What is an American?

Hector St. John de Crevecoeur

Hector St. John de Crevecoeur was a French immigrant to New York who received his naturalization papers in 1765 and settled on a frontier farm where it is believed he wrote his famous Letters from an American Farmer (from which this excerpt originates).  He was but one of thousands of immigrants who came to America in search of economic opportunity.  Crevecoeur, who marveled at the astonishing diversity of the other settlers - "a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes" - believed that this strange mixture of blood was being transformed by the American environment to create a new American "race" (or nationality) of men.  In this passage, Crevecoeur explains the process new European immigrants went through as they embarked upon such a transformation.  Interestingly, Crevecoeur, while hailed by many historians as capturing the essence of American nationality (at least for whites), remained loyal to the Crown during the Revolution and left America from 1780 until 1783.

Questions to Consider

  1. According to Crevecoeur, what are the differences between Europe and America?
  2. How are Europeans transformed into Americans?
  3. What is an American?  How does this help shape a distinct American identity?
  4. Does he leave anyone out that you can think of?
  5. What is the intended audience of this document?


        The rich stay in Europe, it is only the middling and the poor that emigrate.  Would you wish to travel in independent idleness, from north to south, you will find easy access, and the most cheerful reception at every house; society without ostentation, good cheer without pride, and every decent diversion which the country affords, with little expense.  It is no wonder that the European who has lived here a few years, is so desirous to remain; Europe with all its pomp, is not to be compared to this continent, for men of middle stations, or laborers.

        An European, when he first arrives, seems limited in his intentions, as well as in his views; but he very suddenly alters his scale; two hundred miles formerly appeared a very great distance, it is now but a trifle; he no sooner breathes our air than he forms schemes, and embarks in designs he never would have thought of in his own country.  There the plenitude of society confines many useful ideas, and often extinguishes the most laudable schemes which here ripen into maturity.  Thus Europeans become Americans.

        But how is this accomplished in that crowd of low, indigent people, who flock here every year from all parts of Europe?  I will tell you; they no sooner arrive than they immediately feel the good effects of that plenty of provisions we possess:  they fare on our best food, and they are kindly entertained; their talents, character, and peculiar industry are immediately inquired into; they find countrymen everywhere disseminated, let them come from whatever part of Europe.  Let me select one as an epitome of the rest; he is hired, he goes to work, and works moderately; instead of being employed by a haughty person, he finds himself with his equal, placed at the substantial table of the farmer, or else at an inferior one as good; his wages are high, his bed is not like that bed of sorrow on which he used to lie:  if he behaves with propriety, and is faithful, he is caressed, and become as it were a member of the family.  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, because he is treated as such; the laws of his own country had overlooked him in insignificancy; the laws of this cover him with their mantle.  Judge what an alteration there must arise in the mind and thoughts of this man; he begins to forget his servitude and dependence, his heart involuntarily swells and glows; this first swell inspires him with those new thoughts which constitute an American....He looks around, and sees many a prosperous person, who but a few years before was as poor as himself.  This encourages him much, he begins to form some little scheme, the first, alas, he ever formed in his life.  If he is wise he thus spends two or three years, in which time he acquires knowledge, the use of tools, the modes of working the lands, felling trees, etc.  This prepares the foundation of a good name, the most useful acquisition he can make.  He is encouraged, he has gained friends; he is advised and directed, he feels bold, he purchases some land; he gives all the money he has brought over, as well as what he has earned, and trusts to the God of harvests for the discharge of the rest.  His good name procures him credit.  He is now possessed of the deed, conveying to him and his posterity the fee simple and absolute property of two hundred acres of land, situated on such a river.  What an epocha in this man's life!  He is become a freeholder, from perhaps a German boor - he is now an American, a Pennsylvanian, an English subject.  He is naturalized, his name is enrolled with those of the other citizens of the province....From nothing to start into being; from a servant to the rank of a master; from being the slave of some despotic prince, to become a free man, invested with lands, to which every municipal blessing is annexed!...It is in consequence of that change that he become an American....Ye poor Europeans, ye, who sweat, and work for the great - ye, who are obliged to give so many sheaves to the church, so many to your lords, so many to your government, and have hardly any left for yourselves - ye, who are held in less estimation than favorite hunters or useless lap-dogs - ye, who only breathes the air of nature because it cannot be withheld from you; it is here that ye can conceive the possibility of those feelings I have been describing; it is here the laws of naturalization invite everyone to partake o\f our great labors and felicity, to till unrented, untaxed lands!  Many, corrupted beyond the power of amendment, have brought with them all their vices, and disregarding the advantages held to them, have gone on in their former career of iniquity, until they have been overtaken and punished by our laws.  It is no every emigrant who succeeds; no, it is only the sober, the honest, and industrious:...Others again, have been led astray by this enchanting scene; their new pride, instead of leading them to the fields, has kept them in idleness; the idea of possessing lands is all that satisfies them - though surrounded with fertility, they have mouldered away their time in inactivity, misinformed husbandry, and ineffectual endeavors.  How much wiser, in general, the honest Germans than almost all other Europeans; they hire themselves to some of their wealthily landsmen, and in that apprenticeship learn everything that is necessary.  The attentively consider the prosperous industry of others, which imprints in their minds a strong desire of possessing the same advantages.  This forcible idea never quits them, they launch forth, and by dint of sobriety, rigid parsimony, and the most persevering industry, they commonly succeed....

        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.  The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles....Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men.