Title: What Is an American?
Author: Hector St. Jean de Crevecoeur
Year Published: 1781
WHAT IS AN AMERICAN.
I WISH I could be acquainted with the feelings and thoughts which must agitate the heart and present
themselves to the mind of an enlightened Englishman, when he first lands on this continent. He must
greatly rejoice that he lived at a time to see this fair country discovered and settled; he must
necessarily feel a share of national pride, when he views the chain of settlements which embellishes
these extended shores. When he says to himself, this is the work of my countrymen, who, when convulsed
by factions, afflicted by a variety of miseries and wants, restless and impatient, took refuge here.
They brought along with them their national genius, to which they principally owe what liberty they
enjoy, and what substance they possess. Here he sees the industry of his native country displayed in
a new manner, and traces in their works the embrios of all the arts, sciences, and ingenuity which
flourish in Europe. Here he beholds fair cities, substantial villages, extensive fields, an immense
country filled with decent houses, good roads, orchards, meadows, and bridges, where an hundred years
ago all was wild, woody and uncultivated! What a train of pleasing ideas this fair spectacle must suggest;
it is a prospect which must inspire a good citizen with the most heartfelt pleasure. The difficulty
consists in the manner of viewing so extensive a scene. He is arrived on a new continent; a modern society
offers itself to his contemptation, different from what he had hitherto seen. It is not composed, as
in Europe, of great lords who possess every thing 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 manufacturers employing thousands, no great refinements
of luxury. The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe. Some few
towns excepted, we are all tillers of the earth, from Nova Scotia to West Florida. We are a people of
cultivator, scattered over an immense territory communicating with each other by means of good roads
and navigable rivers, united by the silken bands of mild government, all respecting the laws, without
dreading their power, because they are equitable. We are all animated with the spirit of an industry
which is unfettered and unrestrained, because each person works for himself. If he travels through our
rural districts he views not the hostile castle, and the haughty mansion, contrasted with the clay-built
hut and miserable cabbin, where cattle and men help to keep each other warm, and dwell in meanness, smoke,
and indigence. A pleasing uniformity of decent competence appears throughout our habitations. The meanest
of our log-houses is a dry and comfortable habitation. Lawyer or merchant are the fairest titles our towns
afford; that of a farmer is the only appellation of the rural inhabitants of our country. It must take some
time ere he can reconcile himself to our dictionary, which is but short in words of dignity, and names of
honour. (There, on a Sunday, he sees a congregation of respectable farmers and their wives, all clad in
neat homespun, well mounted, or riding in their own humble waggons. There is not among them an esquire,
saving the unlettered magistrate. There he sees a parson as simple as his flock, a farmer who does not
riot on the labour of others. We have no princes, for whom we toil, starve, and bleed: we are the most
perfect society now existing in the world. Here man is free; as he ought to be; nor is this pleasing
equality so transitory as many others are. Many ages will not see the shores of our great lakes
replenished with inland nations, nor the unknown bounds of North America entirely peopled. Who can tell
how far it extends? Who can tell the millions of men whom it will feed and contain? for no European foot
has as yet travelled half the extent of this mighty continent!
The next wish of this traveller will be to know whence came all these people? they are mixture of English,
Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans, and Swedes. From this promiscuous breed, that race now called
Americans have arisen. The eastern provinces must indeed be excepted, as being the unmixed descendants
of Englishmen. I have heard many wish that they had been more intermixed also: for my part, I am no wisher,
and think it much better as it has happened. They exhibit a most conspicuous figure in this great and
variegated picture; they too enter for a great share in the pleasing perspective displayed in these
thirteen provinces. I know it is fashionable to reflect on them, but I respect them for what they have
done; for the accuracy and wisdom with which they have settled their territory; for the decency of their
manners; for their early love of letters; their ancient college, the first in this hemisphere; for their
industry; which to me who am but a farmer, is the criterion of everything. There never was a people,
situated as they are, who with so ungrateful a soil have done more in so short a time. Do you think
that the monarchical ingredients which are more prevalent in other governments, have purged them from
all foul stains? Their histories assert the contrary.
In this great American asylum, the poor of Europe have by some means met together, and in consequence
of various causes; to what purpose should they ask one another what countrymen they are? Alas, two thirds
of them had no country. Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and starves, whose life is a continual
scene of sore affliction or pinching penury; can that man call England or any other kingdom his country?
A country that had no bread for him, whose fields procured him no harvest, who met with nothing but the
frowns of the rich, the severity of the laws, with jails and punishments; who owned not a single foot of
the extensive surface of this planet? No! urged by a variety of motives, here they came. Every thing has
tended to regenerate them; new laws, a new mode of living, a new social system; here they are become men:
in Europe they were as so many useless plants, wanting vegitative mould, and refreshing showers; they
withered, and were mowed down by want, hunger, and war; but now by the power of transplantation, like
all other plants they have taken root and flourished! Formerly they were not numbered in any civil lists
of their country, except in those of the poor; here they rank as citizens. By what invisible power has
this surprising metamorphosis been performed? By that of the laws and that of their industry. The laws,
the indulgent laws, protect them as they arrive, stamping on them the symbol of adoption; they receive
ample rewards for their labours; these accumulated rewards procure them lands; those lands confer on them
the title of freemen, and to that title every benefit is affixed which men can possibly require. This is
the great operation daily performed by our laws. From whence proceed these laws? From our government.
