Letters from an American farmer - J. Hector St. John - E-Book

Letters from an American farmer E-Book

J. Hector St. John

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St, John (Crèvecœur) wrote these "Letters" during a period of seven years prior to the American Revolutionary War, while farming land near Orange County, New York. They are told from the viewpoint of a fictional narrator in correspondence with an English gentleman, and each letter concerns a different aspect of life or location in the British colonies of America. the letters are written in a spirit of touching simplicity, almost better than Chateaubriand. You'd think neither of them would ever know how many beans make five. This American Farmer tells of the joys of creating a home in the wilderness, and of cultivating the virgin soil.

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Letters from an American Farmer








Letters from an American Farmer, J. Hector St. John

Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck

86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9



ISBN: 9783849650605



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Hazlitt wrote that of the three notable writers whom the eighteenth century had produced, in the North American colonies, one was "the author (whoever he was) of the American Farmer's Letters." Crevecoeur was that unknown author; and Hazlitt said further of him that he rendered, in his own vividly characteristic manner, "not only the objects, but the feelings, of a new country." Great is the essayist's relish for passages descriptive of "a battle between two snakes," of "the dazzling, almost invisible flutter of the humming- bird's wing," of the manners of "the Nantucket people, their frank simplicity, and festive rejoicings after the perils and hardships of the whale-fishing." "The power to sympathise with nature, without thinking of ourselves or others, if it is not a definition of genius, comes very near to it," writes Hazlitt of our author. And his references to Crevecoeur are closed with the remark: "We have said enough of this ILLUSTRIOUS OBSCURE; for it is the rule of criticism to praise none but the over-praised, and to offer fresh incense to the idol of the day."

Others, at least, have followed that "rule of criticism," and the American Farmer has long enjoyed undisturbed seclusion. Only once since the eighteenth century has there been a new edition of his Letters, that were first published at London in 1782, and reissued, with a few corrections, in the next year. The original American edition of this book about America was that published at Philadelphia in 1793, and there was no reprint till 1904, [Footnote: References may be found to American editions of 1794 and 1798, but no copies of such editions are preserved in any library to which the editor has had access.] when careless editing did all it could to destroy the value of the work, the name of whose very author was misstated. Yet the facts which we have concerning him are few enough to merit truthful presentation.


Except by naturalisation, the author of Letters from an American Farmer was not an American; and he was no ordinary farmer. Yet why quarrel with him for the naming of his book, or for his signing it "J. Hector Saint-John," when the "Hector" of his title-pages and American biographers was only a prenom de faintaisie? We owe some concessions to the author of so charming a book, to the eighteenth- century Thoreau. His life is certainly more interesting than the real Thoreau's—and would be, even if it did not present many contradictions. Our records of that life are in the highest degree inexact; he himself is wanting in accuracy as to the date of more than one event. The records, however, agree that Crevecoeur belonged to the petite noblesse of Normandy. The date of his birth was January 31, 1735, the place was Caen, and his full name (his great- grandson and biographer vouches for it) was Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur. The boy was well enough brought up, but without more than the attention that his birth gave him the right to expect; he divided the years of his boyhood between Caen, where his father's town-house stood, and the College du Mont, where the Jesuits gave him his education. A letter dated 1785 and addressed to his children tells us all that we know of his school-days; though it is said, too, that he distinguished himself in mathematics. "If you only knew," the reminiscent father of a family exclaims in this letter, "in what shabby lodging, in what a dark and chilly closet, I was mewed up at your age; with what severity I was treated; how I was fed and dressed!" Already his powers of observation, that were so to distinguish him, were quickened by his old-world milieu.

"From my earliest youth," he wrote in 1803, "I had a passion for taking in all the antiques that I met with: moth-eaten furniture, tapestries, family portraits, Gothic manuscripts (that I had learned how to decipher), had for me an indefinable charm. A little later on, I loved to walk in the solitude of cemeteries; to examine the tombs and to trace out their mossy epitaphs. I knew most of the churches of the canton, the date of their foundation, and what they contained of interest in the way of pictures and sculptures."

The boy's gift of accurate and keen observation was to be tested soon by a very different class of objects: there were to be no crumbling saints and canvases of Bed-Chamber Grooms for him to study in the forests of America; no reminders of the greatness of his country's past, and the honour of his family.

