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Birth of a Nation
Richard Platt

It is 3 a.m. I have risen, as men of a certain age are wont to do, to answer a call of nature. Emerging from the smallest room, torch in hand, for I am staying with friends and the way is unfamiliar, I pass one of the innumerable bookcases which adorn every wall of every room. Each shelf is packed to bursting with an embarrassment of riches. I stop to look through them, as one does at 3 a.m., and notice on the bottom shelf a slim, grubby volume, its spine illegible. Curiosity creeps into my fingertips. Crouching silently, I pry it from its neighbours and fancy, as I blow several years of dust from its pages, that I can almost hear this little book sigh with liberation.

It is an Everyman’s Library edition, from the Golden Age when these books cost only a shilling. The title: Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur. The date of first publication is 1782, just before the climax of the American War of Independence. It was a time when Americans themselves were trying to figure out what exactly an American was. Who better to explain it to them than a Frenchman?

I thread my way back to the living-room, to the sofa which has cradled me for several nights. Lying beside precariously stacked towers of unshelved books, on several of which my weekend travel bag rests, for there are no flat surfaces anywhere that are not book-laden, I open the book at random and read this reflection on life in Charleston, then Charles-Town, South Carolina, a port city whose affluent residents enjoyed the seemingly endless bounty of the African slave trade:

Here the horrors of slavery, the hardship of incessant toils, are unseen, and no one thinks with compassion of the showers of sweat and of tears which from the bodies of Africans daily drop and moisten the ground they till. The cracks of the whip urging these miserable beings to excessive labour are far too distant from the gay capital to be heard. The chosen race . . . enjoying all that life affords most bewitching and pleasurable, without labour, without fatigue, hardly subjected to the trouble of wishing.

As so often with such a magical discovery, I wondered why, after more than fifty years of reading, and with half a dozen friends who have been reading longer than I, I have never even heard of this book. A little research revealed that Letters from an American Farmer has been reprinted not only by Everyman, but also by Penguin and by Oxford University Press in their World’s Classics series, has suffered the indignity of being clothed in the bonded leather of the Franklin Library, and now at last has been given a scholarly modern edition, supplemented by a generous selection of de Crèvecoeur’s other essays, by Harvard’s Belknap Press.

Born in France in 1735, de Crèvecoeur married the daughter of a prosperous New York farmer, travelled extensively in the American colonies as a trader and surveyor, and became a naturalized American in 1765. Framed as a correspondence penned by his fictional alter ego, Farmer James, to a Cambridge University scholar who has asked for his observations, Letters is a lightly fictionalized account of de Crèvecoeur’s own life and experiences. There is some scholarly debate about how much is gleaned from direct observation and how much from the observations of others. There is also a question as to whether, at least in his earlier letters, his naïvety is intended as satirical - yet there is nothing in the text that would suggest this, unless we confuse naïvety with optimism, and a quiet, self-deprecating wit with satire.

Certainly much of de Crèvecoeur’s account is charged with optimism, but optimism does not preclude an account from being true. Optimism is precisely the correct response to the limitless opportunity that greeted the American colonist, or at least the New England colonist who arrived unfettered by chains in the last decades before the revolution. These pre-revolutionary years, pregnant as they were with the boundless possibility of the plains and mountains to the west, and the perilously strained patriotic bonds across the ocean to the east, need no exaggeration to arrest our attention.

In keeping with the literary trends of his time, de Crèvecoeur frequently refers to his own visceral reactions to his world, which is only right, for emotion is exactly what is required when writing of things one loves or hates, when one lives in and reports on a cusp of history that is so brimful with hope, opportunity, uncertainty, tension, danger and the drama of almost unlimited social mobility. De Crèvecoeur writes, after all, at a time when European civilization has penetrated no more than two hundred miles from the Atlantic seaboard. As with his comments on slavery, our emotions are engaged even in his small, quiet moments of observation and reflection. Here he contemplates the plight of quail in winter.

