Letters From An American Farmer
J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Text: Letters From an American Farmer, by J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur, reprinted from the original ed., with a prefatory note by W. P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York, Fox, Duffield, 1904.
Formatted and linked to xroads: Eric J. Gislason 2/6/96
Who would have thought that because I received you with hospitality and kindness, you should imagine me capable of writing with propriety and perspicuity? Your gratitude misleads your judgement. The knowledge which I acquired from your conversation has amply repaid me for your five weeks entertainment. I gave you nothing more than what common hospitality dictated; but could any other guest have in- structed me as you did ? You conducted me, on the map, from one European country to another; told me many extraordinary things of our famed mother-country, of which I knew very little; of its internal navigation, agricul- ture, arts, manufactures, and trade: you guided
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me through an extensive maze, and I abundantly profited by the journey; the contrast therefore proves the debt of gratitude to be on my side. The treatment you received at my house proceeded from the warmth of my heart and from the corresponding sensibility of my wife; what you now desire, must flow from a very limited power of mind: the task requires recollection, 3,d a variety of talents which I do not possess. It is true I can describe our American modes of farming, our manners, and peculiar customs, with some degree of propriety, because I have ever attentively studied them but my knowledge extends no farther] And is this local and unadorned information sufficient to answer all your expectations, and to satisfy your curiosity? I am surprised that in the course of your American travels, you should not have found out persons more enlightened and ester educated than I am; your predilection excites my wonder much more than my vanity; my share of the latter being confined merely to the neatness of my rural operations. My father left me a few musty books, which his father brought from England with him but what help can I draw from a library consisting mostly of Scotch Divinity, the Navigation of Sir Francis Drake, the History of Queen Elizabeth, and a few miscellaneous volumes? Our
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Our Minister often comes to see me, though he lives upwards of twenty miles distant. I have strewn him your letter, asked his advice, and solicited his assistance; he tells me, that he hath no time to spare, for that like the rest of us must till his farm, and is moreover to study what he is to say on the sabbath. My wife, (and I never do any thing without consulting her) laughs, and tells me, that you cannot be In earnest. What! says she, James, wouldst thee pretend to send epistles to a great European man, who hath lived abundance of time that big house called Cambridge; where, they say, that worldly learning is so abundant, that people gets it only by breathing the air of the place. Wouldst not thee be ashamed to write unto a man who has never in his life done a single day s work, no, not even felled a tree; who hath expended the Lord knows how many years In studying stars, geometry, stones, and flies, and in reading folio books? Who hath travelled, as he told us, to the city of Rome itself! Only think of a London man going to Rome! Where is it that these English folks won’t go? One who hath seen the factory of brimstone at Suvius, and town of Pompey under ground! wouldst thou pretend to letter it with a person who hath been to Paris, to the Alps, to Petersburgh, and who hath seen so many fine things
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up and down the old countries; who hath come over the great sea unto us, and hath journeyed from our New Hampshire in the East to our Charles Town in the South; who hath visited all our great cities, knows most of our famous lawyers and cunning folks; who hath conversed with very many king’s men, governors, and counsellors, and yet pitches upon thee for his correspondent, as thee calls it? surely he means to jeer thee! I am sure he does, he cannot be in a real fair earnest. James, thee must read this letter over again, paragraph by paragraph, and warily observe whether thee can’st perceive some words of jesting; something that hath more than one meaning: and now I think on it, husband, I wish thee wouldst let me see his letter; though I am but a woman, as thee mayest say, yet I understand the purport of words in good measure, for when I was a girl, father sent us to the very best master in the precinct. She then read it herself very attentively: our minister was present, we listened to, and weighed every syllable: we all unanimously concluded that you must have been In a sober earnest intention, as my wife calls it; and your request appeared to be candid and sincere. Then again, on recollecting the difference between your sphere of life and mine, a new fit of astonishment seized us all! Our
