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HECTOR ST. JOHN DE CREVECOEUR
LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN FARMER
INTRODUCTION AND NOTES BY WARREN BARTON BLAKE
Hazlitt wrote that of the three notable writers whom the eighteenth century had produced, in the North American colonies, one was "the author (whoever he was) of the American Farmer's Letters." Crevecoeur was that unknown author; and Hazlitt said further of him that he rendered, in his own vividly characteristic manner, "not only the objects, but the feelings, of a new country." Great is the essayist's relish for passages descriptive of "a battle between two snakes," of "the dazzling, almost invisible flutter of the humming- bird's wing," of the manners of "the Nantucket people, their frank simplicity, and festive rejoicings after the perils and hardships of the whale-fishing." "The power to sympathise with nature, without thinking of ourselves or others, if it is not a definition of genius, comes very near to it," writes Hazlitt of our author. And his references to Crevecoeur are closed with the remark: "We have said enough of this ILLUSTRIOUS OBSCURE; for it is the rule of criticism to praise none but the over-praised, and to offer fresh incense to the idol of the day."
Others, at least, have followed that "rule of criticism," and the American Farmer has long enjoyed undisturbed seclusion. Only once since the eighteenth century has there been a new edition of his Letters, that were first published at London in 1782, and reissued, with a few corrections, in the next year. The original American edition of this book about America was that published at Philadelphia in 1793, and there was no reprint till 1904, [Footnote: References may be found to American editions of 1794 and 1798, but no copies of such editions are preserved in any library to which the editor has had access.] when careless editing did all it could to destroy the value of the work, the name of whose very author was misstated. Yet the facts which we have concerning him are few enough to merit truthful presentation.
Except by naturalisation, the author of Letters from an American Farmer was not an American; and he was no ordinary farmer. Yet why quarrel with him for the naming of his book, or for his signing it "J. Hector Saint-John," when the "Hector" of his title-pages and American biographers was only a prenom de faintaisie? We owe some concessions to the author of so charming a book, to the eighteenth- century Thoreau. His life is certainly more interesting than the real Thoreau's—and would be, even if it did not present many contradictions. Our records of that life are in the highest degree inexact; he himself is wanting in accuracy as to the date of more than one event. The records, however, agree that Crevecoeur belonged to the petite noblesse of Normandy. The date of his birth was January 31, 1735, the place was Caen, and his full name (his great- grandson and biographer vouches for it) was Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur. The boy was well enough brought up, but without more than the attention that his birth gave him the right to expect; he divided the years of his boyhood between Caen, where his father's town-house stood, and the College du Mont, where the Jesuits gave him his education. A letter dated 1785 and addressed to his children tells us all that we know of his school-days; though it is said, too, that he distinguished himself in mathematics. "If you only knew," the reminiscent father of a family exclaims in this letter, "in what shabby lodging, in what a dark and chilly closet, I was mewed up at your age; with what severity I was treated; how I was fed and dressed!" Already his powers of observation, that were so to distinguish him, were quickened by his old-world milieu.
"From my earliest youth," he wrote in 1803, "I had a passion for taking in all the antiques that I met with: moth-eaten furniture, tapestries, family portraits, Gothic manuscripts (that I had learned how to decipher), had for me an indefinable charm. A little later on, I loved to walk in the solitude of cemeteries; to examine the tombs and to trace out their mossy epitaphs. I knew most of the churches of the canton, the date of their foundation, and what they contained of interest in the way of pictures and sculptures."
The boy's gift of accurate and keen observation was to be tested soon by a very different class of objects: there were to be no crumbling saints and canvases of Bed-Chamber Grooms for him to study in the forests of America; no reminders of the greatness of his country's past, and the honour of his family.
