred years.
His faith in European man ruined, James plans to flee with his family to a remote Indian village, where they will live as Indians, with a tribe not allied with the English, far in the interior. While he expects to be safe, the Farmer expresses great concern that his children may go native. As Sebastian Junger notes in Tribe, such going native was surprisingly common among even adult Europeans, and almost exclusively one-way; the Indians did not return the interest. Of course, there are many people, such as James C. Scott, who hold, in essence, that despite its drawbacks, the simple tribal life is preferable for most people. Still, that this is a good solution for the Farmer’s dilemma seems like excessive optimism: the Enlightenment myth of the noble savage is one myth that James has not yet let go of, though he may well when he reaches the village—after all, the woodlands Indians of North America were extremely violent, even by Continental standards, and actively involved themselves in the wars of the white man, both for protection and gain. Whatever the wisdom of his choice, that’s the despairing end of the Letters; we are left to wonder whatever became of the Farmer and his family.
Of course, the Farmer is correct about the tensions and hatreds of the American Revolution, which we tend to view through a gauzy haze. True, such hatreds were expressed, for the most part, much less violently than in any Continental war, probably due to superior English culture (despite some recent revisionist attempts, such as Holger Hoock in Scars of Independence, to claim the contrary). Any war is going to have not just winners and losers, but a range of people who attached themselves to a range of opinions in the run-up and execution of that war. The resolution of the war will determine the reward and punishment assigned to those opinions, and concomitant actions. Civil wars are even worse for engendering hatred of neighbors, since people with different opinions are, by definition, intermingled. The American Civil War was the same thing as the War of Independence in this regard, writ large.
So what the Farmer’s anguish tells us, other than that the Enlightenment doesn’t offer solutions to man’s problems, is that civil life in America is a cycle, where divisions are healed by the permanent defeat of one side. First the War of Independence. Then the Civil War. And now, the war, only spottily violent as of yet, launched by the American Left to solidify their position beyond all the commanding heights of our culture and economy that they already control, and stamp out all opposition, such that they may, or so they hope, attain permanent hegemony in their fully emancipated and forced-egalitarian utopia. Sure, that’s silly in the long-run, since like all Left movements, ultimately their reach exceeds their grasp and reality returns to hit them in the head. But in the meantime, they could defeat the Right to the same degree that the revolutionaries defeated the Loyalists, leaving it for a later generation, after the inevitable collapse, to rebuild something grounded in reality. The takeaway here is that America has never been without irresolvable internal conflict for more than a hundred years, and not only are we due for another round of resolution, its beginnings are obvious all around us. There can be only one.
Crèvecœur’s real life after this book offered him yet more proof of the defectiveness of Enlightenment principles, because, like the Farmer, he had to flee. Not to the Indians, in his case; rather, he went home to France. He left his wife and children behind; the former died, and his children were scattered, though he recovered them. The second time he went back to France, he arrived just in time for the Terror, getting his full exposure to the logical end of the philosphes’ musings. Somehow he managed to avoid getting killed, apparently by hiding and then laying low. Ultimately he died in relatively comfortable provincial obscurity. He got lucky, but lots of other people didn’t have, or didn’t make, the choice to flee. They faced the music instead, which is, no doubt, what most of us will have to do too.