What name is more American than Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur? I guess the answer depends on your definition of an American sounding name but I am willing to bet that this man’s name is not what would first come to mind. And, indeed, de Crevecoeur was not born in America but in Caen, France in 1735. After travelling to England, de Crevecoeur made the journey to the New World at the age of nineteen. He immediately joined up and served in the French and Indian War and upon the end of that war, he found himself with a plot of land and a small home. Immediately he began to write about the spirit that enveloped the new land known as America. With great eloquence he describes the beats of hummingbirds’ wings, the festivities of the people of Nantucket, and even the battle between two snakes. Any reader would be hard-pressed to find a better collection of writings that expresses the American spirit in what must have been the most free and optimistic time in our history.
In this annotated section, I have selected several pieces of his writing that reveal a bit of his excitement to live in the new continent. This is the third of his letters and its title is “What is an American?”
“I wish I could be acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must agitate the heart and present themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent… He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society offers itself to his contemplation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; no great manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. [We are] united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself… 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; nor is this pleasing equality so transitory as many others are… Who can tell how far it extends? Who can tell the millions of men whom it will feed and contain? for no European foot has as yet travelled half the extent of this mighty continent!”
(As a reminder, all of the featured letters are available for free to download and read at www.gutenberg.org)