Instead of perfidiously taking advantage of their great and affecting distress when nature offers nothing but a barren, universal bed of snow, when irresistible necessity forces them to my barn doors, I permit them to feed unmolested; and it is not the least agreeable spectacle which that dreary season permits, when I see those beautiful birds, tamed by hunger, intermingling with all my cattle and sheep, seeking in security for the poor, scanty grain which but for them would be useless and lost . . . I carry them both chaff and grain, the one to feed them, the other to protect their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth as I have frequently observed them to do. I do not know an instance in which the singular barbarity of man is so strongly delineated as in the catching and murthuring those harmless birds at that cruel season of the year.

And this is the persona to whom some modern scholars unaccountably refer as a simple-minded bumpkin. Would that all bumpkins could write so well. And let us recall that de Crèvecoeur was writing in what was his second language.

Perhaps what most catches the eye of a modern reader is not simply the opportunity that greets the immigrant, but the extraordinary skills, born of necessity and acquired with such speed, that new colonists needed just to survive, and the communal cohesion that made each man more prosperous. De Crèvecoeur never waxes lyrical about freedom without recalling that freedom entails responsibility, to family, friends and community. Like many farmers, he needs labourers to help him plant and clear his land. He knows that when each man prospers a community prospers, and that the man whom he helps to rise above his own poverty and need will one day be a neighbour on whom he can rely. Frontier communities are small communities. On the frontier, community means not simply shared interests, but survival. When everyone knows everyone else, and relies on everyone else, rogues, thieves, slackers and liars don’t fare well for long.

De Crèvecoeur tells a typical story of befriending a new immigrant, disembarking from a ship with all his worldly possessions on his back, the remainder having been sold to pay his passage. He has only a willingness to work in return for a roof over his head, something to eat and a fair wage. Taken in by de Crèvecoeur, in only a few years the man has learned the survival skills he needs to plant, harvest, raise livestock, tan leather, hunt and dress wild game, domesticate honeybees, clear land and, with the help of neighbours who have also loaned him a modest herd of livestock which they know will soon be repaid, fell trees for timber and raise the four walls of a modest house in a single day.

De Crèvecoeur’s optimism is unquenchable, but not Utopian. His hostility to rank and hereditary privilege is everywhere evident, and the cold reality of the endemic poverty that so many settlers have fled is never far from his mind.

The great number of European immigrants yearly coming over here inform us that the severity of taxes, the injustice of laws, the tyranny of the rich, and the oppressive avarice of the Church are as intolerable as ever . . . To what purpose then have so many useful books and divine maxims been transmitted to us from preceding ages? . . . Must human nature ever be the sport of the few and its many wounds unhealed?

A nation of settlers who for generations had lived with an axe in one hand and a rifle in the other, and having as a matter of necessity grown self-sufficient, answering only to conscience, and united in a spirit of comradeship and religious tolerance — survival left no time for persecution or theological debate — seemed for a time to be living in a world where ‘We have no princes for whom we toil, starve, and bleed’, where they had left behind ‘the mechanisms of subordination’.

Minds were soon to change in that regard, as de Crèvecoeur records in his final letter, an almost apocalyptic lamentation of brother against brother and the impeding collapse of so much prosperity, hope and promise. As the spirit of rebellion spreads across the land and stories of bloodshed reach even his isolated farm, de Crèvecoeur lies awake, his musket within arm’s reach, his ‘imagination furrowed by the keen chisel of every passion’, asking how a man is to act when Reason herself has given way. How indeed?

The wife of de Crèvecoeur’s Farmer James frets that, heaven forfend, his epistolary scribblings may cause his neighbours to think him a writer, rather than someone engaged in productive and useful work. Thankfully, in a moment of undaunted courage, he disregarded her, and has left us an unforgettable portrait of the crucible that was to give birth to a nation and a people. It is, to use his own phrase, ‘the happy fruits of a well-directed perseverance’.

RICHARD PLATT, his reason having fled, is still writing. His neighbours may have noticed. There’s been talk. See

J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer (1782)
Harvard University Press • Hb • 416pp • £36.95 • ISBN‎ 9780674051812

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