Whence the government? It is derived from the original genius and strong desire of the people ratified
and confirmed by the crown. This is the great chain which links us all, this is the picture which every
province exhibits, Nova Scotia excepted. There the crown has done all;either there were no people who had genius, or it was not much attended to: the consequence is, that
the province is very thinly inhabited indeed; the power of the crown in conjunction with the musketos
has prevented men from settling there. Yet some parts of it flourished once, and it contained a mild
harmless set of people. But for the fault of a few leaders, the whole were banished. The greatest political
error the crown ever committed in America, was to cut off men from a country which wanted nothing but men!
What attachment can a poor European emigrant have for a country where he had nothing? The knowledge
of the language, the love of a few kindred as poor as himself, were the only cords that tied him: his
country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence: Ubi panis ibi patria, is
the motto of all emigrants. What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the
descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, which you will find in no other country.
I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son
married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an
American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the
new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an
American by being received in the broad lap of our great Alma Mater. Here individuals of all nations are
melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world.
Americans are the western pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts, sciences,
vigour, and industry which began long since in the east; they will finish the great circle. The Americans
were once scattered all over Europe; here they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of
population which has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of the different
climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this country much better than that wherein
either he or his forefathers were born. Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the
progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger
allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and
frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all; without any part being claimed, either by a despotic prince, a rich
abbot, or a mighty lord. I lord religion demands but little of him; a small voluntary salary to the
minister, and gratitude to God; can he refuse these? The American is a new man, who acts upon new
principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. From involuntary idleness,
servile dependence, penury, and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature,
rewarded by ample subsistence. --
This is an American.
British America is divided into many provinces, forming a large association, scattered along a coast
1500 miles extent and about 200 wide. This society I would fain examine, at least such as it appears
in the middle provinces; if it does not afford that variety of tinges and gradations which may be
observed in Europe, we have colours peculiar to ourselves. For instance, it is natural to conceive that
those who live near the sea, must be very different from those who live in the woods; the intermediate
space will afford a separate and distinct class.
Men are like plants; the goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the peculiar soil and exposition
in which they grow. We are nothing but what we derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit,
the government we obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment. Here you
will find but few crimes; these have acquired as yet no root among us. I wish I were able to trace all
my ideas; if my ignorance prevents me from describing them properly, I hope I shall be able to delineate
a few of the outlines, which are all I propose.
Those who live near the sea, feed more on fish than on flesh, and often encounter that boisterous element.
This renders them more bold and enterprising; this leads them to neglect the confined occupations of the
land. They see and converse with a variety of people; their intercourse with mankind becomes extensive.
The sea inspires them with a love of traffic, a desire of transporting produce from one place to another;
and leads them to a variety of resources which supply the place of labour. Those who inhabit the middle
settlements, by far the most numerous, must be very different; the simple cultivation of the earth
purifies them, but the indulgences of the government, the soft remonstrances of religion, the rank of
independent freeholders, must necessarily inspire them with sentiments, very little known in Europe among
people of the same class. What do I say? Europe has no such class of men; the early knowledge they
acquire, the early bargains they make, give them a great degree of sagacity. As freemen they will be
litigious; pride and obstinacy are often the cause of law suits; the nature of our laws and governments
may be another. As citizens it is easy to imagine, that they will carefully read the newspapers, enter
into every political disquisition, freely blame or censure governors and others. As farmers they will be
careful and anxious to get as much as they can, because what they get is their own. As northern men they
will love the chearful cup. As Christians, religion curbs them not in their opinions; the general
indulgence leaves every one to think for themselves in spiritual matters; the laws inspect our actions,
our thoughts are left to God. Industry, good living, selfishness, litigiousness, country politics, the
pride of freemen, religious indifference, are their characteristics. If you recede still farther from the
sea, you will come into more modern settlements; they exhibit the same strong lineaments, in a ruder
appearance. Religion seems to have still less influence, and their manners are less improved.
Now we arrive near the great woods, near the last inhabited districts; there men seem to be placed still
farther beyond the reach of government, which in some measure leaves them to themselves. How can it pervade
every corner; as they were driven there by misfortunes, necessity of beginnings, desire of acquiring large
tracks of land, idleness, frequent want of economy, ancient debts; the re-union of such people does not
afford a very pleasing spectacle. When discord, want of unity and friendship; when either drunkenness or
idleness prevail in such remote districts; contention, inactivity, and wretchedness must ensue. There are
not the same remedies to these evils as in a long established community. The few magistrates they have, are
in general little better than the rest; they are often in a perfect state of war; that of man against man,
sometimes decided by blows, sometimes by means of the law; that of man against every wild inhabitant of
these venerable woods, of which they are come to dispossess them. There men appear to be no better than
carnivorous animals of a superior rank, living on the flesh of wild animals when they can catch them, and
when they are not able, they subsist on grain. He who wish to see America in its proper light, and have a
true idea of its feeble beginnings barbarous rudiments, must visit our ex tended line of frontiers where
the last settlers dwell, and where he may see the first labours of the mode of clearing the earth, in their
different appearances; where men are wholly left dependent on their native tempers, and on the spur of
uncertain industry, which often fails when not sanctified by the efficacy of a few moral rules. There,
remote from the power of example, and check of shame, many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our
society. They are a kind of forlorn hope, preceding by ten or twelve years the most respectable army of
veterans which come after them. In that space, prosperity will polish some, vice and the law will drive
off the rest, who uniting again with others like themselves will recede still farther; making room for
more industrious people, who will finish their improvements, convert the loghouse into a convenient
habitation, and rejoicing that the first heavy labours are finished, will change in a few years that
hitherto barbarous country into a fine fertile, well regulated district. Such is our progress, such is
the march of the Europeans toward the interior parts of this continent. In all societies there are
off-casts; this impure part serves as our precursors or pioneers; my father himself was one of that
class, but he came upon honest principles, and was therefore one of the few who held fast; by good
conduct and temperance, he transmitted to me his fair inheritance, when not above one in fourteen of
his contemporaries had the same good fortune.
