Hector St. John Crèvecoeur is certainly not one of the greatest figures of American history, but he can at the very least be credited with having been witness to a great deal of some of the key events that lead to the inception of the United States of America in the 18th century.1 Crèvecoeur saw the burgeoning nation under many different angles during different periods of American history2. This coupled with the fact that as a foreigner who lived in the colonies he was able to step back and appraise American life and culture and be also able to see it from the inside.
This essay will focus on the American life of Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur and attempt a sketch of how his life took place and how the colonies and the new American nation affected him. Firstly we will examine Crèvecoeur’s life in the colonies, including his living conditions, regions he inhabited and his overall situation during his time there. Secondly, we will review his experiences in the colonies and North America. Thirdly we will attempt to see how, when and by whom was Crèvecoeur influenced during his time in America and what effects this had on both the United States of American and Crèvecoeur himself.
Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur – or St. John de Crèvecoeur as we would later know him – would first set foot in North America in Canada in 1754. Fighting under the Montcalm during the French-Indian War, Crèvecoeur left Canada for the English colonies where he worked as an itinerant merchant allowed him to envision many aspects and parts of North America. In 1759 he eventually settled down in Orange County in New York and became a citizen of the colony, changing his name to John Hector St. John.. Crèvecoeur took up a life of farming and raised a family, while still keeping in touch with the outside world albeit staying out of its affairs almost entirely.
After the upheaval of the Revolutionary War and a five-year long return to France, Crèvecoeur eventually returned to New York in 1783 in the capacity of First Consul of his Christian Majesty to the State of New York. In this lofty position Crèvecoeur toiled to establish trading between the American colonies and the French crown. In addition he also informed France – and through France, Europe – of what the lives, people and the continent of North America was truly like. Although Crèvecoeur’s sojourns in the colonies were no doubt a source of great pride and accomplishment, they were also a time of hardship, suspicion and uncertainty.
St. John de Crèvecoeur’s experiences in North America and the colonies within were varied. In turn his life there was filled with successes. After being a competent soldier for France he became a farmer and raised a family that he loved and was proud of. He eventually reached a position of at least symbolic power where he found himself in a position to both help his motherland as well as foster greater understanding, appreciation and maybe even prosperity for a land and a nation that had been his home for most of his life. However, if one were to equate Crèvecoeur’s experiences on the continent to be purely idyllic one would be sorely mistaken. In addition to the hardships of rural life he also had to experience suspicion and imprisonment during his time there.
Crèvecoeur, although naturalized as an American, was still very much a Frenchman. Although very much liberal for his times Crèvecoeur still retained a healthy respect for religion and monarchy, twin pillars of the French elite. He was also enamored with English society and government, considered far more liberal and egalitarian by the French philosophers still under the reign of an absolute monarchy. His first book was in fact dedicated to Abbot Raynal whose work “Histoire philosophique et politique des établissements des Européens dans les deux Indes” (1770) inspired him to think about America and his situation. Furthermore, Crèvecoeur’s own experiences and his reading of instilled him with the idea that the American colonies, with their religious tolerance. Although ultimately addressed to the higher strata of society, designed as a sort of quaint picture of pastoral utopia, his works are ultimately a celebration and an accolade to the workingman and the lower classes of the time. Crèvecoeur is even sometimes credited with being the inventor of what would become the American Dream.
Colonial American shaped Crèvecoeur. The hardships of the rural life began to change his view of the rural idyll that we first see in his writings. The dangers of that life and the unrelenting and often unjust vagaries of the elements, neighbors and country life bore down on him. Although still somewhat in awe of some of the leaders that permitted the Revolution some of his writings tell a tale of disillusion with great leaders and the hero worship that resulted with some of the heroes of the American Revolution, namely Washington. The Revolution further marred Crèvecoeur’s utopian take on the colonies and also the English themselves.
To say that Crèvecoeur is an interesting character of American history is an understatement. Having been witness to three distinct phases of colonial America. These are the pre-revolutionary period, the actual American Revolution itself and its aftermath. These various periods and stages in his life affect him deeply and modified his writings and his views. In conclusion, Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur embodies many things that characterized colonial America as both a land brimming with opportunity and a place and time steeped in brutality and harshness.
Patchell, Thomas “J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur” in Early American Nature Writers ed. by Daniel Patterson (London: Greenwood Press 2008), 103
Plotkin, A. Saint-John de Crevecoeur Rediscovered: Critic or Paneygyrist? French Historical Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Spring, 1964) 403-404
Plumstead, A. W. “Crevecoeur: A “Man of Sorrows” and the American Revolution” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 17, No. 2 (Summer, 1976) 287-288
St. John de Crevecoeur, John Letters from an American Farmer, 1783, ed. Albert Stone (New York, NY: Penguin American Library, 1981), 226-227
St. John de Crevecoeur, John Qu’est-ce qu’un Américain? (ed. Howard Rice) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1943