From school, the future woodsman passed over into England. A distant relative was living near Salisbury; for one reason or another the boy was sent thither to finish his schooling. From England, with what motives we know not, he set out for the New World, where he was to spend his busiest and happiest days. In the Bibliotheca Americana Nova Rich makes the statement that Crevecoeur was but sixteen when he made the plunge, and others have followed Rich in this error. The lad's age was really not less than nineteen or twenty. According to the family legend, his ship touched at Lisbon on the way out; one cannot decide whether this was just before or immediately after the great earthquake. Then to New France, where he joined Montcalm. Entering the service as cadet, he advanced to the rank of lieutenant; was mentioned in the Gazette; shared in the French successes; drew maps of the forests and block-houses that found their way to the king's cabinet; served with Montcalm in the attack upon Fort William Henry. With that the record is broken off: we can less definitely associate his name with the humiliation of the French in America than with their brief triumphs. Yet it is quite certain, says Robert de Crevecoeur, his descendant, that he did not return to France with the rag-tag of the defeated army. Quebec fell before Wolfe's attack in September 1759; at some time in the course of the year 1760 we may suppose the young officer to have entered the British colonies; to have adopted his family name of "Saint John" (Saint-Jean), and to have gradually worked his way south, probably by the Hudson. The reader of the Letters hardly supposes him to have enjoyed his frontier life; nor is there any means of knowing how much of that life it was his fortune to lead. In time, he found himself as far south as Pennsylvania. He visited Shippensburg and Lancaster and Carlisle; perhaps he resided at or near one of these towns. Many years later, when his son Louis purchased a farm of two hundred acres from Chancellor Livingstone, at Navesink, near the Blue Mountains, Crevecoeur the elder was still remembered; and it may have been at this epoch that he visited the place. During the term of his military service under Montcalm, Crevecoeur saw something of the Great Lakes and the outlying country; prior to his experience as a cultivator, and, indeed, after he had settled down as such, he "travelled like Plato," even visited Bermuda, by his own account. Not until 1764, however, have we any positive evidence of his whereabouts; it was in April of that year that he took out naturalisation papers at New York. Some months later, he installed himself on the farm variously called Greycourt and Pine-Hill, in the same state; he drained a great marsh there, and seems to have practised agriculture upon a generous scale. The certificate of the marriage of Crevecoeur to Mehitable Tippet, of Yonkers is dated September 20, 1769; and of this union three children were the issue. And more than children: for with the marriage ceremony once performed by the worthy Tetard, a clergyman of New York, formerly settled over a French Reformed Church at Charleston, South Carolina, Crevecoeur is more definitely than ever the "American Farmer"; he has thrown in his lot with that new country; his children are to be called after their parent's adopted name, Saint-John; the responsibilities of the adventurer are multiplied; his life in America has become a matter more easy to trace and richer, perhaps, in meaning.
One of the historians of American literature has written that these Letters furnish "a greater number of delightful pages than any other book written in America during the eighteenth century, save only Franklin's Autobiography." A safe compliment, this; and yet does not the very emptiness of American annals during the eighteenth century make for our cherishing all that they offer of the vivid and the significant? Professor Moses Coit Tyler long ago suggested what was the literary influence of the American Farmer, whose "idealised treatment of rural life in America wrought quite traceable effects upon the imaginations of Campbell, Byron, Southey, Coleridge, and furnished not a few materials for such captivating and airy schemes of literary colonisation in America as that of 'Pantisocracy.'" Hazlitt praised the book to his friends and, as we have seen, commended it to readers of the Edinburgh Review. Lamb mentions it in one of his letters—which is already some distinction. Yet when was a book more completely lost to popular view—even among the books that have deserved oblivion? The Letters were published, all the same, at Belfast and Dublin and Philadelphia, as well as at London; they were recast in French by the author, translated into German and Dutch by pirating penny-a-liners, and given a "sequel" by a publisher at Paris. [Footnote: Ouvrage pour servir de suite aux Lettres d'un cultivateur Americain, Paris, 1785. The work so offered seems to have been a translation of John Filson's History of Kentucky (Wilmington, Del., 1784).]
The American Fanner made his first public appearance eleven years before Chateaubriand found a publisher for his Essai sur les Revolutions, wherein the great innovator first used the American materials that he worked over more effectively in his travels, tales, and memoirs. In Saint-John de Crevecoeur, we have a contemporary—a correspondent, even—of Franklin; but if our author shared many of poor Richard's interests, one may travel far without finding a more complete antithesis to that common-sense philosopher.
Crevecoeur expresses mild wonderment that, while so many travellers visit Italy and "the town of Pompey under ground," few come to the new continent, where may be studied, not what is found in books, but "the humble rudiments and embryos of society spreading everywhere, the recent foundations of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts." In the course of his sixteen or seventeen years' experience as an American farmer he himself studied all these matters; and he gives us a charming picture of them. Though his book has very little obvious system, its author describes for us frontier and farm; the ways of the Nantucket fishermen and their intrepid wives; life in the Middle Colonies; the refinements and atrocities of Charleston. Crevecoeur's account of the South (that he knew but superficially and—who knows?—more, it may be, by Tetard's anecdotes than through personal knowledge) is the least satisfactory part of his performance. One feels it to be the most "literary" portion of a book whose beauty is naivete. But whether we accept or reject the story of the negro malefactor hung in a cage from a tree, and pecked at by crows, it is certain that the traveller justly regarded slavery as the one conspicuous blot on the new country's shield. Crevecoeur was not an active abolitionist, like that other naturalised Frenchman, Benezet of Philadelphia; he had his own slaves to work his northern farms; he was, however, a man of humane feelings—one who "had his doubts." [Footnote: In his Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie (sic) et dans l'Etat de New York (Paris, 1801) slavery is severely attacked by Crevecoeur. His descendant, Robert de Crevecoeur, refers to him as "a friend of Wilberforce."] And his narrative description of life in the American colonies in the years immediately preceding the Revolution is one that social historians cannot ignore.