Forty years ago this smiling country was thus inhabited; it is now purged, a general decency of manners
prevails throughout, and such has been the fate of our best countries.
Exclusive of those general characteristics, each province has its own, founded on the government, climate,
mode of husbandry, customs, and peculiarity of circumstances. Europeans submit insensibly to these great
powers, and become, in the course of a few generations, not only Americans in general, but either
Pennsylvanians, Virginians, or provincials under some other name. Whoever traverses the continent must
easily observe those strong differences, which will grow more evident in time. The inhabitants of Canada,
Massachusetts, the middle provinces, the southern ones will be as different as their climates; their only
points of unity will be those of religion and language.
As I have endeavoured to shew you how Europeans become Americans; it may not be disagreeable to shew you
likewise how the various Christian sects introduced, wear out, and how religious indifference becomes
prevalent. When any considerable number of a particular sect happen to dwell contiguous to each other,
they immediately erect a temple, and there worship the Divinity agreeably to their own peculiar ideas.
Nobody disturbs them. If any new sect springs up in Europe, it may happen that many of its professors
will come and settle in America. As they bring their zeal with them, they are at liberty to make
proselytes if they can, and to build a meeting and to follow the dictates of their consciences; for
neither the government nor any other power interferes. If they are peaceable subjects, and are industrious,
what is it to their neighbours how and in what manner they think fit to address their prayers to the
Supreme Being? But if the sectaries are not settled close together, if they are mixed with other
denominations, their zeal will cool for want of fuel, and will be extinguished in a little time.
Then the Americans become as to religion, what they are as to country, allied to all. In them the name
of Englishman, Frenchman, and European is lost, and in like manner, the strict modes of Christianity as
practised in Europe are lost also. This effect will extend itself still farther hereafter, and though
this may appear to you as a strange idea, yet it is a very true one. I shall be able perhaps hereafter
to explain myself better, in the meanwhile, let the following example serve as my first justification.
Let us suppose you and I to be travelling; we observe that in this house, to the right, lives a
Catholic, who prays to God as he has been taught, and believes in transubstantion; he works and raises
wheat, he has a large family of children, all hale and robust; his belief, his prayers offend nobody.
About one mile farther on the same road, his next neighbour may be a good honest plodding German Lutheran,
who addresses himself to the same God, the God of all, agreeably to the modes he has been educated in, and
believes in consubstantiation; by so doing he scandalizes nobody; he also works in his fields, embellishes
the earth, clears swamps, &c. What has the world to do with his Lutheran principles? He persecutes nobody,
and nobody persecutes him, he visits his neighbours, and his neighbours visit him. Next to him lives a
seceder, the most enthusiastic of all sectaries; his zeal is hot and fiery, but separated as he is from
others of the same complexion, he has no congregation of his own to resort to, where he might cabal and
mingle religious pride with worldly obstinacy. He likewise raises good crops, his house is handsomely
painted, his orchard is one of the fairest in the neighbourhood. How does it concern the welfare of the
country, or of the province at large, what this man's religious sentiments are, or really whether he has
any at all? He is a good farmer, he is a sober, peaceable, good citizen: William Penn himself would not
wish for more. This is the visible character, the invisible one is only guessed at, and is nobody's
business. Next again lives a Low Dutchman, who implicitly believes the rules laid down by the synod
of Dort. He conceives no other idea of a clergyman than that of an hired man; if he does his work well
he will pay him the stipulated sum; if not he will dismiss him, and do without his sermons, and let his
church be shut up for years. But notwithstanding this coarse idea, you will find his house and farm to
be the neatest in all the country; and you will judge by his waggon and fat horses, that he thinks more of the affairs of this world than of those of the next. He is sober and laborious,
therefore he is all he ought to be as to the affairs of this life; as for those of the next, he must trust
to the great Creator. Each of these people instruct their children as well as they can, but these
instructions are feeble compared to those which are given to the youth of the poorest class in Europe.
Their children will therefore grow up less zealous and more indifferent in matters of religion than their
parents. The foolish vanity, or rather the fury of making Proselytes, is unknown here; they have no time,
the seasons call for all their attention, and thus in a few years, this mixed neighbourhood will exhibit
a strange religious medley, that will be neither pure Catholicism nor pure Calvinism. A very perceptible
indifference even in the first generation, will become apparent; and it may happen that the daughter of
the Catholic will marry the son of the seceder, and settle by themselves at a distance from their parents.
