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  • Michael Rickard II

"The American New Man: Crèvecœur and the Promise of early America."

As America celebrates its independence, I thought I'd share an English project I wrote two years ago about one of America's earliest literary successes; Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (Crèvecœur) was a French-American writer whose book Letters from an American Farmer help to popularize the idea of the American Dream and life on the American frontier. I found it fascinating just how different Crèvecœur painted Europe from America. I can't help but wonder if that's still the case.

Crèvecœurr strongly believes that there is a great gap between the wealthy and the poor in Europe. He states that there are a small number of nobles who command most of their nation’s resources and a large number of people who possess nothing. Crèvecœur talks of the oppression of courts, kings, and absolute religious control. He speaks of the rich living in their castles and mansions as opposed to the commoners who live in squalor in huts or cabins. Crèvecœur also views most of the Europeans (the poor ones) as people who wander about the land trying to feed themselves. Crèvecœur does not believe that anyone in such a bad predicament has any affiliation with their so-called homeland, Crèvecœur calls the American the “New Man”. He believes that people came to America from a variety of European countries in order to survive. Crèvecœur talks of the Latin phrase that translates into “Where there is bread, there is one’s Fatherland”. People come to America and find that they can prosper, thus America becomes their new home. When a person comes to America, they lose their ancients prejudices and manners (such as hatred towards other religious groups or other nationalities). People from a variety of European nations find themselves settling in one country i.e. America and melting into one group i.e. Americans. They develop a new culture and new ideas about society, thus becoming “New Men”.

Crèvecœur compared men to plants. He believes that like plants, men grow differently depending on their environment. This belief ties in with the Enlightenment idea that environment influences a person’s development. For example, Crèvecœur states that a man who lives by the sea will feed more on fish and be influenced by the lively element of the sea. This will make him more outgoing and ambitious. Another example is a man who lives in the woods. This man largely depends on himself and is separated from the morals found in communities. Crèvecœur believes that the result is a savage type of man. However as civilization creeps into the deep woods, the wild man will eventually become civilized. Crèvecœur develops the idea of environment further by stating that man is shaped by his religion, his government, and his employment. Thus there are a variety of environmental factors.

Many of Crèvecœur ideas parallel those of Franklin. Both Crèvecœurand Franklin were strong supporters of the Enlightenment Movement. Both Crèvecœur and Franklin disliked the influence of religious dogma. Crèvecœur felt that eventually, intermarriage would dilute dogma to the point where there were no dogmatic differences. The idea of empiricism as developed (although not discovered by) by John Locke held that man could improve society by observing it and using the scientific method to improve things. Crèvecœur felt that Americans would develop improvements in society and science by trial and error. Franklin in turn developed a system of improving oneself by daily observations of one’s behavior. The Enlightenment thinkers also believed that man is influenced by his environment (as Crèvecœur compared men to plants and stated both are influenced by their environment). Enlightenment sought to foster idea of tolerance towards others. Crèvecœur argued that the mutual experience of living together in America would cause people who had come from other countries to abandon their old identities and assume a new identity. Franklin argued that the colonists should tolerate the Indians (although he did not argue that the Indians should be assimilated into white society).

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