Though our Farmer emphasises his plainness, and promises the readers of his Letters only a matter-of-fact account of his pursuits, he has his full share of eighteenth-century "sensibility." Since he is, however, at many removes from the sophistications of London and Paris, he is moved, not by the fond behaviour of a lap-dog, or the "little arrangements" carters make with the bridles of their faithful asses (that they have driven to death, belike), but by such matters as he finds at home. "When I contemplate my wife, by my fire-side, while she either spins, knits, darns, or suckles our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, of gratitude, or conscious pride which thrill in my heart, and often overflow in voluntary tears ..." He is like that old classmate's of Fitzgerald's, buried deep "in one of the most out-of-the-way villages in all England," for if he goes abroad, "it is always involuntary. I never return home without feeling some pleasant emotion, which I often suppress as useless and foolish." He has his reveries; but they are pure and generous; their subject is the future of his children. In midwinter, instead of trapping and "murthering" the quail, "often in the angles of the fences where the motion of the wind prevents the snow from settling, I carry them both chaff and grain: the one to feed them, the other to prevent their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth as I have frequently observed them to do." His love of birds is marked: this in those provinces of which a German traveller wrote: "In the thrush kind America is poor; there is only the red-breasted robin. ... There are no sparrows. Very few birds nest in the woods; a solemn stillness prevails through them, interrupted only by the screaming of the crows." It is good, after such a passage as this has been quoted, to set down what Crevecoeur says of the bird kingdom. "In the spring," he writes, "I generally rise from bed about that indistinct interval which, properly speaking, is neither night nor day:" for then it is that he enjoys "the universal vocal choir." He continues—more and more lyrically: "Who can listen unmoved, to the sweet love-tales of our robins, told from tree to tree? Or to the shrill cat birds? The sublime accents of the thrush from on high, always retard my steps, that I may listen to the delicious music." And the Farmer is no less interested in "the astonishing art which all birds display in the construction of their nests, ill provided as we may suppose them with proper tools; their neatness, their convenience." At some time during his American residence he gathered the materials for an unpublished study of ants; and his bees proved an unfailing source of entertainment. "Their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new," he writes; adding that he is most often to be found, in hours of rest, under the locust tree where his beehive stands. "By their movements," says he, "I can predict the weather, and can tell the day of their swarming." When other men go hunting game, he goes bee-hunting. Such are the matters he tells of in his Letters.
One difference from the stereotyped "sensibility" of the old world one may discover in the openness of Crevecoeur's heart; and that is the completeness of his interest in all the humbler sorts of natural phenomena. Nature is, for him, no mere bundle of poetic stage- properties, soiled by much handling, but something fresh and inviting and full of interest to a man alive. He takes more pleasure in hunting bees than in expeditions with his dogs and gun; the king- birds destroy his bees—but, he adds, they drive the crows away. Ordinarily he could not persuade himself to shoot them. On one occasion, however, he fired at a more than commonly impertinent specimen, "and immediately opened his maw, from which I took 171 bees; I laid them all on a blanket in the sun, and to my great surprise fifty-four returned to life, licked themselves clean, and joyfully went back to the hive, where they probably informed their companions of such an adventure and escape, as I believe had never happened before to American bees." Must one regard this as a fable? It is by no means as remarkable a yarn as one may find told by other naturalists of the same century. There is, for example, that undated letter of John Bartram's, in which he makes inquiries of his brother William concerning "Ye Wonderful Flower;" [Footnote: see "A Botanical Marvel," in The Nation (New York), August 5, 1909.] there is, too, Kalm's report of Bartram's bear: "When a bear catches a cow, he kills her in the following manner: he bites a hole into the hide and blows with all his power into it, till the animal swells excessively and dies; for the air expands greatly between the flesh and the hide." After these fine fancies, where is the improbability of Crevecoeur's modest adaptation of the Jonah-allegory that he applies to the king-bird and his bees? The episode suggests, for that matter, a chapter in Mitchell's My Farm at Edgewood. Mitchell, a later American farmer, describes the same king-birds, the same bees; has, too, the same supremely gentle spirit. "I have not the heart to shoot at the king-birds; nor do I enter very actively into the battle of the bees. ... I give them fair play, good lodging, limitless flowers, willows bending (as Virgil advises) into the quiet water of a near pool; I have even read up the stories of a poor blind Huber, who so dearly loved the bees, and the poem of Giovanni Rucellai, for their benefit." Can the reader state, without stopping to consider, which author it was that wrote thus—Mitchell or Crevecoeur? Certainly it is the essential modernity of the earlier writer's style that most impresses one, after the charm of his pictures. His was the age of William Livingston—later Governor of the State of New Jersey; and in the very year when a London publisher was bringing out the first edition of the Farmer's Letters, Livingston, described on his title-page as a "young gentleman educated at Yale College," brought out his Philosophic Solitude at Trenton, in his native state. It is worth quoting Philosophic Solitude for the sake of the comparison to be drawn between Crevecoeur's prose and contemporary American verse:-
"Let ardent heroes seek renown in arms, Pant after fame, and rush to war's alarms ... Mine be the pleasures of a RURAL life."