What religious education will they give their children? A very imperfect one. If there happens to be in the
neighbourhood any place of worship, we will suppose a Quaker's meeting; rather than not shew their fine
clothes, they will go to it, and some of them may perhaps attach themselves to that society. Others will
remain in a perfect state of indifference; the children of these zealous parents will not be able to tell
what their religious principles are, and their grandchildren still less. The neighborhood of a place of
worship generally leads them to it, and the action of going thither, is the strongest evidence they can
give of their attachment to any sect. The Quakers are the only people who retain a fondness for their own
mode of worship; for be they ever so far separated from each other, they hold a sort of communion with the
society, and seldom depart from its rules, at least in this country. Thus all sects are mixed as well as
all nations; thus religious indifference is imperceptibly disseminated from one end of the continent to the other; which is at present one of the strongest
characteristics of the Americans. Where this will reach no one can tell, perhaps it may leave a vacuum
fit to receive other systems. Persecution, religious pride, the love of contradiction, are the food of
what the world commonly calls religion. These motives have ceased here: zeal in Europe is confined; here
it evaporates in the great distance it has to travel; there it is a grain of powder inclosed, here it
burns away in the open air, and consumes without effect.
But to return to our back settlers. I must tell you, that there is something in the proximity of the woods,
which is very singular. It is with men as it is with the plants and animals that grow and live in the
forests; they are entirely different from those that live in the plains. I will candidly tell you all
my thoughts but you are not to expect that I shall advance any reasons. By living in or near the woods,
their actions are regulated by the wildness of the neighbourhood. The deer often come to eat their grain,
the wolves to destroy their sheep, the bears to kill their hogs, the foxes to catch their poultry. This
surrounding hostility, immediately puts the gun into their hands; they watch these animals, they kill
some; and thus by defending their property, they soon become professed hunters; this is the progress;
once hunters, farewell to the plough. The chase renders them ferocious, gloomy, and unsociable; a hunter
wants no neighbour, he rather hates them, because he dreads the competition. In a little time their
success in the woods makes them neglect their tillage. They trust to the natural fecundity of the earth,
and therefore do little; carelessness in fencing, often exposes what little they sow to destruction; they
are not at home to watch; in order therefore to make up the deficiency, they go oftener to the woods. That
new mode of life brings along with it a new set of manners, which I cannot easily describe. These new
manners being grafted on the old stock, produce a strange sort of lawless profligacy, the impressions of
which are indelible. The manners of the Indian natives are respectable, compared with this European medley.
Their wives and children live in sloth and inactivity; and having no proper pursuits, you may judge what
education the latter receive. Their tender minds have nothing else to contemplate but the example of their
parents; like them they grow up a mongrel breed, half civilized, half savage, except nature stamps on them
some constitutional propensities. That rich, that voluptuou sentiment is gone that struck them so forcibly; the possession of their freeholds no longer conveys to their minds the same pleasure and pride. To all these reasons you must add, their lonely situation, and you cannot imagine what an effect on manners the great distances they live from each other has I Consider one of the last settlements in it's first view: of what is it composed ? Europeans who have not that sufficient share of knowledge they ought to have, in order to prosper; people who have suddenly passed from oppression, dread of government, and fear of laws, into the unlimited freedom of the woods. This sudden change must have a very great effect on most men, and on that class particularly. Eating of wild meat, what ever you may think, tends to alter their temper though all the proof I can adduce, is, that I have seen it: and having no place of worship to resort to, what little society this might afford, is denied them. The Sunday meetings, exclusive of religious benefits, were the only social bonds that might have inspired them with some degree of emulation in neatness. Is it then surprising to see men thus situated, immersed in great and heavy labours, degenerate a little? It is rather a wonder the effect is not more diffusive. The Moravians and the Quakers are the only instances in exception to what I have advanced. The first never settle singly, it is a colony of the society which emigrates; they carry with them their forms, worship, rules, and decency: the others never begin so hard, they are always able to buy improvements, in which there is a great advantage, for by that time the country is recovered from its first barbarity. Thus our bad people are those who are half cultivators and half hunters; and the worst of them are those who have degenerated altogether into the hunting state. As old ploughmen and new men of the woods, as Europeans and new made Indians, they contract the vices of both; they adopt the moroseness and ferocity of a native, without his mildness, or even his industry at home. If manners are not refined, at least they are rendered simple and inoffensive by tilling the earth; all our wants are supplied by it, our time is divided between labour and rest, and leaves none for the commission of great misdeeds. As hunters it is divided between the toil of the chase, the idleness of repose, or the indulgence of inebriation Hunting is but a licentious idle life, and if it does not always pervert good dispositions; yet, when it is united with bad luck, it leads to want: want stimulates that propensity to rapacity and injustice, too natural to needy men, which is the fatal gradation. After this explanation of the effects which follow by living in the woods, shall we yet vainly flatter ourselves with the hope of converting the Indians? We should rather begin with converting our back-settlers; and now if I dare mention the name of religion, its sweet accents would be lost in the immensity of these woods. Men thus placed, are not fit either to receive or remember its mild instructions; they want temples and ministers, but as soon as men cease to remain at home, and begin to lead an erratic life, let them be either tawny or white, they cease to be its disciples.