From school, the future woodsman passed over into England. A distant relative was living near Salisbury; for one reason or another the boy was sent thither to finish his schooling. From England, with what motives we know not, he set out for the New World, where he was to spend his busiest and happiest days. In the Bibliotheca Americana Nova Rich makes the statement that Crevecoeur was but sixteen when he made the plunge, and others have followed Rich in this error. The lad's age was really not less than nineteen or twenty. According to the family legend, his ship touched at Lisbon on the way out; one cannot decide whether this was just before or immediately after the great earthquake. Then to New France, where he joined Montcalm. Entering the service as cadet, he advanced to the rank of lieutenant; was mentioned in the Gazette; shared in the French successes; drew maps of the forests and block-houses that found their way to the king's cabinet; served with Montcalm in the attack upon Fort William Henry. With that the record is broken off: we can less definitely associate his name with the humiliation of the French in America than with their brief triumphs. Yet it is quite certain, says Robert de Crevecoeur, his descendant, that he did not return to France with the rag-tag of the defeated army. Quebec fell before Wolfe's attack in September 1759; at some time in the course of the year 1760 we may suppose the young officer to have entered the British colonies; to have adopted his family name of "Saint John" (Saint-Jean), and to have gradually worked his way south, probably by the Hudson. The reader of the Letters hardly supposes him to have enjoyed his frontier life; nor is there any means of knowing how much of that life it was his fortune to lead. In time, he found himself as far south as Pennsylvania. He visited Shippensburg and Lancaster and Carlisle; perhaps he resided at or near one of these towns. Many years later, when his son Louis purchased a farm of two hundred acres from Chancellor Livingstone, at Navesink, near the Blue Mountains, Crevecoeur the elder was still remembered; and it may have been at this epoch that he visited the place. During the term of his military service under Montcalm, Crevecoeur saw something of the Great Lakes and the outlying country; prior to his experience as a cultivator, and, indeed, after he had settled down as such, he "travelled like Plato," even visited Bermuda, by his own account. Not until 1764, however, have we any positive evidence of his whereabouts; it was in April of that year that he took out naturalisation papers at New York. Some months later, he installed himself on the farm variously called Greycourt and Pine-Hill, in the same state; he drained a great marsh there, and seems to have practised agriculture upon a generous scale. The certificate of the marriage of Crevecoeur to Mehitable Tippet, of Yonkers is dated September 20, 1769; and of this union three children were the issue. And more than children: for with the marriage ceremony once performed by the worthy Tetard, a clergyman of New York, formerly settled over a French Reformed Church at Charleston, South Carolina, Crevecoeur is more definitely than ever the "American Farmer"; he has thrown in his lot with that new country; his children are to be called after their parent's adopted name, Saint-John; the responsibilities of the adventurer are multiplied; his life in America has become a matter more easy to trace and richer, perhaps, in meaning.


One of the historians of American literature has written that these Letters furnish "a greater number of delightful pages than any other book written in America during the eighteenth century, save only Franklin's Autobiography." A safe compliment, this; and yet does not the very emptiness of American annals during the eighteenth century make for our cherishing all that they offer of the vivid and the significant? Professor Moses Coit Tyler long ago suggested what was the literary influence of the American Farmer, whose "idealised treatment of rural life in America wrought quite traceable effects upon the imaginations of Campbell, Byron, Southey, Coleridge, and furnished not a few materials for such captivating and airy schemes of literary colonisation in America as that of 'Pantisocracy.'" Hazlitt praised the book to his friends and, as we have seen, commended it to readers of the Edinburgh Review. Lamb mentions it in one of his letters—which is already some distinction. Yet when was a book more completely lost to popular view—even among the books that have deserved oblivion? The Letters were published, all the same, at Belfast and Dublin and Philadelphia, as well as at London; they were recast in French by the author, translated into German and Dutch by pirating penny-a-liners, and given a "sequel" by a publisher at Paris. [Footnote: Ouvrage pour servir de suite aux Lettres d'un cultivateur Americain, Paris, 1785. The work so offered seems to have been a translation of John Filson's History of Kentucky (Wilmington, Del., 1784).]