The thought is, after all, the same as that which we have found less directly phrased in Crevecoeur. But let us quote the lines that follow the exordium—now we should find the poet unconstrained and fancy-free:—
"Me to sequestred scenes, ye muses, guide, Where nature wantons in her virgin-pride; To mossy banks edg'd round with op'ning flow'rs, Elysian fields, and amaranthin bow'rs. ... Welcome, ye shades! all hail, ye vernal blooms! Ye bow'ry thickets, and prophetic glooms! Ye forests hail! ye solitary woods. ..."
and the "solitary woods" (rhyming with "floods") are a good place to leave the "young gentleman educated at Yale College." Livingston was, plainly enough, a poet of his time and place. He had a fine eye for Nature—seen through library windows. He echoed Goldsmith and a whole line of British poets—echoed them atrociously.
That one finds no "echoes" in Crevecoeur is one of our reasons for praising his spontaneity and vigour. He did not import nightingales into his America, as some of the poets did. He blazed away, rather, toward our present day appreciation of surrounding nature—which was not banal then. Crevecoeur's honest and unconventionalised love of his rural environment is great enough to bridge the difference between the eighteenth and the twentieth century. It is as easy for us to pass a happy evening with him as it was for Thomas Campbell, figuring to himself a realisation of Cowley's dreams and of Rousseau's poetic seclusion; "till at last," in Southey's words, "comes an ill-looking Indian with a tomahawk, and scalps me—a most melancholy proof that society is very bad." It is the freshness, the youthfulness, of these Letters, after their century and more of dust-gathering, that is least likely to escape us. And this "Farmer in Pennsylvania" is almost as unmistakably of kin with good Gilbert White of Selborne as he is the American Thoreau's eighteenth-century forerunner.
It is time, indeed, that we made the discovery that Crevecoeur was a modern. He was, too, a dweller in the young republic—even before it WAS a republic. Twice a year he had "the pleasure of catching pigeons, whose numbers are sometimes so astonishing as to obscure the sun in their flight." There is, then, no poetic licence about Longfellow's description, in Evangeline, of how—
"A pestilence fell on the city Presaged by wondrous signs, and mostly by flocks of wild pigeons, Darkening the sun in their flight, with naught in their craws but an acorn."
Longfellow could have cited as his authority for this flight of pigeons Mathew Carey's Record of the Malignant Fever lately Prevalent, published at Philadelphia, which, to be sure, discusses a different epidemic, but tells us that "amongst the country people, large quantities of wild pigeons in the spring are regarded as certain indications of an unhealthy summer. Whether or not this prognostic has ever been verified, I cannot tell. But it is very certain that during the last spring the numbers of these birds brought to market were immense. Never, perhaps, were there so many before."
Carey wrote in 1793, the year, as has been noted, of the first American reprint of the Letters, that had first been published at London. Carey was himself Crevecoeur's American publisher; and he may well have thought as he wrote the lines quoted of Crevecoeur's earlier pigeons "obscuring the sun in their flight." Crevecoeur had by this time returned to France, and was never more to ply the avocations of the American farmer. In the interval, much had happened to this victim of both the revolutions. Though the Letters are distinguished by an idyllic temper, over them is thrown the shadow of impending civil war. The Farmer was a man of peace, for all his experience under Montcalm in Canada (and even there his part was rather an engineer's than a combatant's); he long hoped, therefore, that peaceful counsels would prevail, and that England and the colonies would somehow come to an understanding without hostilities. Then, after the Americans had boldly broken with the home government, he lent them all his sympathy but not his arms. He had his family to watch over; likewise his two farms, one in Orange County, New York, one in New Jersey. As it was, the Indians in the royal service burned his New Jersey estate; and after his first return to France (he was called thither by his father, we are told, though we know nothing of the motives of this recall) he entered upon a new phase of his career. "After his first return to France," I have said, as if that had been an entirely simple matter. One cannot here describe all its alleged difficulties; his arrest at New York as a suspected spy (though after having secured a pass from the American commander. General MacDougal, he had secured a second pass from General Clinton, and permission to embark for France); his detention in the provost's prison in New York; the final embarkation with his oldest son—this on September 1, 1780; the shipwreck which he described as occurring off the Irish coast; his residence for some months in Great Britain, and during a part of that time in London, where he sold the manuscript of the Letters for thirty guineas. One would like to know Crevecoeur's emotions on finally reaching France and joining his father and relatives at Caen. One would like to describe his romantic succour of five American seamen, who had escaped from an English prison and crossed the Channel in a sloop to Normandy. A cousin of one of these seamen, a Captain Fellowes of Boston, was later to befriend Crevecoeur's daughter and younger son in the new country; that was after the Loyalists and their Indian allies had destroyed the Farmer's house at Pine Hill, after his wife had fled to Westchester with her two children, and had died there soon after, leaving them unprotected. But all this must, in nautical phrase, "go by the board," including the novel founded upon the episode. Nor can we linger over Crevecoeur's entry into polite society, both in the Norman capital and at Paris. Fancy the returned prodigal—if one may so describe him—in the salon of Madame d'Houdetot, Rousseau's former mistress! He was fairly launched, this American Farmer, in the society of the lettres.