Thus have I faintly and imperfectly endeavoured to trace our society from the sea to our woods ! Yet you
must not imagine that every person who moves back, acts upon the same principles, or falls into the same
degeneracy. Many families carry with them all their decency of conduct, purity of morals, and respect of
religion; but these are scarce, the power of example is sometimes irresistible. Even among these
back-settlers, their depravity is greater or less, according to what nation or province they belong.
Were I to adduce proofs of this, I might be accused of partiality. If there happens to be some rich
intervals, some fertile bottoms, in those remote districts, the people will there prefer tilling the
land to hunting, and will attach themselves to it; but even on these fertile spots you may plainly
perceive the inhabitants to acquire a great degree of rusticity and selfishness.
It is in consequence of this straggling situation, and the astonishing power it has on manners, that the back-settlers of both the Carolinas, Virginia, and many other parts, have been long a set of lawless people; it has been even dangerous to travel among them. Government can do nothing in so extensive a country, better it should wink at these irregularities, than that it should use means inconsistent with its usual mildness. Time will efface those stains: in proportion as the great body of population approaches them they will reform, and become polished and subordinate. Whatever has been said of the four New England provinces, no such degeneracy of manners has ever tarnished their annals; their back-settlers have been kept within the bounds of decency, and government, by means of wise laws, and by the influence of religion. What a detestable idea such people must have given to the natives of the Europeans They trade with them, the worst of people are permitted to do that which none but persons of the best characters should be employed in. They get drunk with them, and often defraud the Indians. Their avarice, removed from the eyes of their superiors, knows no bounds; and aided by a little superiority of knowledge, these traders deceive them, and even sometimes shed blood. Hence those shocking violations, those sudden devastations which have so often stained our frontiers, when hundreds of innocent people have been sacrificed for the crimes of a few. It was in consequence of such behaviour, that the Indians took the hatchet against the Virginians in 1774. Thus are our first steps trod, thus are our first trees felled, in general, by the most vicious of our people and thus the path is opened for the arrival of a second and better class, the true American freeholders; the most respectable set of people in this part of the world: respectable for their industry, their happy independence, the great share of freedom they possess, the good regulation of their families, and for extending the trade and the dominion of our mother country.
Europe contains hardly any other distinctions but lords and tenants; this fair country alone is settled
by freeholders, the possessors of the soil they cultivate, members of the government they obey, and the
framers of their own laws, by means of their representatives. This is a thought which you have taught me
to cherish; our difference from Europe, far from diminishing, rather adds to our usefulness and consequence
as men and subjects. Had our forefathers remained there, they would only have crowded it, and perhaps
prolonged those convulsions which had shook it so long. Every industrious European who transports himself
here may be compared to a sprout growing at the foot of a great tree; it enjoys and draws but a little
portion of sap; wrench it from the parent roots, transplant it, and it will become a tree bearing fruit
also. Colonists are therefore entitled to the consideration due to the most useful subjects; a hundred
families barely existing in some parts of Scotland, will here in six years, cause an annual exportation
of 10,000 bushels of wheat: 100 bushels being but a common quantity for an industrious family to sell, if
they cultivate good land. It is here then that the idle may be employed, the useless be- come useful, and
the poor become rich; but by riches I do not mean gold and silver, we have but little of those metals; I
mean a better sort of wealth, cleared lands, cattle, good houses, good cloaths, and an increase of people
to enjoy them.
It is no wonder that this country has so many charms, and presents to Europeans so many temptations to remain in it. A traveller in Europe becomes a stranger as soon as he quits his own kingdom; but it is otherwise here. We know, properly speaking, no strangers; this is every person's country; the variety of our soils, situations, climates, governments, and produce, hath something which must please every body. No sooner does an European arrive, no matter of what condition, than his eyes are opened upon the fair prospect; he hears his language spoke, he retraces many of his own country manners, he perpetually hears the names of families and towns with which he is acquainted; he sees happiness and prosperity in all places disseminated; he meets with hospitality, kindness, and plenty every where; he beholds hardly any poor, he seldom hears of punishments and executions; and he wonders at the elegance of our towns, those miracles of industry and freedom. He cannot admire enough our rural districts, our convenient roads, good taverns, and our many accommodations; he involuntarily loves a country where every thing is so lovely. When in England, he was a mere Englishman; here he stands on a larger portion of the globe, not less than its fourth part, and may see the productions of the north, in iron and naval stores; the provisions of Ireland, the grain of Egypt, the indigo, the rice of China. He does not find, as in Europe, a crouded society, where every place is over-stocked; he does not feel that perpetual collision of parties, that difficulty of beginning, that contention which oversets so many. There is room for every body in America; has he any particular talent, or industry? he exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds. Is he a merchant? the avenues of trade are infinite; is he eminent in any respect? he will be employed and respected. Does he love a country life ? pleasant farms present them- selves; he may purchase what he wants, and thereby become an American farmer. Is he a labourer, sober and industrious? he need not go many miles, nor receive many informations before he will be hired, well fed at the table of his employer, and paid four or five times more than he can get in Europe. Does he want uncultivated lands? Thousands of acres present themselves, which he may purchase cheap. Whatever be his talents or inclinations, if they are moderate, he may satisfy them. I do not mean that every one who comes will grow rich in a little time; no, but he may procure an easy, decent maintenance, by his industry. Instead of starving he will be fed, instead of being idle he will have employment; and these are riches enough for such men as come over here. The rich stay in Europe, it is only the middling and the poor that emigrate. Would you wish to travel in independent idleness, from north to south, you will find easy access, and the most chearful reception at every house; society without ostentation, good cheer without pride, and every decent diversion which the country affords, with little expence. It is no wonder that the European who has lived here a few years, is desirous to remain; Europe with all its pomp, is not to be compared to this continent, for men of middle stations, or labourers.