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Our minister took the letter from my wife, and read it to himself; he made us observe the two last phrases, and we weighed the contents to the best of our abilities. The conclusion we all drew, made me resolve at last to write. You say you want nothing of me but what lies within the reach of my experience and knowl edge; this I understand very well; the difficulty is, how to collect, digest, and arrange what I I know ? Next you assert, that writing letters is nothing more than talking on paper; which, I must confess, appeared to me quite a new thought. Well then, observed our minister, neighbour James, as you can talk well, I am sure you must write tolerably well also; imagine, then, that Mr. F. B. is still here, and simply write down what you would say to him. Suppose the questions he will put to you in his future letters to be asked by him viva voce, as we used to call it at the college; then let your answers be conceived and expressed exactly in the same language as if he was present. This is all that he requires from you, and I am sure the task is not difficult. He is your friend: who would be ashamed to write to such a person? Although he is a man of learning and taste, yet I am sure he will read your letters with pleasure: if they be not elegant, they will smell of the woods, and be a little wild; I know your turn,
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turn, they will contain some matters which he never knew before. Some people are so fond of novelty, that they will overlook many errors of language for the sake of information. We are all apt to love and admire exotics, tho’ they may be often inferior to what we possess; and that is the reason I imagine why so many persons are continually going to visit Italy. That country is the daily resort of modern travellers. James. I should like to know what is there to be seen so goodly and profitable, that so many should wish to visit no other country? Minister. I do not very well know. I fancy their object is to trace the vestiges of a once flourishing people now extinct. There they amuse themselves in viewing the ruins of temples and other buildings which have very little affinity with those of the present age, and must therefore impart a knowledge which ap pears useless and trifling. I have often wondered that no skilful botanists or learned men should come over here; methinks there would be much more real satisfaction in observing among us, the humble rudiments and embryos of societies spreading every where, the recent foundation of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts. I am sure that the rapidity of their growth would be more pleasing
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pleasing to behold, than the ruins of old towers, useless acqueducts, or impending battlements. James. What you say, Minister, seems very true: do go on: I always love to hear you talk Minister. Don’t you think neighbour James, that the mind of a good and enlightened Englishman would be more improved in remarking throughout these provinces the causes which render so many people happy? In delineating the unnoticed means by which we daily increase the extent of our settlements? How we convert. huge forests into pleasing fields, and exhibit through these thirteen provinces so singular a display of easy subsistence and political felicity. In Italy all the objects of contemplation, all the reveries of the traveller, must have a reference to ancient generations, and to very distant periods, clouded with the mist of ages. Here, on the contrary, every thing is modern, peaceful, and benign. Here we have had no war to desolate our fields*: our religion does not oppress the cultivators: we are strangers to those feudal institutions which have enslaved so many. Here nature opens her broad lap * The troubles, that now convulse the American colonies, had not broke out when this, and some of the following letters were written.
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lap to receive the perpetual accession of new comers, and to supply them with food. I am sure I cannot be called a partial American when I say, that the spectacle afforded by these pleasing scenes must be more entertaining, and more philosophical than that which arises from beholding the musty ruins of Rome. Here every thing would inspire the reflecting traveller with the most philanthropic ideas; his imagination, instead of submitting to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues, would, on the contrary, wisely spring forward to the anticipated fields of future cultivation and improvement, to the future extent of those generations which are to replenish and embellish this boundless continent. There the half-ruined amphitheatres, and the putrid fevers of the Campania, must fill the mind with the most melancholy reflections, whilst he is seeking for the origin, and the intention of those structures with which he is surrounded, and for the cause of so great a decay. Here he might contemplate the very beginnings and out-lines of human society, which can be traced no where now but in this part of the world. The rest of the earth, I am told, is in some places too full, in others half depopulated. Misguided religion, tyranny, and absurd laws, every where depress and afflict mankind.
