Americans like to remind ourselves of Crevecoeur’s letters concerning America. Like Tocqueville, he initially saw the American as virtually a new human species, breaking away from the European past. “This great metamorphosis,” he wrote, “extinguishes all his European prejudices; he forgets that mechanism of subordination, that servility of disposition which poverty had taught him.” Property ownership was the key: Having a place of one’s own encouraged the American to possess a mind of his own: “The instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence exalt my mind.” As Alan Taylor puts it in a review in TNR, “No one has better stated what Americans have most wanted to believe about themselves and their society.”
But Crevecoeur’s observations were not always so complimentary. Taylor writes,
“Crèvecoeur also insisted that the frontier of an abundant continent invited a selfishness that perverted society. Too much freedom and too easy a subsistence threatened to barbarize the newcomers rather than redeem them. Aside from coastal Nantucket, Crèvecoeur located his ideal America in ‘the middle settlements’: the broad, agricultural zone between the older and more commercialized seacoast towns to the east and the raw new settlements to the west. That western frontier provided a haven for the drunken, the indolent, and the vicious to indulge in ‘the unlimited freedom of the woods.’ Cursed with an easy abundance, the settlers allegedly could survive without hard work or banding together: ‘There, remote from the power of example and check of shame, many families exhibit the most hideous parts of our society.’ He concluded: ‘They are often in a perfect state of war; that of man against man…. 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.’”
The American Revolution fairly undid him: “He discovered how readily people could dissolve the mutual bonds of society to indulge in violent retribution. During the war, passions suddenly erupted to silence reason and dissolve sociability, dividing communities and families.” While “he derided the British for recruiting Indians to ravage the American settlements, indiscriminately killing Loyalists as well as Patriots, women and children as well as men,” he saw the war as “a bloody tragedy provoked and waged by greedy leaders on both sides: ‘The innocent class are always the victims of the few. . . . It is for the sake of the great leaders on both sides that so much blood must be spilt; that of the people is counted as nothing. Great events are not achieved for us, though it is by us that they are principally accomplished, by the arms, the sweat, [and] the lives of the people.’”
Like Tocqueville again, Crevecoeur ultimately favored the safeties of Europe to the wildness of America.