J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur

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J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur
Born(1735-12-31)December 31, 1735
Normandy, France
DiedNovember 12, 1813(1813-11-12) (aged 77)
Sarcelles, France
Other namesMichel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur
Known forPro-American writings during the time of the American Revolution
Spouse(s)Mehitable Tippet

Michel Guillaume Jean de Crèvecœur (French pronunciation: ​[miʃɛl ɡijom ʒɑ̃ də kʁɛvkœʁ]; December 31, 1735 – November 12, 1813), naturalized in New York as John Hector St. John, was a French-American writer. He was born in Caen, Normandy, France, to the Comte and Comtesse de Crèvecœur (Count and Countess of Crèvecœur).


He was born December 31, 1735, to a family of minor nobility in Normandy. In 1755 he migrated to New France in North America. There, he served in the French and Indian War as a cartographer in the French Colonial Militia, rising to the rank of lieutenant. Following the British defeat of the French Army in 1759, he moved to the Province of New York, where he took out citizenship, adopted the English-American name of John Hector St. John, and in 1770 married an American woman, Mehitable Tippet, the daughter of a New York merchant. He bought a sizable farm in Orange County, New York, called "Pine Hill", where he prospered as a farmer. He also traveled about working as a surveyor.[1] He started writing about life in the American colonies and the emergence of an American society.

In 1779, during the American Revolution, St. John tried to leave the country to return to France because of the faltering health of his father. Accompanied by his son, he crossed British-American lines to enter British-occupied New York City, where he was imprisoned as an American spy for three months without a hearing. Eventually, he was able to sail for Britain, and was shipwrecked off the coast of Ireland.[1] From Britain, he sailed to France, where he was briefly reunited with his father. After spending some time recuperating at the family estate, he visited Paris and the salon of Sophie d'Houdetot.[2]


In 1782, in London, he published a volume of narrative essays entitled the Letters from an American Farmer. The book quickly became the first literary success by an American author in Europe and turned Crèvecœur into a celebrated figure. He was the first writer to describe to Europeans – employing many American English terms – the life on the American frontier and to explore the concept of the American Dream, portraying American society as characterized by the principles of equal opportunity and self-determination. His work provided useful information and understanding of the "New World" that helped to create an American identity in the minds of Europeans by describing an entire country rather than another regional colony. The writing celebrated American ingenuity and the uncomplicated lifestyle. It described the acceptance of religious diversity in a society being created from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. His application of the Latin maxim "Ubi panis ibi patria" (Where there is bread, there is my country) to early American settlers also shows an interesting insight. He once praised the middle colonies for "fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields...decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years ago all was wild, woody, and uncultivated."

The original edition, published near the end of the American Revolutionary War, was rather selective in the letters that were included, omitting ones that were negative or critical. Norman A. Plotkin argues "it was intended to serve the English Whig cause by fostering an atmosphere conducive to reconciliation."[3] The book excluded all but one of the letters written after the beginning of the war and also earlier ones that were more critical. Crèvecœur himself sympathized with the Whig cause. His wife's family remained loyal to the Crown and later fled to Nova Scotia. With regard to French politics, Crèvecœur was a liberal, a follower of the philosophes, and dedicated his book to Abbé Raynal, who he said "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."[4] Plotkin notes that "extremists in the American colonies who violated this principle, incurred Crèvecœur's harshest criticism, although the severest of these criticisms were considered unsuitable for publication at the time."[5]

In 1883 his great grandson, Robert de Crèvecoeur, published a biography[6] for which he used previously unpublished letters and manuscripts passed down by the family. Although it received little notice in France, its existence came to the attention of W. P. Trent of Columbia University, who in 1904 published a reprint of Letters of an American Farmer.[7] In 1916, Crèvecœur's first American biographer, Julia Post Mitchell,[8] who had access to all the manuscripts, was able to make a more balanced assessment, writing that Crèvecoeur addressed "problems in political economy which European governments were trying in vain to solve." He was "...illustrating his theories from American conditions," and was not just "...a garruluous apologist of American life."[9] The additional manuscripts were published in 1925.[10]


The success of his book in France had led to his being taken up by an influential circle, and he was appointed the French consul for New York, including the areas of New Jersey and Connecticut. Crèvecœur returned to New York City as the newly appointed French consul in November 1783. Anxious to be reunited with his family, he learned that his farm had been destroyed in an Indian raid, his wife was dead, and his two younger children missing. He stayed in the house of his friend William Seton,[11] who, as the last royal public notary for the city and province of New York, had helped to secure his release in 1780 from the British prison in the city. Principal of the import-export mercantile firm the William Seton Company, Seton helped Crevecoeur locate his children, who were safe and living with a family in Boston.[12] The following spring, he was able to reunite with his children. For most of the 1780s, Crèvecœur lived in New York City.