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kind. Here we have in some measure regained the ancient dignity of our species; our laws are simple and just, we are a race of cultivators, our cultivation is unrestrained, and therefore every thing is prosperous and flourishing. For my part I had rather admire the ample barn of one of our opulent farmers, who himself felled the first tree in his plantation, and was the first founder of his settlement, than study the dimensions of the temple of Ceres. I had rather record the progressive steps of this industrious farmer, throughout all the stages of his labours and other operations, than examine how modern Italian convents can be supported without doing any thing but singing and praying. However confined the field of speculation might be here, the time of English travellers would not be wholly lost. The new and unexpected aspect of our extensive settlements; of our fine rivers; that great field of action every where visible; that ease, that peace with which so many people live together, would greatly interest the observer: for whatever difficulties there might happen in the object of their re- searches, that hospitality which prevails from one end of the continent to the other, would in all parts facilitate their excursions. As it is from the surface of the ground which we till, that we have gathered the wealth we possess, the
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the surface of that ground is therefore the only thing that has hitherto been known. It will require the industry of subsequent ages, the energy of future generations, ere mankind here will have leisure and abilities to penetrate deep, and, in the bowels of this continent, search for the subterranean riches it no doubt contains. Neighbour James, we want much the assistance of men of leisure and knowledge, we want eminent chemists to inform our iron masters; to teach us how to make and prepare most of the colours we use. Here we have none equal to this task. If any useful discoveries are therefore made among us, they are the effects of chance, or else arise from that restless industry which is the principal characteristic of these colonies. James. Oh! could I express myself as you do, my friend, I should not balance a single instant, I should rather be anxious to commence a correspondence which would do me credit. Minister. You can write full as well as you need, and will improve very fast; trust to my prophecy, your letters, at least, will have the merit of coming from the edge of the great wilderness, three hundred miles from the sea and three thousand miles over that sea: this will be no detriment to them, take my word for it. You intend one of your children for the gown, who
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who knows but Mr. F. B. may give you some assistance when the lad comes to have concerns with the bishop; it is good for American farmers to have friends even in England. What he requires of you is but simple what we speak out among ourselves, we call conversation, and a letter is only conversation put down in black and white. James. You quite persuade me if he laughs at my aukwardness, surely he will be pleased with my ready compliance. On my part, it will be well meant let the execution be what it may. I will write enough, and so let him have the trouble of sifting the good from the bad, the useful from the trifling; let him select what he may want, and reject what may not answer his purpose. After all, it is but treating Mr. F. B. now that he is in London, as I treated him when he was in America under this roof; that is with the best things I had; given with a good intention; and the best manner I was able. Very different, James, very different indeed, said my wife, I like not thy comparison; our small house and cellar, out orchard and garden afforded what he wanted; one half of his time Mr. F. B. poor man, lived upon nothing but fruit-pies, or peaches and milk. Now these things were such as God had given us, myself and wench did the rest; we were
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were not the creators of these victuals, we only cooked them as well and as neat as we could. The first thing, James, is to know what sort of materials thee hast within thy own self, and then whether thee canst dish them up. Well, well, wife, thee art wrong for once; if I was filled with worldly vanity, thy rebuke would be timely, but thee knowest that I have but little of that. How shall I know what I am capable of till I try? Hadst thee never employed thyself in thy father’s house to learn and to prac- tice the many branches of house-keeping that thy parents were famous for, thee wouldst have made but a sorry wife for an American farmer; thee never shouldst have been mine. I married thee not for what thee hadst, but for what thee knewest; doest not thee observe what Mr. F. B. says beside; he tells me, that the art of writing is just like unto every other art of man; that it is acquired by habit, and by perseverance. That is singularly true, said our Minister, he that shall write a letter every day of the week, will on Saturday perceive the sixth flowing from his pen much more readily than the first. I observed when I first entered into the ministry and began to preach the word, I felt perplexed and dry, my mind was like unto a parched soil, which produced nothing, not even weeds. By the blessing of heaven, and my perseverance in study
