Friday, December 18, 2009

Ever heard of this guy?

OK. Raise your hand if you've ever heard of J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. Hmm. Aside from a few historians, I don't see very many people raising their hands. Until recently, you certainly wouldn't have seen mine in the air.

Crevecoeur, a French surveyor sent to the new world during the French and Indian War (1754-1763), stayed on in the colonies after the war ended, married, and farmed in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Later, after returning to Europe, he wrote "Letters from an American Farmer," an idealistic series of tracts explaining a romantic vision of American possibilities and the impact of American space and nature to a readership that little understood what this whole new "American" thing was all about.

But what's interesting is that he also, perhaps without quite realizing it, recorded reports later in his book quite at odds with his wildly optimistic views. On a trip to Charleston, Crevecoeur enjoyed sumptuous dinners, but couldn't help reflecting that his enjoyment was made possible by the misery of slaves. One day, walking off such a dinner, he encounter a black man left to die in a cage, already pecked by birds and bitten by insects. The man pleaded for poison.

It seemed the "new" man, the American freed from the oppressive history of his European past, was still just a man, capable of evil as well as good. Crevecoeur's opposing views of American "exceptionalism" would do much to inform the political battle over just how the country's upcoming Constitution should take shape. Unlike the writings of others like Thomas Paine, who simply chose to assume that the Revolution would bring about some sort of utopia, Crevecoeur helped inform the Federalism of Madison and John Adams, people who got it that governmental checks and balances must be added to any democracy. Be glad also that the anti-federalists insisted on a Bill of Rights.

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