J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur (1735-1813) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963) are two figures who wrote extensively on the meaning of American identity. True, Crèvecoeur and Du Bois are products of two different historical and ethnic contexts. Their experiences and backgrounds were entirely different. But these thinkers’ considerations on American identity are worth examining alongside one another.
Head over to Then and Now to read some thoughts I put together on Crèvecoeur and Du Bois on being an American. Here is a taste:
First, some similarities: both recognized the promise of America. Crevecoeur saw the freedom of living on the frontier, the freedom from constraints, and the vast potential of the land, and exulted. Du Bois saw the hope in freedom from slavery after the war, which was a dream of centuries that was finally realized. He also saw hope in that new political rights, particularly the ballot, could be claimed by African Americans for the first time. And he also saw that African Americans had new access to the land, like the land in south Georgia, the “Egypt of the Confederacy,” as well as its potential.
For both authors, the American promise was unfulfilled. Crevecoeur’s James—reflecting Crevecoeur’s own experience—is harried out of the land by war, thus losing his farm and his freedom. Du Bois writes about poor black farmers in Dougherty County, Georgia, languishing under crushing debt, exhausted soil, and the legacy of the degradations of racism and slavery.
Both Crevecoeur and Du Bois understood that the idea of being an American was not neat and tidy. America offered freedom, hope, and opportunity in theory. But Crevecoeur could certainly affirm Du Bois’ statement in Souls, that “America is not another word for Opportunity to all her sons.”
Still, there are critical differences between these two American thinkers, aside from the obvious gulf between their cultural and historical circumstances. The most important difference is anthropological. Crevecoeur’s placid and optimistic perspective as a gentleman farmer on the American frontier, free from traditional constraints, is vexed and disrupted by the coming of war. American promise is denied him by external circumstances. Absent those unfortunate circumstances however, Crevecoeur may well have secured that promise of fruitful labor and a fulfilled life.