An European, when he first arrives, seems limited in his intentions, as well as in his views; but he
very suddenly alters his scale; two hundred miles formerly appeared a very great distance, it is now
but a trifle; he no sooner breathes our air than he forms schemes, and embarks in designs he never
would have thought of in his own country. There the plenitude of society confines many useful ideas,
and often extinguishes the most laudable schemes which here ripen into maturity. Thus Europeans become
But how is this accomplished in that croud of low, indigent people, who flock here every year from all parts of Europe? I will tell you; they no sooner arrive than they immediately feel the good effects of that plenty of provisions we possess: they fare on our best food, and are kindly entertained; their talents, character, and peculiar industry are immediately inquired into; they find countrymen everywhere disseminated, let them come from whatever part of Europe. Let me select one as an epitome of the rest; he is hired, he goes to work, and works moderately; instead of being employed by a haughty person, he finds himself with his equal, placed at the substantial table of the farmer, or else at an inferior one as good; his wages are high, his bed is not like that bed of sorrow on which he used to lie: if he behaves with propriety, and is faithful, he is caressed, and becomes as it were a member of the family. He begins to feel the effects of a sort of resurrection; hitherto he had not lived, but simply vegetated; he now feels himself a man, because he is treated as such; the laws of his own country had overlooked him in his in- significancy; the laws of this cover him with their mantle. Judge what an alteration there must arise in the mind and thoughts of this man; he begins to forget his former servitude and dependence, his heart involuntarily swells and glows; this first swell inspires him with those new thoughts which constitute an American. What love can he entertain for a country where his existence was a burthen to him; if he s a generous good man, the love of this new adoptive parent will sink deep into his heart. He looks around, and sees many a prosperous person, who but a few years before was as poor as himself. This encourages him much, he begins to form some little scheme, the first, alas, he ever formed in his life. If he is wise he thus spends two or three years, in which time he acquires knowledge, the use of tools, the modes of working the lands, felling trees, &c. This prepares the foundation of a good name, the most useful acquisition he can make. He is encouraged, he has gained friends; he is advised and directed, he feels bold, he purchases some land; he gives all the money he has brought over, as well as what he has earned, and trusts to the God of harvests for the discharge of the rest. His good name procures him credit. 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, situated on such a river. What an epocha in this man's life! He is become a freeholder, from perhaps a German boor--he is now an American, a Pennsylvanian, an English subject. He is naturalized, his name is enrolled with those of the other citizens of the province. Instead of being a vagrant, he has a place of residence; he is called the inhabitant of such a county, or of such a district, and for the first time in his life counts for something; for hitherto he has been a her. I only repeat what I have heard man say, and no wonder their hearts should glow, and be agitated with a multitude of feelings, not easy to describe. From nothing to start into being; from a servant to the rank of a master; from being the slave of some despotic prince, to become a free man, invested with lands, to which every municipal blessing is annexed! What a change indeed! It is in con- sequence of that change that he becomes an American. This great metamorphosis has a double effect, it extinguishes all his European prejudices, he forgets that mechanism of subordination, that servility of disposition which poverty had taught him; and sometimes he is apt to forget too much, often passing from one extreme to the other. If he is a good man, he forms schemes of future prosperity, he proposes to educate his children better than he has been educated himself; he thinks of future modes of conduct, feels an ardor to labour he never felt before. Pride steps in and leads him to every thing that the laws do not forbid: he respects them; with a heartfelt gratitude he looks toward the east, toward that insular government from whose wisdom all his new felicity is derived, and under whose wings and protection he now lives. These reflections constitute him the good man and the good subject. Ye poor Europeans, ye, who sweat, and work for the great---ye, who are obliged to give so many sheaves to the church, so many to your lords, so many to your government, and have hardly any left for yourselves--ye, who are held in less estimation than favourite hunters or useless lap-dogs--ye, who only breathe the air of nature, because it cannot be withheld from you; it is here that ye can conceive the possibility of those feelings I have been describing; it is here the laws of naturalization invite every one to partake of our great labours and felicity, to till unrented untaxed lands! Many, corrupted beyond the power of amendment, have brought with them all their vices, and disregarding the advantages held to them, have gone on in their former career of iniquity, until they have been overtaken and punished by our laws It is not every emigrant who succeeds; no, it is only the sober, the honest, and industrious: happy those to whom this transition has served as a powerful spur to labour, to prosperity, and to the good establishment of children, born in the days of their poverty; and who had no other portion to expect but the rags of their parents, had it not been for their happy emigration. Others again, have been led astray by this enchanting scene; their new pride, instead of leading them to the fields, has kept them in idleness; the idea of possessing lands is all that satisfies them--though surrounded with fertility, they have mouldered away their time in inactivity, misinformed husbandry, and ineffectual endeavours. How much wiser, in general, the honest Germans than almost all other Europeans; they hire themselves to some of their wealthy landsmen, and in that apprenticeship learn every thing that is necessary. They attentively consider the prosperous industry of others, which imprints in their minds a strong desire of possessing the same advantages. This forcible idea never quits them, they launch forth, and by dint of sobriety, rigid parsimony, and the most persevering industry, they commonly succeed. Their astonishment at their first arrival from Germany is very great--it is to them a dream; the contrast must be powerful indeed they observe their countrymen flourishing in every place; they travel through whole counties where not a word of English is spoken; and in the names and the language of the people, they retrace Germany. They have been an useful acquisition to this continent, and to Pennsylvania in particular; to them it owes some share of its prosperity: to their mechanical knowledge and patience, it owes the finest mills in all America, the best teams of horses, and many other advantages. The recollection of their former poverty and slavery never quits them as long as they live.
