“The American, This New Man”

     Call to mind for a moment a man in the late 1760s, a Frenchman who purchased a fine spread of 250 acres in New York. For seven years, he cultivated a prosperous farm which he named Pine Hill, raised a dear family of three children with his wife, and became a well respected and faithful friend to his neighbors.
     Move forward in time to the year 1776, when revolution was under way. J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur had been a farmer and an author for seven years. But his home and situation were threatened by the disintegrating political and social situation in New York. Indians were taking advantage of the war between the Americans and British by conducting raids on isolated farms. Patriots were persecuting anyone who was suspected of harboring Tory sentiments. Unfortunately, Crèvecoeur fit into both categories. His farm was far from populated centers, and he was discreetly pro-British in his sympathies.
     Suspected by patriots to be a Tory, he was forced to flee his beloved Pine Hill, and found it further necessary to leave his wife and children in the care of friends. He was suspected of espionage and imprisoned by the British in New York City. His belongings, which included the manuscript for a book on life in America, were confiscated. Friends managed to get him released from prison, but he suffered a nervous breakdown due to the anxiety which his imprisonment effected.
     Crèvecoeur boarded a ship bound for England in 1780, and sold his manuscript to the publisher Davies and Davis for thirty guineas. The manuscript was published under the title Letters from an American Farmer. The book was an instant success both in England and in Europe. After selling  the manuscript, he returned to his native France, where he expanded Letters and continued to build a network of friends and contacts. In 1783, he went back to New York, this time as minister of Louis XVI to the United States.
     When he returned to the United States, he received terrible news of his family. While he was away, his wife had died. Pine Hill was burned by Indians. His children were missing. But he learned that a resident of Boston by the name of Gustavus Fellowes had taken his children into his care. How had his children ended up in the care of Fellowes, a man unknown to Crèvecoeur?
     In 1781, five Bostonians were shipwrecked on the coast of France. Crèvecoeur was the generous and compassionate Frenchman-turned-American who took them in and gave them sanctuary during his time in France. It was this act of kindness that would ultimately save the lives of Crèvecoeur’s children. These five Americans, upon returning home, learned of the news of the destruction of Pine Hill, and rescued Crèvecoeur’s children, entrusting them to the care of Fellowes.
     This story speaks of one of the many unique aspects of being an American, as Crèvecoeur saw it. Crèvecoeur asked in the third of his Letters, “What, then, is the American, this new man?”[1] That question is answered in looking to the equality of opportunity for anyone who would work hard, the fertility and boundlessness of the land, and the personal freedom of the American farmer. But he also stressed the centrality of community in America. When a person demonstrated his willingness to work hard and to help others, he could expect to find his neighbors faithful to come together to help provide for his needs at the necessary moment.
     Crèvecoeur recounted a story of a Scottish settler who began to improve land for a farm, and whose neighbors all pitched in to build him a house. Crèvecoeur  wrote, “When the work was finished, the company made the woods resound with the noise of their three cheers and the honest wishes they formed for Andrew’s prosperity. He could say nothing, but with thankful tears he shook hands with them all. Thus, from the first day he had landed, Andrew marched towards this important event; this memorable day made the sun shine on that land on which he was to sow wheat and other grain. What swamp he had cleared lay before his door; the essence of future bread, milk, and meat were scattered all around him. . . . He helped others as generously as others had helped him, and I have dined many times at his table with several of his neighbours.”[2]
     Does Crèvecoeur’s America still exist? Is this still what it means to be an American?

[1] J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer and Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, edited with an introduction by Albert E. Stone (New York: Penguin, 1986), 69.
[2] Ibid., 104.
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One response to ““The American, This New Man”

  1. Does Crèvecoeur’s America still exist? Is this still what it means to be an American?Yes, and yes it does. We saw it after Katrina. We saw it here in the northeast after Sandy. I'm not talking about FEMA. I'm talking about everyone helping their neighbors clear away debris and rebuild their homes. I'm always amazed, when the power goes out, just how civilized traffic intersections really are. People let each other go, and alternate merge becomes a reality unlike during normal times. Americans perceive when it is time to put aside their differences and work together. (btw, I heard a rumor recently that the US government had shut down. How was one to know? But I digress.) My power in NJ was turned back on by crews from the Old Dominion. Hallelujah!US History 1 was one of the most influential classes of my college career. On the first day of class the professor gave us our final exam question: What is an American, this new man?

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