"Twice a week," he wrote, some years after, "I went with M. de Turgot to see the Duchesse de Beauvilliers, his sister; and another twice-a-week I went with him to the Comte de Buffon's. ... It was at the table of M. de Buffon, it was in his salon, during long winter evenings, that I was awakened once more to the graces, the beauties, the timid purity of our tongue, which, during my long sojourn in North America, had become foreign to me, and of which I had almost lost command—though not the memory."
Madame d'Houdetot presented Crevecoeur to the families of La Rochefoucauld, Liancourt, d'Estissac, Breteuil, Rohan-Chabot, Beauvau, Necker; to the academicians d'Alembert, La Harpe, Grimm, Suard, Rulbriere; to the poet-academician Delille. We have in the Memoires of Brissot an allusion to his entrance into this society, under the wing of his elderly protectress:—
"Proud of possessing an American savage, she wished to form him, and to launch him in society. He had the good sense to refuse and to confine himself to the picked society of men of letters."
It was at a later period that Brissot and Crevecoeur were to meet; their quarrel, naturally, came later still.
Madame d'Houdetot did more than entertain the Farmer, whose father had been one of her oldest friends. She secured his nomination as Consul-General to the United States, now recognised by France; it was at New York that he took up residence. Through the influence of Madame d'Houdetot and her friends, he retained the appointment through the stormy years that followed, though in the end he was obliged to make way for a successor more in sympathy with the violent republicanism of the age. Throughout the years of the French Revolution, the ex-farmer lived a life of retirement, and, if never of conspicuous danger, of embarrassment enough, and of humiliation. We need not discuss those years spent at Paris; or the visits paid, after the close of the Revolution, to his son-in-law and daughter, for his daughter Frances-America was married to a French Secretary of Legation, who became a Count of the Empire. Now he was in Paris or the suburbs; now in London, or Munich. Five years of the Farmer's later life were spent at the Bavarian capital; Maximilian entertained him there, and told him that he had read his book with the keenest pleasure and great profit too. He busied himself in preparing his three-volume Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie (sic) et dans l'Etat de New York, and in adding to his paper on potato culture,[Footnote: Traite de la Culture des Pommes de Terre, 1782.] a second on the false acacia; but his best work was done and he knew it. Crevecoeur lived on until 1813, dying in the same year with Madame d'Houdetot, who was so much his elder. He paid a worthy tribute to that lady's character; perhaps we do her an injustice in knowing her only for the liaison with Jean-Jacques. He died on November 12, 1813: member of agricultural societies and of the Academy (section of moral and political science), and of Franklin's Philosophical Society at Philadelphia. A town in Vermont had been named St. Johnsbury in his honour; he had the freedom of more than one New England city. It is, none the less, as the author of Letters from an American Farmer, published in 1782, and written, for the most part, years before that date, that we remember him—so far as we do remember.
Much remains unsaid—much, even, of the essential. Some of the facts are still unknown; others may be looked for in the biography written by his great-grandson, Robert de Crevecoeur, and published at Paris some eighty years ago. There is hardly occasion to discuss here what Crevecoeur did, as consul at New York, to encourage the exchange of French manufactures and American exports; or to tell of his packet- line—the first established between New York and a French port; or to set down the story of his children; or to describe those last sad years, at home and abroad, after the close of his consular career. There is no room at all for the words of praise that were spoken of the Letters by Franklin and Washington, who recommended them to intending immigrants as a faithful, albeit "highly coloured" picture. We must let the writings of the American Farmer speak for themselves: they belong, after all, to literature.