The Scotch and the Irish might have lived in their own country perhaps as poor, but enjoying more civil
advantages, the effects of their new situation do not strike them so forcibly, nor has it so lasting an
effect. From whence the difference arises I know not, but out of twelve families of emigrants of each
country, generally seven Scotch will succeed, nine German, and four Irish. The Scotch are frugal and
laborious, but their wives cannot work so hard as German women, who on the contrary vie with their
husbands, and often share with them the most severe toils of the field, which they understand better.
They have therefore nothing to struggle against, but the common casualties of nature. The Irish do not
prosper so well; they love to drink and to quarrel; they are litigious, and soon take to the gun, which
is the ruin of every thing; they seem beside to labour under a greater degree of ignorance in husbandry
than the others; perhaps it is that their industry had less scope, and was less exercised at home. I have
heard many relate, how the land was parcelled out in that kingdom; their ancient conquest has been a great
detriment to them, by oversetting their landed property. The lands possessed by a few, are leased down
ad infinitum, and the occupiers often pay five guineas an acre. The poor are worse lodged there than any
where else in Europe; their potatoes, which are easily raised, are perhaps an inducement to laziness:
their ages are too low and their whisky too cheap.
There is no tracing observations of this kind, without making at the same time very great allowances, as
there are every where to be found, a great many exceptions. The Irish themselves, from different parts of
that kingdom, are very different. It is difficult to account for this surprising locality, one would think
on so small an island an Irishman must be an Irishman: yet it is not so, they are different in their
aptitude to, and in their love of labour.
The Scotch on the contrary are all industrious and saving; they want nothing more than a field to exert
themselves in, and they are commonly sure of succeeding. The only difficulty they labour under is, that
technical American knowledge which requires some time to obtain; it is not easy for those who seldom saw
a tree, to conceive how it is to be felled, cut up, and split into rails and posts.
As I am fond of seeing and talking of prosperous families, I intend to finish this letter by relating
to you the history of an honest Scotch Hebridean, who came here in I774, which will shew you in epitome,
what the Scotch can do, wherever they have room for the exertion of their industry. Whenever I hear of
any new settlement, I pay it a visit once or twice a year, on purpose to observe the different steps
each settler takes, the gradual improvements, the different tempers of each family, on which their
prosperity in a great nature depends; their different modifications of industry, their ingenuity, and
contrivance; for being all poor, their life requires sagacity and prudence. In an evening I love to hear
them tell their stories, they furnish me with new ideas; I sit still and listen to their ancient
misfortunes, observing in many of them a strong degree of gratitude to God, and the government.
Many a well meant sermon have I preached to some of them. When I found laziness and inattention to
prevail, who could refrain from wishing well to these new country men after having undergone so many
fatigues. Who could withhold good advice? What a happy change it must be, to descend from the high,
sterile, bleak lands of Scotland, where every thing is barren and cold, to rest on some fertile farms
in these middle provinces! Such a transition must have afforded the most pleasing satisfaction.
The following dialogue passed at an outsettlement, where I lately paid a visit:
"Well, friend, how do you do now; I am come fifty odd miles on purpose to see you; how do you go on with
your new cutting and slashing?" "Very well, good Sir, we learn the use of the axe bravely, we shall
make it out; we have a belly full of victuals every day, 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 ! God bless the king, and William
Penn; we shall do very well by and by, if we keep our healths." "Your loghouse looks neat and light,
where did you get these shingles?" "One of our neighbours is a New England man, and he shewed us how
to split them out of chestnut trees. Now for a barn, but all in good time, here are fine trees to build
with." "Who is to frame it, sure you don't understand that work yet?" "A countryman of ours who has
been in America these ten years, offers to wait for his money until the second crop is lodged in it."