St. Peter's, New York[edit]

At that time, New York City was the national capital and most of the resident Catholics were connected to the diplomatic corps. Initially they met for services at the home of the Spanish consul. Their numbers increased with seafaring people, merchants, emigrants from the Spanish West Indies, and a few Acadians. They then rented space at Vauxhall Gardens, a garden and entertainment venue located along the North River on Greenwich Street between Warren and Chambers Streets.[13] In 1785 Portuguese consul Jose Roiz Silva, Spanish consul Tomas Stoughton and others sought to rent the vacant Exchange building and deemed Crevecoeur the best one to make the approach.

Although Crevecoeur was relatively indifferent to religion, he was sympathetic to the idea of liberty of conscience, and a friend of Lafayette. When the proposal was rejected, Crevecoeur was insulted and became very active in working for the establishment of the first Catholic church in the city. He later served as president of the first Board of Trustees of St. Peter's Church on Barclay Street.[13]

Later life[edit]

In 1784, he published a two-volume version of his Letters from an American Farmer, enlarged and completely rewritten in French. A three-volume version followed in 1787. Both his English and his French books were translated into several other European languages and widely disseminated throughout Europe. For many years, Crèvecœur was identified by European readers with his fictional narrator, James, the 'American farmer', and held in high esteem by readers and fellow-writers across Europe.

By the time he published another three-volume work in 1801, entitled Voyage dans la Haute-Pensylvanie et dans l'état de New-York, however, his fame had faded and the damages of the French Revolution and its aftermath had made people less interested in the United States. His book was ignored. An abbreviated German translation appeared the following year. An English translation was not published until 1964. Much of de Crevecoeur's best work has been published posthumously, most recently as More Letters from the American Farmer: An edition of the Essays in English Left Unpublished by Crèvecœur, edited by Dennis D. Moore (Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Particularly concerned about the condition of slaves, he joined the Société des Amis des Noirs (Society of the Friends of the Blacks), founded in Paris.

Crèvecœur was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 1789.[14]

In 1789, during a stay in France, he was trapped by the political upheaval that was quickly turning into the French Revolution. At risk as an aristocrat, he went into hiding, while secretly trying to gain passage to the United States. The necessary papers were finally delivered to him by the new American ambassador to France, James Monroe. At the end of his life Crèvecœur returned to France and settled permanently on land he inherited from his father. On November 12, 1813, he died in Sarcelles, Val d'Oise, France.

The town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, is named after him, as suggested by Ethan Allen.

Primary works[edit]

  • Letters from an American Farmer: Describing Certain Provincial Situations, Manners, and Customs, Not Generally Known; and Conveying Some Idea of the Late and Present Interior Circumstances of the British Colonies of North America, 1782.
  • Letters From an American, written to A.W.S. Ecuyer since the year 1770 up 'til 1781.
  • Memoire sur le Commerce Entre la France et les États-Unis D'Amerique, 1784 (manuscript rests in the U.S. Embassy, Paris)
  • Sketches of the Eighteenth Century America: More "Letters From an American Farmer, 1923."
  • Eighteenth-century travels in Pennsylvania & New York, 1801.

Outline of Letters From an American Farmer[edit]

  • Letter I: Introduction – This letter introduces the persona of James, an American Farmer, and his epistolary dialogue with a minister.
  • Letter II: This letter describes the creatures, plants, and activities on and around the farm owned by James. Its main focus is on the "bees, wasps, hornets, and birds" (Patterson) and illustrates the abundance of life and the dependence on good soil in the American land.
  • Letter III: "What is an American?" This letter describes what he saw as an idealistic society, very unlike Europe. Immigrants of all religions, from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, were considered equal "citizens." Egalitarianism and free-will supported by laws and government, he claimed, were the primary factors:

It is not composed, as in Europe, of great lords who possess everything, and of a herd of people who have nothing. 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 refinements of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe.[15]