It was a modest man—a modest life; a life filled, none the less, with romantic incident. All this throws into relief the beauty of its best fruits. Crevecoeur made no claim to artistry when he wrote his simple, heartfelt Letters; and yet his style, in spite of occasional defects and extra flourishes, seems to us worthy of his theme. These Letters from an American Farmer have been an inspiration to poets—and they "smell of the woods."
In a prose age, Crevecoeur lived a kind of pastoral poetry; in an age largely blind, he saw the beauties of nature, less through readings in the Nouvelle Heloise and Bernardin's Etudes than with his own keen eyes; he was a true idealist, besides, and as such kindles one's enthusiasm. The man's optimism, his grateful personality, his saneness, too—for here is a dreamer neither idle nor morbid—are qualities no less enduring, or endearing, than his fame as "poet-naturalist." The American Farmer might have used Cotton's Retirement for an epigraph on his title-page:—
"Farewell, thou busy world, and may We never meet again, Here I can eat and sleep and pray. ..."
but for the fact that he found time to turn the clods, withal, and eyes to watch the earth blackening behind the plough. "Our necessities," wrote Poe, who contended, in a half-hearted way, that the Americans of his generation were as poetical a people as any other, "have been mistaken for our propensities. Having been forced to make railroads, it has been deemed impossible that we should make verse." But here was Saint-John de Crevecoeur writing, in the eighteenth century, his idyllic Letters, while, if he did not build railways, he interested himself in the experiments of Fitch and Rumsey and Parmentier, and organised a packet-line between New York and Lorient, in Brittany. This Crevecoeur should from the first have appealed to the imagination—especially to the American imagination- -combining as he did the faculty of the ideal and the achievement of the actual. It is not too late for him to appeal to-day; in spite of all his quaintness, Crevecoeur is a contemporary of our own.
WARREN BARTON BLAKE.
BRADFORD HILLS, WEST CHESTER, PENNSYLVANIA.
Letters from an American Farmer (London), 1782, 1783; (Dublin), 1782; (Belfast), 1783; (Philadelphia), 1793; (New York), 1904; (London), 1908; translated into French (with gratuitous additions) as Lettres d'un cultivateur Americain (Paris), 1784 and 1787; into German as Briefe eines Amerikanischen Landmanns (Leipzig), 1788, 1789. Voyage dans la Haute Pensylvanie et dans l'etat de New York (Paris), 1801.
INTRODUCTION by Warren Barton Blake
II. ON THE SITUATION, FEELINGS, AND PLEASURES OF AN AMERICAN FARMER
III. WHAT IS AN AMERICAN
IV. DESCRIPTION OF THE ISLAND OF NANTUCKET, WITH THE MANNERS, CUSTOMS, POLICY, AND TRADE OF THE INHABITANTS
V. CUSTOMARY EDUCATION AND EMPLOYMENT OF THE INHABITANTS OF NANTUCKET
VI. DESCRIPTION OF THE ISLAND OF MARTHA'S VINEYARD, AND OF THE WHALE FISHERY
VII. MANNERS AND CUSTOMS AT NANTUCKET
VIII. PECULIAR CUSTOMS AT NANTUCKET
IX. DESCRIPTION OF CHARLES-TOWN; THOUGHTS ON SLAVERY; ON PHYSICAL EVIL; A MELANCHOLY SCENE
X. ON SNAKES; AND ON THE HUMMING BIRD.
XI. FROM MR. IW—N AL—Z, A RUSSIAN GENTLEMAN, DESCRIBING THE VISIT HE PAID AT MY REQUEST TO MR. JOHN BERTRAM, THE CELEBRATEDPENNSYLVANIA BOTANIST
XII. DISTRESSES OF A FRONTIER MAN
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 IN NORTH AMERICA.
WRITTEN FOR THE INFORMATION OF A FRIEND IN ENGLAND,
By J. HECTOR ST. JOHN, A FARMER IN PENNSYLVANIA
[To the first edition, 1782.]
The following Letters are the genuine production of the American Farmer whose name they bear. They were privately written to gratify the curiosity of a friend; and are made public, because they contain much authentic information, little known on this side the Atlantic; they cannot therefore fail of being highly interesting to the people of England, at a time when everybody's attention is directed toward the affairs of America.
That these letters are the actual result of a private correspondence may fairly be inferred (exclusive of other evidence) from the style and manner in which they are conceived: for though plain and familiar, and sometimes animated, they are by no means exempt from such inaccuracies as must unavoidably occur in the rapid effusions of a confessedly inexperienced writer.