The American Fanner made his first public appearance eleven years before Chateaubriand found a publisher for his Essai sur les Revolutions, wherein the great innovator first used the American materials that he worked over more effectively in his travels, tales, and memoirs. In Saint-John de Crevecoeur, we have a contemporary—a correspondent, even—of Franklin; but if our author shared many of poor Richard's interests, one may travel far without finding a more complete antithesis to that common-sense philosopher.

Crevecoeur expresses mild wonderment that, while so many travellers visit Italy and "the town of Pompey under ground," few come to the new continent, where may be studied, not what is found in books, but "the humble rudiments and embryos of society spreading everywhere, the recent foundations of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts." In the course of his sixteen or seventeen years' experience as an American farmer he himself studied all these matters; and he gives us a charming picture of them. Though his book has very little obvious system, its author describes for us frontier and farm; the ways of the Nantucket fishermen and their intrepid wives; life in the Middle Colonies; the refinements and atrocities of Charleston. Crevecoeur's account of the South (that he knew but superficially and—who knows?—more, it may be, by Tetard's anecdotes than through personal knowledge) is the least satisfactory part of his performance. One feels it to be the most "literary" portion of a book whose beauty is naivete. But whether we accept or reject the story of the negro malefactor hung in a cage from a tree, and pecked at by crows, it is certain that the traveller justly regarded slavery as the one conspicuous blot on the new country's shield. Crevecoeur was not an active abolitionist, like that other naturalised Frenchman, Benezet of Philadelphia; he had his own slaves to work his northern farms; he was, however, a man of humane feelings—one who "had his doubts." [Footnote: In his Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie (sic) et dans l'Etat de New York (Paris, 1801) slavery is severely attacked by Crevecoeur. His descendant, Robert de Crevecoeur, refers to him as "a friend of Wilberforce."] And his narrative description of life in the American colonies in the years immediately preceding the Revolution is one that social historians cannot ignore.

Though our Farmer emphasises his plainness, and promises the readers of his Letters only a matter-of-fact account of his pursuits, he has his full share of eighteenth-century "sensibility." Since he is, however, at many removes from the sophistications of London and Paris, he is moved, not by the fond behaviour of a lap-dog, or the "little arrangements" carters make with the bridles of their faithful asses (that they have driven to death, belike), but by such matters as he finds at home. "When I contemplate my wife, by my fire-side, while she either spins, knits, darns, or suckles our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, of gratitude, or conscious pride which thrill in my heart, and often overflow in voluntary tears …" He is like that old classmate's of Fitzgerald's, buried deep "in one of the most out-of-the-way villages in all England," for if he goes abroad, "it is always involuntary. I never return home without feeling some pleasant emotion, which I often suppress as useless and foolish." He has his reveries; but they are pure and generous; their subject is the future of his children. In midwinter, instead of trapping and "murthering" the quail, "often in the angles of the fences where the motion of the wind prevents the snow from settling, I carry them both chaff and grain: the one to feed them, the other to prevent their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth as I have frequently observed them to do." His love of birds is marked: this in those provinces of which a German traveller wrote: "In the thrush kind America is poor; there is only the red-breasted robin. … There are no sparrows. Very few birds nest in the woods; a solemn stillness prevails through them, interrupted only by the screaming of the crows." It is good, after such a passage as this has been quoted, to set down what Crevecoeur says of the bird kingdom. "In the spring," he writes, "I generally rise from bed about that indistinct interval which, properly speaking, is neither night nor day:" for then it is that he enjoys "the universal vocal choir." He continues—more and more lyrically: "Who can listen unmoved, to the sweet love-tales of our robins, told from tree to tree? Or to the shrill cat birds? The sublime accents of the thrush from on high, always retard my steps, that I may listen to the delicious music." And the Farmer is no less interested in "the astonishing art which all birds display in the construction of their nests, ill provided as we may suppose them with proper tools; their neatness, their convenience." At some time during his American residence he gathered the materials for an unpublished study of ants; and his bees proved an unfailing source of entertainment. "Their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new," he writes; adding that he is most often to be found, in hours of rest, under the locust tree where his beehive stands. "By their movements," says he, "I can predict the weather, and can tell the day of their swarming." When other men go hunting game, he goes bee-hunting. Such are the matters he tells of in his Letters.

