by Gerald Boerner


“Anyone who trades liberty for security deserves neither liberty nor security.”
— Benjamin Franklin

“In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.”
— Gertrude Stein

“If you only knew, in what shabby lodging, in what a dark and chilly closet, I was mewed up at your age; with what severity I was treated; how I was fed and dressed!”
— John Hector St. John, in American Farmer

“From my earliest youth, I had a passion for taking in all the antiques that I met with: moth-eaten furniture, tapestries, family portraits, Gothic manuscripts (that I had learned how to decipher), had for me an indefinable charm. A little later on, I loved to walk in the solitude of cemeteries; to examine the tombs and to trace out their mossy epitaphs. I knew most of the churches of the canton, the date of their foundation, and what they contained of interest in the way of pictures and sculptures.”
— John Hector St. John, in American Farmer

What is an American?

Crevecoeur Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur, naturalized in New York as John Hector St. John, was a French-American writer. He was born in Caen, Normandy, France, to the Comte and Comtesse de Crèvecœur (Count and Countess of Crèvecœur).

In 1755 he immigrated to New France in North America. There, he served in the French and Indian War as a surveyor in the French Colonial Militia, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Following the British defeat of the French Army in 1759 he moved to New York State, then the Province of New York, where he took out citizenship, adopted the English-American name of John Hector St. John, and in 1770 married an American woman, Mehitable Tippet. He bought a sizable farm in Orange County, N.Y., where he prospered as a farmer and took up writing about life in the American colonies and the emergence of an American society. In 1779, during the American Revolution, the faltering health of his father forced him to travel to Europe. Accompanied by his son, he crossed British-American lines to enter British-occupied New York City, where he was imprisoned as an American spy for three months without being heard. Eventually, he was able to leave for Britain.

In 1782, in London, he published a volume of narrative essays entitled the Letters from an American Farmer. The book quickly became the first literary success by an American author in Europe and turned Crèvecœur into a celebrated figure. He was the first writer to describe to Europeans–employing many American English terms–the life on the American frontier and to explore the concept of the American Dream, portraying American society as characterized by the principles of equal opportunity and self-determination. His work provided useful information and understanding of the “New World” that helped to create an American identity in the minds of Europeans by describing an entire country rather than another regional colony.

The writing celebrated American ingenuity and its uncomplicated lifestyle and spelled out the acceptance of religious diversity in a melting pot being created from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. His application of the Latin maxim “Ubi panis ibi patria” to early American settlers also shows an interesting insight. He once praised the middle colonies for “fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields…decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years ago all was wild, woody, and uncultivated.”

What then is the American, this new man?…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 has become an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of man, whose labors and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the western pilgrims who are the carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigor, and industry which began long since in the East, they will finish the great circle… (from “Letter III,” 1782)

From Britain, he sailed for France, where he was briefly reunited with his father. When the United States had been recognized by Britain following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Crèvecœur returned to New York City. He learned that, in his absence, his wife had died, his farm had been destroyed, and his children were now living with neighbors. Eventually, he was able to regain custody of his children. For most of the 1780s, Crèvecœur lived in New York City where he now served as the French consul for New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. . . . Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. . . . An [immigrant] when he first arrives . . . no sooner breathes our air than he forms new schemes, and embarks in designs he never would have thought of in his own country. . . . He begins to feel the effects of a sort of resurrection; hitherto he had not lived, but simply vegetated; he now feels himself a man . . . Judge what an alteration there must arise in the mind and thoughts of this man; . . . his heart involuntarily swells and glows; this first swell inspires him with those new thoughts which constitute an American.

In 1784, he published a two-volume version of his Letters from an American Farmer, enlarged and completely rewritten in French. A three-volume version followed in 1787. Both his English and his French books were translated into several other European languages and widely disseminated throughout Europe. For many years, Crèvecœur was identified by European readers with his fictional narrator, James, the ‘American farmer’, and held in high esteem by readers and fellow-writers across Europe. When he published another three-volume work in 1801, entitled Voyage dans la Haute-Pensylvanie et dans l’état de New-York, however, his fame had faded, and his book was ignored. An abbreviated German translation appeared in the following year. An English translation only appeared in 1964.

Much of his best work has only been published posthumously, most recently as More Letters from the American Farmer: An edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecœur, edited by Dennis D. Moore (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Village_from_Harris_Hill,_St._Johnsbury,_VT Particularly concerned by the condition of slaves, he was a member of the ‘Société des Amis des Noirs’ , society of the Friends of the Blacks founded in Paris.

In 1789, during a stay in France, he was trapped by the political upheaval that was quickly turning into the French Revolution. As an aristocrat, he soon went into hiding, while secretly attempting to gain passage to the United States. The necessary papers were finally denied to him by the new American ambassador to France, James Monroe, in 1794. At the end of his life Crèvecœur settled permanently in France. On November 12, 1813, he died in Sarcelles, Val d’Oise, France.

Other Events on this Day
  • In 1892…
    In Pittsburgh, William “Pudge” Heffelfinger becomes the first professional football player when he earns $500 playing for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club.
  • In 1942…
    The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal begins, a pivotal Allied victory in the Pacific.
  • In 1954…
    Ellis Island closes after processing more than 12 million immigrants since opening in New York Harbor in 1892.
  • In 1981…
    The space shuttle Columbia becomes the first manned spacecraft ever to be launched twice when it lifts off at Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Dates and events based on:

William J. Bennett and John Cribb, (2008) The American Patriot’s Almanac Daily Readings on America. (Kindle Edition)

Background information is from Wikipedia articles on:

J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur that can be found at…

Letters From An American Farmer can be found at…