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study, I grew richer in thoughts, phrases, and words; I felt copious, and now I can abundantly preach from any text that occurs to my mind. So will it be with you, neighbour James; begin therefore without delay; and Mr. F. B.’s letters may be of great service to you: he will, no doubt, inform you of many things: correspondence consists in reciprocal letters. Leave off your diffidence, and I will do my best to help you whenever I have any leisure. Well then, I am resolved, I said, to follow your counsel; my letters shall not be sent, nor will I receive any, without reading them to you and my wife; women are curious, they love to know their husband’s secrets; it will not be the first thing which I have submitted to your joint opinions. Whenever you come to dine with us, these shall be the last dish on the table. Nor will they be the most unpalatable answered the good man. Nature hath given you a tolerable share of sense, and that is one of her best gifts let me tell you. She has given you besides some perspicuity, which qualifies you to distinguish interesting objects; a warmth of imagination which enables you to think with quickness; you often extract useful reflections from objects which presented none to my mind: you have a tender and a well meaning heart, you love description, and your pencil, assure yourself, is not a bad one
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one for the pencil of a farmer; it seems to be held without any labour; your mind is what we called at Yale college a Tabula rasa, where spontaneous and strong impressions are delineated with facility. Ah, neighbour! had you received but half the education of Mr. F. B. you had been a worthy correspondent indeed. But perhaps you will be a more entertaining one dressed in your simple American garb, than if you were clad in all the gowns of Cambridge. I You will appear to him something like one of I our wild American plants, irregularly luxuriant I in its various branches, which an European scholar may probably think ill placed and useless. If our soil is not remarkable as yet for the excellence of its fruits, this exuberance is however a strong proof of fertility, which wants nothing but the progressive knowledge acquired by time to amend and to correct. It is easier to retrench than it is to add; I do not mean to flatter you, neighbour James, adulation would ill become my character, you may therefore believe what your pastor says. Were I in Europe I should be tired with perpetually seeing espaliers, plashed hedges, and trees dwarfed into pigmies. Do let Mr. F. B. see on paper a few American wild cherry trees, such as nature forms them here, in all her unconfined vigour, in all the amplitude of their extended limbs and spreading
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spreading ramifications let him see that we are possessed with strong vegitative embryos. After all, why should not a farmer be allowed to make use of his mental faculties as well as others; because a man works, is not he to think, and if he thinks usefully, why should not he in his leisure hours set down his thoughts ? I have composed many a good sermon as I followed my plough. The eyes not being then engaged on any particular object, leaves the mind free for the introduction of many useful ideas. It is not in the noisy shop of a blacksmith or of a carpenter, that these studious moments can be enjoyed; it is as we silently till the ground, and muse along the odoriferous furrows of our low lands, uninterrupted either by stones or stumps; it is there that the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirits and serve to inspire us; every other avocation of our farms are severe labours compared to this pleasing occupation: of all the tasks which mine imposes on me ploughing is the most agreeable, because I can think as I work; my mind is at leisure; my labour flows from instinct, as well as that of my horses; there i5 no kind of difference between us in our different shares of that operation; one of them keeps the furrow, the other avoids it; at the end of my field they turn either to the right or left as they are bid, whilst I thoughtlessly
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-lessly hold and guide the plough to which they are harnessed. Do therefore, neighbour, begin this correspondence, and persevere, difficulties will vanish m proportion as you draw near them; you’ll be surprised at yourself by and by: when you come to look back you’ll say as I have often said to myself; had I been diffident I had never proceeded thus far. Would you painfully till your stony up-land and neglect the fine rich bottom which lies before your door ? Had you never tried, you never had learned how to mend and make your ploughs. It will be no small pleasure to your children to tell hereafter, that their father was not only one of the most industrious farmers in the country, but one of the best writers. When you have once begun, do as when you begin breaking up your summer fallow, you never consider what remains to be done, you view only what you have ploughed. Therefore, neighbour James, take my advice; It will go well with you, I am sure it will. And do you really think so Sir? Your counsel, which I have long folowed, weighs much with me, I verily believe that I must write to Mr. F. B. by the first vessel. If thee persistest in being such a fool hardy man, said my wife, for God’s sake let it be kept a profound secret among us; if it were once known abroad that thee writest to a great and rich