One difference from the stereotyped "sensibility" of the old world one may discover in the openness of Crevecoeur's heart; and that is the completeness of his interest in all the humbler sorts of natural phenomena. Nature is, for him, no mere bundle of poetic stage- properties, soiled by much handling, but something fresh and inviting and full of interest to a man alive. He takes more pleasure in hunting bees than in expeditions with his dogs and gun; the king- birds destroy his bees—but, he adds, they drive the crows away. Ordinarily he could not persuade himself to shoot them. On one occasion, however, he fired at a more than commonly impertinent specimen, "and immediately opened his maw, from which I took 171 bees; I laid them all on a blanket in the sun, and to my great surprise fifty-four returned to life, licked themselves clean, and joyfully went back to the hive, where they probably informed their companions of such an adventure and escape, as I believe had never happened before to American bees." Must one regard this as a fable? It is by no means as remarkable a yarn as one may find told by other naturalists of the same century. There is, for example, that undated letter of John Bartram's, in which he makes inquiries of his brother William concerning "Ye Wonderful Flower;" [Footnote: see "A Botanical Marvel," in The Nation (New York), August 5, 1909.] there is, too, Kalm's report of Bartram's bear: "When a bear catches a cow, he kills her in the following manner: he bites a hole into the hide and blows with all his power into it, till the animal swells excessively and dies; for the air expands greatly between the flesh and the hide." After these fine fancies, where is the improbability of Crevecoeur's modest adaptation of the Jonah-allegory that he applies to the king-bird and his bees? The episode suggests, for that matter, a chapter in Mitchell's My Farm at Edgewood. Mitchell, a later American farmer, describes the same king-birds, the same bees; has, too, the same supremely gentle spirit. "I have not the heart to shoot at the king-birds; nor do I enter very actively into the battle of the bees. … I give them fair play, good lodging, limitless flowers, willows bending (as Virgil advises) into the quiet water of a near pool; I have even read up the stories of a poor blind Huber, who so dearly loved the bees, and the poem of Giovanni Rucellai, for their benefit." Can the reader state, without stopping to consider, which author it was that wrote thus—Mitchell or Crevecoeur? Certainly it is the essential modernity of the earlier writer's style that most impresses one, after the charm of his pictures. His was the age of William Livingston—later Governor of the State of New Jersey; and in the very year when a London publisher was bringing out the first edition of the Farmer's Letters, Livingston, described on his title-page as a "young gentleman educated at Yale College," brought out his Philosophic Solitude at Trenton, in his native state. It is worth quoting Philosophic Solitude for the sake of the comparison to be drawn between Crevecoeur's prose and contemporary American verse:-


"Let ardent heroes seek renown in arms,      Pant after fame, and rush to war's alarms …      Mine be the pleasures of a RURAL life."


The thought is, after all, the same as that which we have found less directly phrased in Crevecoeur. But let us quote the lines that follow the exordium—now we should find the poet unconstrained and fancy-free:—


"Me to sequestred scenes, ye muses, guide,      Where nature wantons in her virgin-pride;      To mossy banks edg'd round with op'ning flow'rs,      Elysian fields, and amaranthin bow'rs. …      Welcome, ye shades! all hail, ye vernal blooms!      Ye bow'ry thickets, and prophetic glooms!      Ye forests hail! ye solitary woods. …"


and the "solitary woods" (rhyming with "floods") are a good place to leave the "young gentleman educated at Yale College." Livingston was, plainly enough, a poet of his time and place. He had a fine eye for Nature—seen through library windows. He echoed Goldsmith and a whole line of British poets—echoed them atrociously.

That one finds no "echoes" in Crevecoeur is one of our reasons for praising his spontaneity and vigour. He did not import nightingales into his America, as some of the poets did. He blazed away, rather, toward our present day appreciation of surrounding nature—which was not banal then. Crevecoeur's honest and unconventionalised love of his rural environment is great enough to bridge the difference between the eighteenth and the twentieth century. It is as easy for us to pass a happy evening with him as it was for Thomas Campbell, figuring to himself a realisation of Cowley's dreams and of Rousseau's poetic seclusion; "till at last," in Southey's words, "comes an ill-looking Indian with a tomahawk, and scalps me—a most melancholy proof that society is very bad." It is the freshness, the youthfulness, of these Letters, after their century and more of dust-gathering, that is least likely to escape us. And this "Farmer in Pennsylvania" is almost as unmistakably of kin with good Gilbert White of Selborne as he is the American Thoreau's eighteenth-century forerunner.


