Wednesday, June 19, 2013

J. Hector St. John De Crevocoeur's "Letters from an American Farmer"

J. Hector St. John De Crevocoeur (1735-1813) was a Frenchman who immigrated to the American colonies in the 1750s, where he became a farmer, traveler, and writer of observations.  His "Letters From An American Farmer" are a series of writings that provide a unique glimpse into what life was like at the very beginning of the United States of America.


His first letter, entitled "What is an American?" paints a very flattering portrait of the new American experiment.  He sees a land full of possibility and promise that was unheard-of in Europe.  "It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing," he writes, "Here are no aristocratical families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, no ecclesiastical dominion, no invisible power giving to a few a very visible one; 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."

Crevocoeur describes a new class of people, "animated with the spirit of an industry which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself."  Here, he is describing what appears to be a rising middle class, which was not possible in Europe of the time, due to all the old power structures.  Here, in the new land called America, a man may be the captain of his fate, if he is willing to work for it.


However, all of this optimism and American promise is sort of undermined by his letter entitled, "Description of Charles-Town; Thoughts on Slavery; on Physical Evil; A Melancholy Scene."  For right in the midst of all this hope and optimism of freedom from the old prejudices and power structures of Europe, there existed a huge population of people for whom these ideas did not apply: the slaves.  Crevocoeur writes:

"While all is joy, festivity, and happiness in Charles-Town, would you imagine that scenes of misery overspread in the country?  Their ears by habit are become deaf, their hearts are hardened; they neither see, hear, nor feel for the woes of their poor slaves, from whose painful labors all their wealth proceeds."  This statement stands in stark contrast to the flattering picture he begins with, and Crevocoeur is clearly confused and disturbed by what he witnesses in Charles-Town.  

Even the Christian ministers are complicit in the horrors of slavery.  Crevocoeur gives the example of a clergyman who came into town and began urging his congregation to have more compassion for their slaves, to which one of the planters replied, "Sir, we pay you a genteel salary to read to us the prayers of the liturgy, and to explain to us such parts of the Gospel as the rule of the church directs; but we do not want you to teach us what we are to do with our blacks."  So the preacher, not wanting to lose his salary, complied.


This letter ends with one of the most horrific scenes I've read in a while, something straight out of a Quentin Tarantino film, or a particularly intense horror movie.  While walking through the woods one day outside Charles-Town, Crevocoeur came upon a black man in a cage, suspended from a tree, left to die.  He writes: "I perceived a Negro, suspended in the cage, and left there to expire!  I shudder when I recollect that the birds had already picked out his eyes, his cheek bones were bare; his arms had been attacked in several places, and his body seemed covered in a multitude of wounds."  Crevocoeur later learns that this man had supposedly killed his overseer, and this death by starvation and birds was his punishment.  Regardless of the circumstances, this image of a lone black man hanging from a tree, starving and wounded, deeply affects Crevocoeur.

Reading these letters caused me to reflect upon the America of the 18th century, its promise and its horrors, and the America of today, and how things have (or have not) changed.  Of course we do not have slavery today, but there do exist wide gaps between rich and poor  Despite all the problems (past and present), I still want to believe that here, in America, there is the promise of forging ones own destiny.  Of course, as a middle class white male, things are a bit easier for me than for others.

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