  • Letters IV–VIII: These letters illustrates in detail the utopian (Patterson) society that the European Americans have created and also the land which they inhabit. It also describes the conditions in which they live and the customs of whaling villages of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.[16]
  • Letter IX: This letter gives an account of Charleston, South Carolina. The letter then quickly moves to the notion of slavery in the South. It argues about the destruction that revolves around the slave-master relationships and makes an appeal to the North, in particular, that slavery is a truly evil practice in the midst of the new nation of America.
  • Letter X: This letter talks extensively about a wide variety of snakes and even speaks to the American Indians practices of eating them. It also mentions their habits and stories that have been told in America, warning people about certain ones. At the end of this letter, it speaks about the hummingbirds found around James' land and their habits and varieties as well.
  • Letter XI: This letter is supposedly narrated by a Russian, but is almost indistinguishable from James himself. It describes a visit to the famous Pennsylvanian botanist, Mr. John Bertram. The narrator tells of the new methods of fertilizing and irrigation that Bertram has invented and used on his own plants.
  • Letter XII: "Distresses of a Frontier Man" – This letter describes the Revolutionary War from the narrator's perspective and the stress of being caught between forces beyond his own control. This particular letter is the only one written that has any traces of anti-British ideas and opinions. The letter also includes James' view of the American Indians around him and his plan to run away with his family and live among them until the fighting ceased.


  1. ^ a b Moore, Andrew. "The American Farmer as French Diplomat", Journal of the Western Society for French History, Vol. 39, 2011
  2. ^ "Houdetot", Dictionnaire de Rousseau, (ed. Raymond Trousson and Frédéric S. Eigeldinger), Paris: Champion, 1996, p. 421
  3. ^ Plotkin 1964, p. 391.
  4. ^ Letters from an American Farmer, 1782, Dedication.
  5. ^ Plotkin 1964, p. 392.
  6. ^ Saint John de Crèvecoeur : sa vie et ses ouvrages (1735–1813), 1883 (in French)
  7. ^ Letters from an American Farmer, 1904, with a prefatory note by W. P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn.
  8. ^ St Jean de Crèvecœur, New York, 1916. OCLC 5757565.
  9. ^ Quoted by Plotkin 1964, p. 404.
  10. ^ Saint-John de Crèvecœur, Sketches of Eighteenth Century America, More "Letters from an American Farmer", edited by Henri L. Bourdin, H. Gabriel, and Stanley T. Williams (New Haven, 1925).
  11. ^ De Courcy, Henry. Catholic Church in the United States, T.W. Strong, 1856, p. 354Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  12. ^ Mitchell, Julia Post. St. Jean de Crèvecoeur (New York: Columbia University Press, 1916)Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  13. ^ a b Meehan, Thomas F., "a Century of Catholic Laymen in New York", Messenger, 1908, p. 438Public Domain This article incorporates text from this source, which is in the public domain.
  14. ^ "Michel G. St. J. de Crevecoeur". American Philosophical Society Member History. American Philosophical Society. Retrieved 15 December 2020.
  15. ^ J. Crevecoeur, "What is an American.", Letters from an American Farmer, Applewood Books (1782) (2007 reprint) p. 48 ISBN 9781429000109
  16. ^ Nathaniel Philbrick (1991). "The Nantucket Sequence in Crèvecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer". New England Quarterly. 64 (3): 414–432. doi:10.2307/366350. JSTOR 366350.
  • Guy Wilson Allen and Roger Asselineau, An American Farmer: The Life of St. John de Crevecoeur, New York: Viking Penguin, 1987

Selected criticism[edit]

  • Gay W. Allen, An American Farmer, New York: Penguin Books, 1987
  • David Eisermann: Crèvecoeur oder Die Erfindung Amerikas, Rheinbach-Merzbach: CMZ-Verlag, 1985
  • Thomas Hallock, From the Fallen Tree: Frontier Narratives, Environmental Politics, and the Roots of a National Pastoral, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003
  • Daniel Patterson, ed. Early American Writers: A Biographical Encyclopedia, Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. "J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur." Thomas Patchell. 96–104.
  • Norman A. Plotkin, "Saint-John de Crevecoeur Rediscovered: Critic or Paneygyrist?", French Historical Studies, vol. 3, no. 3 (Spring 1964), pp. 390–404. JSTOR 285950.
  • Paul P. Reuben. "Chapter 2: Early American Literature: 1700–1800 – St. Jean De Crevecoeur", PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide https://web.archive.org/web/20091012031553/http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap2/creve.html)
  • Alan Taylor, "The American Beginning: The Dark Side of Letters from an American Farmer," New Republic July 18, 2013

Primary sources[edit]

  • de Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John. Letters From an American Farmer and Other Essays edited by Dennis D. Moore (Harvard University Press; 2012) 372 pages; combines an edition of the famous 1782 work with his other writings

External links[edit]