It is time, indeed, that we made the discovery that Crevecoeur was a modern. He was, too, a dweller in the young republic—even before it WAS a republic. Twice a year he had "the pleasure of catching pigeons, whose numbers are sometimes so astonishing as to obscure the sun in their flight." There is, then, no poetic licence about Longfellow's description, in Evangeline, of how—

"A pestilence fell on the city Presaged by wondrous signs, and mostly by flocks of wild pigeons, Darkening the sun in their flight, with naught in their craws but an acorn."

Longfellow could have cited as his authority for this flight of pigeons Mathew Carey's Record of the Malignant Fever lately Prevalent, published at Philadelphia, which, to be sure, discusses a different epidemic, but tells us that "amongst the country people, large quantities of wild pigeons in the spring are regarded as certain indications of an unhealthy summer. Whether or not this prognostic has ever been verified, I cannot tell. But it is very certain that during the last spring the numbers of these birds brought to market were immense. Never, perhaps, were there so many before."

Carey wrote in 1793, the year, as has been noted, of the first American reprint of the Letters, that had first been published at London. Carey was himself Crevecoeur's American publisher; and he may well have thought as he wrote the lines quoted of Crevecoeur's earlier pigeons "obscuring the sun in their flight." Crevecoeur had by this time returned to France, and was never more to ply the avocations of the American farmer. In the interval, much had happened to this victim of both the revolutions. Though the Letters are distinguished by an idyllic temper, over them is thrown the shadow of impending civil war. The Farmer was a man of peace, for all his experience under Montcalm in Canada (and even there his part was rather an engineer's than a combatant's); he long hoped, therefore, that peaceful counsels would prevail, and that England and the colonies would somehow come to an understanding without hostilities. Then, after the Americans had boldly broken with the home government, he lent them all his sympathy but not his arms. He had his family to watch over; likewise his two farms, one in Orange County, New York, one in New Jersey. As it was, the Indians in the royal service burned his New Jersey estate; and after his first return to France (he was called thither by his father, we are told, though we know nothing of the motives of this recall) he entered upon a new phase of his career. "After his first return to France," I have said, as if that had been an entirely simple matter. One cannot here describe all its alleged difficulties; his arrest at New York as a suspected spy (though after having secured a pass from the American commander. General MacDougal, he had secured a second pass from General Clinton, and permission to embark for France); his detention in the provost's prison in New York; the final embarkation with his oldest son—this on September 1, 1780; the shipwreck which he described as occurring off the Irish coast; his residence for some months in Great Britain, and during a part of that time in London, where he sold the manuscript of the Letters for thirty guineas. One would like to know Crevecoeur's emotions on finally reaching France and joining his father and relatives at Caen. One would like to describe his romantic succour of five American seamen, who had escaped from an English prison and crossed the Channel in a sloop to Normandy. A cousin of one of these seamen, a Captain Fellowes of Boston, was later to befriend Crevecoeur's daughter and younger son in the new country; that was after the Loyalists and their Indian allies had destroyed the Farmer's house at Pine Hill, after his wife had fled to Westchester with her two children, and had died there soon after, leaving them unprotected. But all this must, in nautical phrase, "go by the board," including the novel founded upon the episode. Nor can we linger over Crevecoeur's entry into polite society, both in the Norman capital and at Paris. Fancy the returned prodigal—if one may so describe him—in the salon of Madame d'Houdetot, Rousseau's former mistress! He was fairly launched, this American Farmer, in the society of the lettres.

"Twice a week," he wrote, some years after, "I went with M. de Turgot to see the Duchesse de Beauvilliers, his sister; and another twice-a-week I went with him to the Comte de Buffon's. … It was at the table of M. de Buffon, it was in his salon, during long winter evenings, that I was awakened once more to the graces, the beauties, the timid purity of our tongue, which, during my long sojourn in North America, had become foreign to me, and of which I had almost lost command—though not the memory."