"What did you give for your land?" "Thirty-five shillings per acre, payable in seven years." "How many
acres have you got?" "An hundred and fifty." "That is enough to begin with; is not your land pretty hard
to clear?" "Yes, Sir, hard enough, but it would be harder still if it was ready cleared, for then we
should have no timber, and I love the woods much; the land is nothing without them." "Have not you found
out any bees yet?" "No, Sir; and if we had we should not know what to do with them." "I will tell you by
and by." "You are very kind." "Farewell, honest man, God prosper you; whenever you travel toward **,
enquire for J. S. he will entertain you kindly, provided you bring him good tidings from your family
In this manner I often visit them, and carefully examine their houses, their modes of ingenuity, their
different ways; and make them all relate all they know, and describe all they feel. These are scenes
which I believe you would willingly share with me. I well remember your philanthropic turn of mind. Is
it not better to contemplate under these humble roofs, the rudiments of future wealth and population,
than to behold the accumulated bundles of litigious papers in the office of a lawyer? To examine how
the world is gradually settled, how the howling swamp is converted into a pleasing meadow, the rough
ridge into a fine field; and to hear the chearful whistling, the rural song, where there was no sound
heard before, save the yell of the savage, the screech of the owl, or the hissing of the snake? Here an
European, fatigued with luxury, riches, and pleasures, may find a sweet relaxation in a series of
interesting scenes, as affecting as they are new. England, which now contains so many domes, so many
castles, was once like this; a place woody and marshy; its inhabitants, now the favourite nation for
arts and commerce, were once painted like our neighbours. The country will flourish in its turn, and
the same observations will be made which I have just delineated. Posterity will look back with avidity and
pleasure, to trace, if possible, the era of this or that particular settlement.
Pray, what is the reason that the Scots are in general more religious, more faithful, more honest,
and industrious than the Irish? I do not mean to insinuate national reflections, God forbid ! It ill
becomes any man, and much less an American; but as I know men are nothing of themselves, and that they
owe all their different modifications either to government or other local circumstances, there must be
some powerful causes which constitute this great national difference.
Agreeable to the account which severale Scotchmen have given me of the north of Britain, of the Orkneys, and the Hebride Islands, they seem, on many accounts, to be unfit for the habitation of men; they appear to be calculated only for great sheep pastures. Who then can blame the inhabitants of these countries for transporting themselves hither? This great continent must in time absorb the poorest part of Europe; and this will happen in proportion as it becomes better known; and as war, taxation, oppression, and misery increase there. The Hebrides appear to be fit only for the residence of malefactors, and it would be much better to send felons there than either to Virginia or Maryland. What a strange compliment has our mother country paid to two of the finest provinces in America! England has entertained in that respect very mistaken ideas; what was intended as a punishment, is become the good fortune of several; many of those who have been transported as felons, are now rich, and strangers to the stings of those wants that urged them to violations of the law: they are become industrious, exemplary, and useful citizens. The English government should purchase the most northern and barren of those islands; it should send over to us the honest, primitive Hebrideans, settle them here on good lands, as a reward for their virtue and ancient poverty; and replace them with a colony of her wicked sons. The severity of the climate, the inclemency of the seasons, the sterility of the soil, the tempestuousness of the sea, would afflict and punish enough. Could there be found a spot better adapted to retaliate the injury it had received by their crimes? Some of those islands might be considered as the hell of Great Britain, where all evil spirits should be sent. Two essential ends would be answered by this simple operation. The good people, by emigration, would be rendered happier; the bad ones would be placed where they ought to be. In a few years the dread of being sent to that wintry region would have a much stronger effect, than that of transportation. This is no place of punishment; were I a poor hopeless, breadless Englishman, and not restrained by the power of shame, I should be very thankful for the passage. It is of very little importance how, and in what manner an indigent man arrives; for if he is but sober, honest, and industrious, he has nothing more to ask of heaven. Let him go to work, he will have opportunities enough to earn a comfortable support, and even the means of procuring some land; which ought to be the utmost wish of every person who has health and hands to work. I knew a man who came to this country, in the literal sense of the expression, stark naked; I think he was a Frenchman and a sailor on board an English man of war. Being discontented, he had stripped himself and swam ashore; where finding clothes and friends, he settled afterwards at Maraneck, In the county of Chester, in the province of New York: he married and left a good farm to each of his sons. I knew another person who was but twelve years old when he was taken on the frontiers of Canada, by the Indians; at his arrival at Albany he was purchased by a gentleman, who generously bound him apprentice to a taylor. He lived to the age of ninety, and left behind him a fine estate and a numerous family, all well settled; many of them I am acquainted with. Where is then the industrious European who ought to despair?
After a foreigner from any part of Europe is arrived, and become a citizen; let him devoutly listen
to the voice of our great parent, which says to him, "Welcome to my shores, distressed European; bless
the hour in which thou didst see my verdant fields, my fair navigable rivers, and my green mountains! If
thou wilt work, I have bread for thee; if thou wilt be honest, sober, and industrious, I have greater
rewards to confer on thee-- ease and independence. I will give thee fields to feed and cloath thee; a
comfortable fireside to sit by, and tell thy children by what means thou hast prospered; and a decent
bed to repose on. I shall endow thee beside with the immunities of a freeman. If thou wilt carefully
educate thy children, teach them gratitude to God, and reverence to that government that philanthropic
government, which has collected here so many men and made them happy. I will also provide for thy progeny;
and to every good man this ought to be the most holy, the most Powerful, the most earnest wish he can
possibly form, as well as the most consolatory prospect when he dies. Go thou and work and till; thou
shalt prosper, provided thou be just, grateful and industrious."