Our Farmer had long been an eye-witness of transactions that have deformed the face of America: he is one of those who dreaded, and has severely felt, the desolating consequences of a rupture between the parent state and her colonies: for he has been driven from a situation, the enjoyment of which the reader will find pathetically described in the early letters of this volume. The unhappy contest is at length, however, drawing toward a period; and it is now only left us to hope, that the obvious interests and mutual wants of both countries, may in due time, and in spite of all obstacles, happily re-unite them.
Should our Farmer's letters be found to afford matter of useful entertainment to an intelligent and candid public, a second volume, equally interesting with those now published, may soon be expected.
[To the Second Edition, 1783.]
Since the publication of this volume, we hear that Mr. St. John has accepted a public employment at New York. It is therefore, perhaps, doubtful whether he will soon be at leisure to revise his papers, and give the world a second collection of the American Farmer Letters.
TO THE ABBE RAYNAL, F.R.S.
Behold, Sir, an humble American Planter, a simple cultivator of the earth, addressing you from the farther side of the Atlantic; and presuming to fix your name at the head of his trifling lucubrations. I wish they were worthy of so great an honour. Yet why should not I be permitted to disclose those sentiments which I have so often felt from my heart? A few years since, I met accidentally with your Political and Philosophical History, and perused it with infinite pleasure. For the first time in my life I reflected on the relative state of nations; I traced the extended ramifications of a commerce which ought to unite but now convulses the world; I admired that universal benevolence, that diffusive goodwill, which is not confined to the narrow limits of your own country; but, on the contrary, extends to the whole human race. As an eloquent and powerful advocate you have pleaded the cause of humanity in espousing that of the poor Africans: you 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. Why then should I refrain from loving and respecting a man whose writings I so much admire? These two sentiments are inseparable, at least in my breast. I conceived your genius to be present at the head of my study: under its invisible but powerful guidance, I prosecuted my small labours: and now, permit me to sanctify them under the auspices of your name. Let the sincerity of the motives which urge me, prevent you from thinking that this well meant address contains aught but the purest tribute of reverence and affection. There is, no doubt, a secret communion among good men throughout the world; a mental affinity connecting them by a similitude of sentiments: then, why, though an American, should not I be permitted to share in that extensive intellectual consanguinity? Yes, I do: and though the name of a man who possesses neither titles nor places, who never rose above the humble rank of a farmer, may appear insignificant; yet, as the sentiments I have expressed are also the echo of those of my countrymen; on their behalf, as well as on my own, give me leave to subscribe myself,
Sir, Your very sincere admirer, J. HECTOR ST. JOHN. CARLISLE IN PENNSYLVANIA.
LETTERS FROM AN AMERICAN FARMER
Who would have thought that because I received you with hospitality and kindness, you should imagine me capable of writing with propriety and perspicuity? Your gratitude misleads your judgment. The knowledge which I acquired from your conversation has amply repaid me for your five weeks' entertainment. I gave you nothing more than what common hospitality dictated; but could any other guest have instructed me as you did? You conducted me, on the map, from one European country to another; told me many extraordinary things of our famed mother-country, of which I knew very little; of its internal navigation, agriculture, arts, manufactures, and trade: you guided me through an extensive maze, and I abundantly profited by the journey; the contrast therefore proves the debt of gratitude to be on my side. The treatment you received at my house proceeded from the warmth of my heart, and from the corresponding sensibility of my wife; what you now desire must flow from a very limited power of mind: the task requires recollection, and a variety of talents which I do not possess. It is true I can describe our American modes of farming, our manners, and peculiar customs, with some degree of propriety, because I have ever attentively studied them; but my knowledge extends no farther. And is this local and unadorned information sufficient to answer all your expectations, and to satisfy your curiosity? I am surprised that in the course of your American travels you should not have found out persons more enlightened and better educated than I am; your predilection excites my wonder much more than my vanity; my share of the latter being confined merely to the neatness of my rural operations.