Madame d'Houdetot presented Crevecoeur to the families of La Rochefoucauld, Liancourt, d'Estissac, Breteuil, Rohan-Chabot, Beauvau, Necker; to the academicians d'Alembert, La Harpe, Grimm, Suard, Rulbriere; to the poet-academician Delille. We have in the Memoires of Brissot an allusion to his entrance into this society, under the wing of his elderly protectress:—


"Proud of possessing an American savage, she wished to form him, and to launch him in society. He had the good sense to refuse and to confine himself to the picked society of men of letters."

It was at a later period that Brissot and Crevecoeur were to meet; their quarrel, naturally, came later still.

Madame d'Houdetot did more than entertain the Farmer, whose father had been one of her oldest friends. She secured his nomination as Consul-General to the United States, now recognised by France; it was at New York that he took up residence. Through the influence of Madame d'Houdetot and her friends, he retained the appointment through the stormy years that followed, though in the end he was obliged to make way for a successor more in sympathy with the violent republicanism of the age. Throughout the years of the French Revolution, the ex-farmer lived a life of retirement, and, if never of conspicuous danger, of embarrassment enough, and of humiliation. We need not discuss those years spent at Paris; or the visits paid, after the close of the Revolution, to his son-in-law and daughter, for his daughter Frances-America was married to a French Secretary of Legation, who became a Count of the Empire. Now he was in Paris or the suburbs; now in London, or Munich. Five years of the Farmer's later life were spent at the Bavarian capital; Maximilian entertained him there, and told him that he had read his book with the keenest pleasure and great profit too. He busied himself in preparing his three-volume Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie (sic) et dans l'Etat de New York, and in adding to his paper on potato culture,[Footnote: Traite de la Culture des Pommes de Terre, 1782.] a second on the false acacia; but his best work was done and he knew it. Crevecoeur lived on until 1813, dying in the same year with Madame d'Houdetot, who was so much his elder. He paid a worthy tribute to that lady's character; perhaps we do her an injustice in knowing her only for the liaison with Jean-Jacques. He died on November 12, 1813: member of agricultural societies and of the Academy (section of moral and political science), and of Franklin's Philosophical Society at Philadelphia. A town in Vermont had been named St. Johnsbury in his honour; he had the freedom of more than one New England city. It is, none the less, as the author of Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, and written, for the most part, years before that date, that we remember him—so far as we do remember.


Much remains unsaid—much, even, of the essential. Some of the facts are still unknown; others may be looked for in the biography written by his great-grandson, Robert de Crevecoeur, and published at Paris some eighty years ago. There is hardly occasion to discuss here what Crevecoeur did, as consul at New York, to encourage the exchange of French manufactures and American exports; or to tell of his packet- line—the first established between New York and a French port; or to set down the story of his children; or to describe those last sad years, at home and abroad, after the close of his consular career. There is no room at all for the words of praise that were spoken of the Letters by Franklin and Washington, who recommended them to intending immigrants as a faithful, albeit "highly coloured" picture. We must let the writings of the American Farmer speak for themselves: they belong, after all, to literature.

It was a modest man—a modest life; a life filled, none the less, with romantic incident. All this throws into relief the beauty of its best fruits. Crevecoeur made no claim to artistry when he wrote his simple, heartfelt Letters; and yet his style, in spite of occasional defects and extra flourishes, seems to us worthy of his theme. These Letters from an American Farmer have been an inspiration to poets—and they "smell of the woods."

In a prose age, Crevecoeur lived a kind of pastoral poetry; in an age largely blind, he saw the beauties of nature, less through readings in the Nouvelle Heloise and Bernardin's Etudes than with his own keen eyes; he was a true idealist, besides, and as such kindles one's enthusiasm. The man's optimism, his grateful personality, his saneness, too—for here is a dreamer neither idle nor morbid—are qualities no less enduring, or endearing, than his fame as "poet-naturalist." The American Farmer might have used Cotton's Retirement for an epigraph on his title-page:—

     "Farewell, thou busy world, and may

     We never meet again,

     Here I can eat and sleep and pray. …"

but for the fact that he found time to turn the clods, withal, and eyes to watch the earth blackening behind the plough. "Our necessities," wrote Poe, who contended, in a half-hearted way, that the Americans of his generation were as poetical a people as any other, "have been mistaken for our propensities. Having been forced to make railroads, it has been deemed impossible that we should make verse." But here was Saint-John de Crevecoeur writing, in the eighteenth century, his idyllic Letters, while, if he did not build railways, he interested himself in the experiments of Fitch and Rumsey and Parmentier, and organised a packet-line between New York and Lorient, in Brittany. This Crevecoeur should from the first have appealed to the imagination—especially to the American imagination- -combining as he did the faculty of the ideal and the achievement of the actual. It is not too late for him to appeal to-day; in spite of all his quaintness, Crevecoeur is a contemporary of our own.





