By chance on the night of the 4th of July, I took up a book titled Letters from an American Farmer, first published in America in 1793, though printed in England eleven years earlier. Lately when the world seems full of hate and intolerance and injustice, this writer and observer from centuries ago presents America during the colonial period – a haven for the oppressed and the poor. On the occasion of the USA’s 240th anniversary, I thought to share this with you.
The limited edition I have was published in 1976 “in honor of the American Revolution Bicentennial.” The American farmer who wrote these letters was in fact a Frenchman, Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecouer, who Anglicized his name to J. Hector St. John. Barely 20, in the 1750s he migrated to New France, as Canada was then called, enlisted in the French army, then moved south to the British colonies after the fall of Quebec, and began farming in Orange County, New York. His observations of life in colonial America were written before the Revolutionary War.
His commentary on the state of his world has a contemporary ring. “Misguided religion, tyranny, and absurd laws every where depress and afflict mankind (emphasis mine).”
He imagines what an enlightened Englishman might feel on first landing in America in the 1700s. “He must greatly rejoice … to see this fair country discovered and settled; he must necessarily feel a share of national pride, when he views the chain of settlements which embellishes these extended shores. When he says to himself, this is the work of my countrymen, who, convulsed by factions, afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants, restless and impatient, took refuge here. …Here he sees the industry of his native country displayed in a new manner, and traces in their works the embrios [sic] of all the arts, sciences, and ingenuity which flourish in Europe. Here he beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years ago all was wild, woody and uncultivated!”
“…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 every thing, and of a herd of people who have nothing. Here are no aristocrat families, no courts, no kings, … no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one….”
Over a century later, some of Crèvecoeur’s words no longer apply: “no bishops, … 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. …We are the most perfect society now existing in the world.”
Nevertheless, I believe some of Crèvecoeur’s observations are still valid. “There is room for every body in America; has he any particular talent, or industry? He exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds. Is he a merchant? The avenues of trade are infinite; is he eminent in any respect? he will be employed and respected. Does he love a country life? pleasant farms present themselves; he may purchase what he wants, and thereby become an American farmer. …Whatever be his talents or inclinations, if they are moderate, he may satisfy them. I do not mean that every one who comes will grow rich in a little time; no, but he may procure an easy, decent maintenance, by his industry.”
What I most appreciate however, reading these words penned by a fellow cultivator of the land centuries ago, are his thoughts on nature. He was particularly fond of bees.
“I never see my trees drop their leaves and their fruit in the autumn, and bud again in the spring, without wonder; the sagacity of those animals which have long been the tenants of my farm astonish me; some of them seem to surpass even men in memory and sagacity. …It is my bees, however, which afford me the most pleasing and extensive themes; let me look at them when I will, their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new…”
Crèvecoeur also deeply admired birds. “The pleasure I receive from the warblings of the birds… is superior to my poor description, as the continual succession of their tuneful notes is for ever new to me. …Who can listen unmoved, to the sweet love tales of our robins, told from tree to tree? …The variegated appearances of the dew drops, as they hang to the different objects, must present even to a clownish imagination, the most voluptuous ideas.”
“The astonishing art which all birds display in the construction of their nests, ill provided as we may suppose them with proper tools, their neatness, their convenience, always make me ashamed of the slovenliness of our houses; their love to their dame, their incessant careful attention, and the peculiar songs they address to her while she tediously incubates their eggs, remind me of my duty could I ever forget it. Their affection to their helpless little ones, is a lively precept…”
Crèvecoeur compares the ways of birds and humans, and notes that humans fall short — “the whole economy of what we proudly call brute creation, is admirable in every circumstance; and vain man, though adorned with the additional gift of reason, might learn from the perfection of instinct, how to regulate the follies, and how temper the errors which this second gift often makes him commit.”
“I have often blushed within myself, and been greatly astonished, when I have compared the unerring path they all follow, all just, all proper, all wise, up to the necessary degree of perfection, with the … imperfect systems of men, not merely as governours and kings, but as masters, as husbands, as fathers, as citizens.”
I am just in the third chapter, and there are twelve in all. The new edition of this book has been made with great care, designed by the foremost graphic designer and typographer Bradbury Thompson for Westvaco Press. The illustrations are engravings of farm tools from the 18th century and of plants, both wild and domesticated, from The British Herbal by John Hill, published in 1756. An absolute aesthetic pleasure to hold in the hand and a fascinating read, for nature and human observers alike. And a salient reminder of all that America stood for, and the splendours of the country, to a sagacious writer.