CRF Blog

The American Beginning

by Bill Hayes

In The American Beginning, the New Republic takes another look at the classic work Letters from an American Farmer and Other Essays by J. Hector St. John de Crève, edited by Dennis D. Moore.

In his early and optimistic letters, Crèvecoeur predicts that society ultimately will triumph over barbarism on the frontier, as proper farmers migrate westward to introduce true social bonds. The advent of respectable people compels the vicious early settlers to embrace civilization or to “recede still farther” west, “making room for the more industrious people.” He concludes that “thus are our first steps trodden, thus are our first trees felled, in general, by the most vicious of our people; and thus the path is opened for the arrival of a second and better class, the true American freeholders, the most respectable set of people in this part of the world.”

But the American Revolution soured Crèvecoeur’s optimism, as he discovered how readily people could dissolve the mutual ?bonds of society to indulge in violent retribution. During the war, passions suddenly erupted to silence reason and dissolve sociability, dividing communities and families. “How easily do men pass from loving to hating and cursing one another!” Prospering under British rule, Crèvecoeur saw no grounds for severing the imperial connection and thereby plunging the colonies into a brutal civil war between the Patriots and the Loyalists. His narrator felt “divided between the respect I feel for the ancient connection and the fear of innovations … embraced by my own countrymen. I am conscious that I was happy before this unfortunate revolution. I feel that I am no longer so; therefore I regret the change.”

He despised the Patriots for provoking an unnecessary conflict and for persecuting their wavering neighbors to compel their support for the war. And he derided the British for recruiting Indians to ravage the American settlements, indiscriminately killing Loyalists as well as Patriots, women and children as well as men. Instead of regarding the revolution as a heroic crusade by the common people, Crèvecoeur depicts the conflict as a bloody tragedy provoked and waged by greedy leaders on both sides: “The innocent class are always the victims of the few…. It is for the sake of the great leaders on both sides that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished, by the arms, the sweat, [and] the lives of the people.” [more]