[To the first edition, 1782.]


The following Letters are the genuine production of the American Farmer whose name they bear. They were privately written to gratify the curiosity of a friend; and are made public, because they contain much authentic information, little known on this side the Atlantic; they cannot therefore fail of being highly interesting to the people of England, at a time when everybody's attention is directed toward the affairs of America.

That these letters are the actual result of a private correspondence may fairly be inferred (exclusive of other evidence) from the style and manner in which they are conceived: for though plain and familiar, and sometimes animated, they are by no means exempt from such inaccuracies as must unavoidably occur in the rapid effusions of a confessedly inexperienced writer.

Our Farmer had long been an eye-witness of transactions that have deformed the face of America: he is one of those who dreaded, and has severely felt, the desolating consequences of a rupture between the parent state and her colonies: for he has been driven from a situation, the enjoyment of which the reader will find pathetically described in the early letters of this volume. The unhappy contest is at length, however, drawing toward a period; and it is now only left us to hope, that the obvious interests and mutual wants of both countries, may in due time, and in spite of all obstacles, happily re-unite them.

Should our Farmer's letters be found to afford matter of useful entertainment to an intelligent and candid public, a second volume, equally interesting with those now published, may soon be expected.



[To the Second Edition, 1783.]


Since the publication of this volume, we hear that Mr. St. John has accepted a public employment at New York. It is therefore, perhaps, doubtful whether he will soon be at leisure to revise his papers, and give the world a second collection of the American Farmer Letters.




Behold, Sir, an humble American Planter, a simple cultivator of the earth, addressing you from the farther side of the Atlantic; and presuming to fix your name at the head of his trifling lucubrations. I wish they were worthy of so great an honour. Yet why should not I be permitted to disclose those sentiments which I have so often felt from my heart? A few years since, I met accidentally with your Political and Philosophical History, and perused it with infinite pleasure. For the first time in my life I reflected on the relative state of nations; I traced the extended ramifications of a commerce which ought to unite but now convulses the world; I admired that universal benevolence, that diffusive goodwill, which is not confined to the narrow limits of your own country; but, on the contrary, extends to the whole human race. As an eloquent and powerful advocate you have pleaded the cause of humanity in espousing that of the poor Africans: you viewed these provinces of North America in their true light, as the asylum of freedom; as the cradle of future nations, and the refuge of distressed Europeans. Why then should I refrain from loving and respecting a man whose writings I so much admire? These two sentiments are inseparable, at least in my breast. I conceived your genius to be present at the head of my study: under its invisible but powerful guidance, I prosecuted my small labours: and now, permit me to sanctify them under the auspices of your name. Let the sincerity of the motives which urge me, prevent you from thinking that this well meant address contains aught but the purest tribute of reverence and affection. There is, no doubt, a secret communion among good men throughout the world; a mental affinity connecting them by a similitude of sentiments: then, why, though an American, should not I be permitted to share in that extensive intellectual consanguinity? Yes, I do: and though the name of a man who possesses neither titles nor places, who never rose above the humble rank of a farmer, may appear insignificant; yet, as the sentiments I have expressed are also the echo of those of my countrymen; on their behalf, as well as on my own, give me leave to subscribe myself,


Your very sincere admirer,




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 judgment. 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 instructed 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, agriculture, arts, manufactures, and trade: you guided 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, and 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 better 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 minister often comes to see me, though he lives upwards of twenty miles distant. I have shown 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 anything 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 in 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 Petersburg, and who hath seen so many fine things 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 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 knowledge; this I understand very well; the difficulty is, how to collect, digest, and arrange what 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 be will put to you in his future letters to be asked by his 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, 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 appears 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 everywhere, 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 to behold, than the ruins of old towers, useless aqueducts, 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.