“What is an American?” by J. de Crèvecœur Essay
The American Revolution brought considerable changes over the course of history. The newly established nation that appeared as the outcome of the revolution was eager to proclaim its patriotism and to share its feelings of pride with the rest of the world. Many literary pieces penned by writers in the early years of the republic describe national values and proclaim Americans’ improved living conditions compared to those in England and Europe. In de Crevecoeur’s “What Is an American?”, the author provides a detailed account of some of these values. The current paper will discuss how the author who wrote during the time of the early republic explained his national values as opposed to the social conventions of “Old World” European culture.
“What Is an American?” presents a thorough description of American national values. The author chooses first to emphasize the enormous contrast between America and England. By calling the former a “fair country” and enumerating its many virtues, he serves to accentuate the first value he presents: national pride (de Crevecoeur 605). The narrative goes on to note that every Englishman who lands on the new continent should realize the extent of happiness of people living there. The author continues by discussing the value of liberty, remarking that unlike those who live in England, people in America can enjoy the fruits of their labor and can fully consider themselves to be free men.
To illustrate national values, the author widely uses such stylistic devices as a comparison. For example, he shows “a modern society” in America in contrast to the land “of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing” in England (de Crevecoeur 605). He further instructs the rich and the poor to avoid being “so far removed” from one another as in Europe (de Crevecoeur 605). To emphasize the American values of liberty and pride, the writer refers to issues that he notes as lacking in the newly formed country, mentioning that the new nation boasts “no aristocratical families,” no kings or bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion or courts, and no “invisible power giving to a few a very visible one” (de Crevecoeur 605). At this point, the narrative introduces another national value: equity. In America, all people are “equitable” (de Crevecoeur 605). Those living in America communicate with one another “by means of good roads,” they respect the law, and they do not have to dread the power of the nation’s laws (de Crevecoeur 605).
The next national value, closely related to equity, is uniformity. The author remarks that in England, it is common to see “the hostile castle, and the haughty mansion, contrasted with the clay-built hut and miserable cabin” (de Crevecoeur 605). In comparison, no such striking disparities exist in America. People live in friendly communities, and “the meanest” of their log-houses “is a dry and comfortable habitation” (de Crevecoeur 605). Thus, the major national values that the author describes in the introductory part of “What Is an American?” are pride, liberty, equity, and uniformity. Further, the text establishes that a representative of the American nation is a person who cherishes these values.
The Race of Americans
The method and style the author uses to depict his attitude toward the new land indicate his dedication and loyalty to America. Once again applying comparison, he explains that Americans are “the most perfect society now existing in the world” (de Crevecoeur 606). While England is known for having princes for whom people “toil, starve, and bleed,” the new republic cherishes people’s freedom and allows individuals to be as independent as they ought to be (de Crevecoeur 606). The new race is said to be collected from a diversity of nations, combining a variety of noble features: accuracy, decency, good manners, love of letters, education, and industry.
The author lays particular emphasis on the industriousness of Americans who have managed to do so much with “so ungrateful soil” (de Crevecoeur 606). De Crevecoeur notes that the people who ran away from Europe, a place where they had previously worked and starved, have a decent life in America. The author uses a perfect metaphor in this respect: People from England were“useless plants” that “were mowed down by want, hunger, and war” (de Crevecoeur 606). However, upon becoming Americans, they “have taken root and started to flourish” (de Crevecoeur 606). The author remarks that Americans’ love for their nation has developed due to their becoming incorporated into “one of the finest systems of the population” (de Crevecoeur 606). In these terms, the author explains the reasons why the race of Americans is so united and prosperous.
Education and Religion
Religion and education hold a particular place in the formation of America. However, if the latter is noted as a positive feature, the former is analyzed as a factor disuniting the country (de Crevecoeur 606–610). In speaking of Americans’ attitudes toward education, the author emphasizes their love of being knowledgeable. In particular, he remarks that these citizens have employed wisdom when settling their territory and have expressed a“love of letters” (de Crevecoeur 606). In addition, the narrative notes that Americans should take pride in their “ancient college,” meaning Harvard College, founded in 1636 (de Crevecoeur 606), emphasizing that the college is the first in “this hemisphere” (de Crevecoeur 606). Having expressed his favorable opinion on education, the author remarks that Americans’ religion cannot be similarly considered to be developed in the best way.
The author goes on to assert that religious “indifference” prevails in America (de Crevecoeur 610). The country’s exercise of religion comprises a variety of sects, each of which considers it necessary to erect a temple “immediately” when it finds itself close to another religious organization (de Crevecoeur 610). As a result of this diversity, the text describes the situation in terms of many groups worshipping the Divinity in their own peculiar ways. The analysis of religion is the only instance wherein the author refers to England as the superior country. He notes that the religious instructions Americans give to their children are “feeble” compared to the advice European youth receive (de Crevecoeur 611). Thus, the author concludes that Americans will soon be rendered unable to give appropriate religious education to their children, which will inevitably lead to indifference in this area.
Finally, a significant place in the text belongs to the industry. “What Is an American?” defines industry as an “invisible power” that enables the “surprising metamorphosis” occurring in America (de Crevecoeur 607). With its help, Americans have turned the “wild, woody, and uncultivated” land into an “immense country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges” (de Crevecoeur 605). The chapter contains many references to industry. For example, the author notes that Americans will “one day cause great changes in the world” due to their efforts in production and work (de Crevecoeur 607). The text compares people to plants, calling industry “peculiar soil” in which the inhabitants can grow and bring forth fruit (de Crevecoeur 608). The narrative further states that industry is helping Americans fulfill their dreams and aspirations without the fear that their money will be taken away from them.
The author refers to industry as a magic opportunity for everyone. The idle become employed, the poor turn into the rich, and the useless evolve into the useful (de Crevecoeur 613). Thus, de Crevecoeur views industry as a means of making people’s lives easier and better by giving them lands, cattle, good houses, and clothes. In his conclusion, he states that because of industry, America can become a home for any stranger. Every person arriving there opens his or her eyes “upon the fair prospect” offered by this country (de Crevecoeur 613). The narrative reports that farmers, merchants, and other workers are able to obtain perfect opportunities for the development of their trades.
The paper has discussed the definition of national values as expressed by an author writing during the time of the early republic. The most prominent values that the narrative outlines are pride, liberty, uniformity, and equity. The author depicts Americans as the most prosperous and unique people in the world, employing a variety of comparisons and metaphors to illustrate his ideas. The themes most extensively represented in the essay are religion, education, industry, and the race of Americans, of which the author praises all except religion. However, the overall impression in reading “What Is an American?” is that de Crevecoeur, being one of the writers belonging to the early republic, highly valued significant characteristics of Americans and considered his country the best in the world.
de Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John.“What is an American?”From Letters from an American Farmer, edited by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur,1782, pp. 605–614.
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