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rich man over at London, there would be no end of the talk of the people; some would vow that thee art going to turn an author, others would pretend to foresee some great alterations in the welfare of thy family; some would say this, some would say that: Who would wish to become the subject of public talk? Weigh this matter well before thee beginnest, James consider that a great deal of thy time, and of thy reputation is at stake as I may say. Wert thee to write as well as friend Edmund, whose speeches I often see in our papers, it would be the very self same thing; thee wouldst be equally accused of idleness, and vain notions not befitting thy condition. Our colonel would be often coming here to know what it is that thee canst write so much about. Some would imagine that thee wantest to become either an assembly-man or a magistrate, which God forbid; and that thee art telling the king’s men abundance of things. Instead of being well looked upon as now, and living in peace with all the world, our neighbours would be making strange surmises: I had rather be as we are, neither better nor worse than the rest of our country folks. Thee knowest what I mean, though I should be sorry to deprive thee of any honest recreation. Therefore as I have said be fore, let it be as great a secret as if it was some heinous
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heinous crime; the minister, I am sure, will not divulge it; as for my part, though I am a woman, yet I know what it is to be a wife. I would not have thee James pass for what the world calleth a writer; no, not for a peck of gold, as the saying is. Thy father before thee was a plain dealing honest man, punctual in all things; he was one of yea and nay, of few words, all he minded was his farm and his work. I wonder from whence thee hast got this love of the pen? Had he spent his time in sending epistles to and fro, he never would have left thee this goodly plantation, free from debt. All I say is in good meaning; great people over sea may write to our town’s folks, because they have nothing else to do. These Englishmen are strange people; because they can live upon what they call bank notes, without working, they think that all the world can do the same. This goodly country never would have been tilled and cleared with these notes. I am sure when Mr. F. B. was here, he saw thee sweat and take abundance of pains; he often told me how the Americans worked a great deal harder than the home Englishmen; for there he told us, that they have no trees to cut down, no fences to make, no negroes to buy and to clothe: and now I think on it, when wilt thee send him those trees he bespoke? But if they have
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have no trees to cut down, they have gold in abundance, they say; for they rake it and scrape it from all parts far and near. I have often heard my grandfather tell how they live there by writing. By writing they send this cargo unto us, that to the West, and the other to the East Indies. But, James, thee knowest that it is not by writing that we shall pay the blacksmith, the minister, the weaver, the tailor, and the English shop. But as thee art an early man follow shine own inclinations; thee wantest some rest, I am sure, and why should’st thee not employ it as it may seem meet unto thee. However let it be a great secret; how wouldst thee bear to be called at our country meetings, the man of the pen? If this scheme of shine was once known, travellers as they go along would point out to our house, saying, here liveth the scribbling farmer: better hear them as usual observe, here liveth the warm substantial family, that never begrudgeth a meal of victuals, or a mess of oats, to any one that steps in. Look how fat and well clad their negroes are. Thus, Sir, have I given you an unaffected and candid detail of the conversation which determined me to accept of your invitation. I thought it necessary thus to begin, and to let you into these primary secrets, to the end that you
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you may not hereafter reproach me with any degree of presumption. You’ll plainly see the motives which have induced me to begin, the fears which I have entertained, and the principles on which my diffidence hath been founded. I have now nothing to do but to prosecute my task Remember you are to give me my subjects, and on no other shall I write, lest you should blame me for an injudicious choice However incorrect my stile, however unexpert my methods, however trifling my observations may hereafter appear to you, assure yourself they will all be the genuine dictates of my mind, and I hope will prove acceptable on that account. Remember that you have laid the foundation of this correspondence; you well know that I am neither a philosopher, politician, divine, nor naturalist, but a simple farmer I flatter myself, therefore, that you’ll receive my letters as conceived, not according to scientific rules to which I am a perfect stranger, but agreeable to the spontaneous impressions which each subject may inspire. This is the only line I am able to follow, the line which nature has herself traced for me; this was the covenant which I made with you, and with which you seemed to be well pleased. Had you wanted the stile of the learned, the reflections of the patriot, the discussions of the politician, the
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the curious observations of the naturalist, the pleasing garb of the man of taste, surely you would have applied to some of those men o letters with which our cities abound. But since on the contrary, and for what reason I know not, you wish to correspond with a cultivator o the earth, with a simple citizen, you must receive my letters for better or worse.