The Ideology of Agrarianism in the Colonies

First off, it is of use, prior to further discussion, to establish Crèvecoeur’s point of view in writing his letter “What is an American”. His composition follows the American pastoral mode of writing detailed in Garrard’s Ecocriticism. A good example is the passage in which Crèvecoeur states “He is now possessed of the deed, conveying to him and his posterity the fee simple and absolute property of two hundred acres of land…What an epocha in this man’s life!” (Crèvecoeur, 59). Crèvecoeur’s philosophy is a good example of the enthusiastic agrarianism mentioned by Garrard in the passage “…forms of pastoral seem in American literature…to emphasize agrarianism, a political ideology associated with Thomas Jefferson that promoted a land-owning farming citizenry as a means of ensuring a healthy democracy” (Garrard, 49). Crevecoeur emphasizes a firm relationship between land and farmer, making the assertion that toiling upon the land “purifies them” which is further reflective of the doctrine of agrarianism in the belief that there is dignity and purpose to be found in self-motivated hard work as opposed to the degradation caused by the “servility of disposition” learned from years of serfdom and poverty (Crevecoeur, 45, 60).  His employment of elements of the agrarian political philosophy in his letter corresponds with the burgeoning growth of agrarianism in the colonies and details the beneficial effect of the scattering of immigrants throughout the landscape upon their own privately owned plots of land. Quite simply, there was enough land for everybody and no longer was it necessary to pay exorbitant rent to and suffer the indignation imposed by one’s better as dictated by title which, according to Crevecoeur, resulted in the creation of Americans—citizens free of mind and starving for prosperity. The former assertion is supported by the passage “Instead of being a vagrant, he has a place of residence…from a servant to the rank of master… What a change indeed! It is in consequence of that change that he becomes an American” (Crevecoeur, 60). This entire change of mindset, this explosion of human potential  and fulfillment once held back by the rigidity of old world Europe, this creation of Americans (as Crevecoeur sees it) is the overarching benefit of this scattering of mixed peoples across the unspoiled, untapped landmass.  However, it is of importance to note that Crevecoeur’s point of view is anthropocentric as exemplified by the passage in which the narrator is speaking to an acquaintance in an out-village. The passage reads “ …we learn the use of the axe bravely…our cows run about, and come home full of milk, our hogs get fat of themselves in the woods: Oh, this is a good country!” (Crevecoeur,  64).  The perspective taken by the respondent is reflective of the letter’s overall perspective which is essentially that nature exists to provide for mankind and good land is that which provides abundantlyCrevecoeur further supports his pro-agrarian stance by demonizing the hunter’s way of life, implying that a hunter has no sense of community. A relevant passage reads “…once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable; a hunter wants no neighbor, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition” (Crevecoeur, 52). This is said in relevance to those settlers living near the woods implying a certain savage, aggressive character to the woods themselves. Crevecoeur establishes a separate archetype for the hunter that is opposed to that of the agrarian citizen detailed above which exists as a possibility and consequence due to the sparseness of civilization (such a way of life is only sustainable in areas of very low population density). He is indicating his belief in a balance between freedom and anarchy [not the connotation I was looking for, but] separating those that live in small communities with those that live in the “unlimited freedom of the woods” (Crevecoeur, 52). The primary negative consequence of this scattering of settlers and the freedom it provides is a certain change in temperament to the savage and the adaptation of a supposed idle lack of structure and agrarian ties to the land.

Bam! Cited!

Garrard, Greg. Ecocriticism. New York: Routledge, 2004.

St. John de Crevecoeur, J. Hector. “What is an American?” Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Dutton, 1877. 39-68. Print.

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One response to this post.

  1. Posted by rebsheppard on September 7, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    I appreciated your linking “What is an American” to Garrard’s definition of the American pastoral trope of environmental writing, as Crevecoeur’s treatise on early American life definitely romanticizes the idea of land ownership and cultivation as both a keystone of democracy a defining characteristic for the owner himself.

    You also made a well-founded point regarding the notion of agrarianism and its importance in aiding to make a distinctly “American” population out of bold European immigrants who were willing to work the land that they found in the new world. In addition to the excerpts that you cited, Crevecoeur emphasizes this idea early on in his essay, claiming that a poor European emigrant coming to America would find that “his country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence” as opposed to a certain ethnic language or the “love of a few kindred as poor as himself,: (Crevecoeur, 43).

    Upon reading such a glowing advertisement for the idealized American pastoral, one might walk away with the impression that the author’s intent was to sell American soil to undecided Europeans himself.

    St. John de Crevecoeur, J. Hector. “What is an American?” Letters from an American Farmer. New York: Dutton, 1877. 39-68. Print.

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