In the long run, Michel Guillaume Jean de Crevecoeur probably did not know what to make of this country whose birthday we celebrate Friday. His earliest recollections were so idealistic, the later years so realistic.
Long before Frederic Bartholdi created the great statue we call Liberty and before Emma Lazarus’ moving poetry was affixed to it, Crevecoeur envisioned this country as a great melting pot.
In 1754, he preceded Alexis de Tocqueville to North America by more than half a century. The Frenchman liked it so much that, in 1769, he became a citizen of New York when it was still a colony.
Later, that idealism would abate. He would flee revolutionary America, later to return as a diplomat for his native France. Once more, he would love America and her people.
Early, he saw in Americans a new breed.
“The Americans were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which has ever appeared,” he wrote in his “Letters From an American Farmer.”
The pre-Revolution Crevecoeur was naive and sanguine about the Americans. Although “Letters” was not published until 1782, it was before the Revolution that Crevecoeur wrote - however narrowly identifying with Europeans only - from an American farmer to an imaginary Englishman.
“What … is the American, this new man?” he asked, writing under the pen name of J. Hector St. John. “He is either a European, or the descendant of a European; hence that strong mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. 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. …
“He becomes an American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of man, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the Western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. …
“The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded by ample subsistence - This is an American.”
The Revolution caught him by surprise, although I wonder why. He professed loyalty to the Crown and fled to England, leaving behind a wife and two sons. Crevecoeur published his letters while in England but returned in 1783 as the French consul to New York. Then, he found his New York farmhouse burned, his wife killed by Indians and his children missing. (They were later recovered.)
He spent seven years in America looking at it through those rosy glasses many of us use. The melting pot may have bubbled for a while, but today’s America belongs to racial, ethnic and religious groups that cling tenaciously to their heritages, foibles and intolerances. And it most certainly is not homogeneously European.
We are strained but not dismantled by this. Homogeneity is not the litmus test of a great democracy.
Were Crevecoeur alive today, he would recognize that the presence of differences and individuality, when not carried to excessiveness, is a positive characteristic in the American soul, and that that quality is the basis of the new ideas and new opinions he envisioned in America.
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