My father left me a few musty books, which his father brought from England with him; but what help can I draw from a library consisting mostly of Scotch Divinity, the Navigation of Sir Francis Drake, the History of Queen Elizabeth, and a few miscellaneous volumes? Our minister often comes to see me, though he lives upwards of twenty miles distant. I have shown him your letter, asked his advice, and solicited his assistance; he tells me, that he hath no time to spare, for that like the rest of us must till his farm, and is moreover to study what he is to say on the sabbath. My wife (and I never do anything without consulting her) laughs, and tells me that you cannot be in earnest. What! says she, James, wouldst thee pretend to send epistles to a great European man, who hath lived abundance of time in that big house called Cambridge; where, they say, that worldly learning is so abundant, that people gets it only by breathing the air of the place? Wouldst not thee be ashamed to write unto a man who has never in his life done a single day's work, no, not even felled a tree; who hath expended the Lord knows how many years in studying stars, geometry, stones, and flies, and in reading folio books? Who hath travelled, as he told us, to the city of Rome itself! Only think of a London man going to Rome! Where is it that these English folks won't go? One who hath seen the factory of brimstone at Suvius, and town of Pompey under ground! wouldst thou pretend to letter it with a person who hath been to Paris, to the Alps, to Petersburg, and who hath seen so many fine things up and down the old countries; who hath come over the great sea unto us, and hath journeyed from our New Hampshire in the East to our Charles Town in the South; who hath visited all our great cities, knows most of our famous lawyers and cunning folks; who hath conversed with very many king's men, governors, and counsellors, and yet pitches upon thee for his correspondent, as thee calls it? surely he means to jeer thee! I am sure he does, he cannot be in a real fair earnest. James, thee must read this letter over again, paragraph by paragraph, and warily observe whether thee can'st perceive some words of jesting; something that hath more than one meaning: and now I think on it, husband, I wish thee wouldst let me see his letter; though I am but a woman, as thee mayest say, yet I understand the purport of words in good measure, for when I was a girl, father sent us to the very best master in the precinct.—She then read it herself very attentively: our minister was present, we listened to, and weighed every syllable: we all unanimously concluded that you must have been in a sober earnest intention, as my wife calls it; and your request appeared to be candid and sincere. Then again, on recollecting the difference between your sphere of life and mine, a new fit of astonishment seized us all!
Our minister took the letter from my wife, and read it to himself; he made us observe the two last phrases, and we weighed the contents to the best of our abilities. The conclusion we all drew made me resolve at last to write.—You say you want nothing of me but what lies within the reach of my experience and knowledge; this I understand very well; the difficulty is, how to collect, digest, and arrange what I know? Next you assert, that writing letters is nothing more than talking on paper; which, I must confess, appeared to me quite a new thought.—Well then, observed our minister, neighbour James, as you can talk well, I am sure you must write tolerably well also; imagine, then, that Mr. F. B. is still here, and simply write down what you would say to him. Suppose the questions be will put to you in his future letters to be asked by his viva voce, as we used to call it at the college; then let your answers be conceived and expressed exactly in the same language as if he was present. This is all that he requires from you, and I am sure the task is not difficult. He is your friend: who would be ashamed to write to such a person? Although he is a man of learning and taste, yet I am sure he will read your letters with pleasure: if they be not elegant, they will smell of the woods, and be a little wild; I know your turn, they will contain some matters which he never knew before. Some people are so fond of novelty, that they will overlook many errors of language for the sake of information. We are all apt to love and admire exotics, tho' they may be often inferior to what we possess; and that is the reason I imagine why so many persons are continually going to visit Italy.—That country is the daily resort of modern travellers.
James: I should like to know what is there to be seen so goodly and profitable, that so many should wish to visit no other country?
Minister: I do not very well know. I fancy their object is to trace the vestiges of a once flourishing people now extinct. There they amuse themselves in viewing the ruins of temples and other buildings which have very little affinity with those of the present age, and must therefore impart a knowledge which appears useless and trifling. I have often wondered that no skilful botanists or learned men should come over here; methinks there would be much more real satisfaction in observing among us the humble rudiments and embryos of societies spreading everywhere, the recent foundation of our towns, and the settlements of so many rural districts. I am sure that the rapidity of their growth would be more pleasing to behold, than the ruins of old towers, useless aqueducts, or impending battlements.
James: What you say, minister, seems very true: do go on: I always love to hear you talk.
Minister: Don't you think, neighbour James, that the mind of a good and enlightened Englishman would be more improved in remarking throughout these provinces the causes which render so many people happy? In delineating the unnoticed means by which we daily increase the extent of our settlements? How we convert huge forests into pleasing fields, and exhibit through these thirteen provinces so singular a display of easy subsistence and political felicity.
In Italy all the objects of contemplation, all the reveries of the traveller, must have a reference to ancient generations, and to very distant periods, clouded with the mist of ages.—Here, on the contrary, everything is modern, peaceful, and benign. Here we have had no war to desolate our fields: [Footnote: The troubles that now convulse the American colonies had not broke out when this and some of the following letters were written.] our religion does not oppress the cultivators: we are strangers to those feudal institutions which have enslaved so many. Here nature opens her broad lap to receive the perpetual accession of new comers, and to supply them with food. I am sure I cannot be called a partial American when I say that the spectacle afforded by these pleasing scenes must be more entertaining and more philosophical than that which arises from beholding the musty ruins of Rome. Here everything would inspire the reflecting traveller with the most philanthropic ideas; his imagination, instead of submitting to the painful and useless retrospect of revolutions, desolations, and plagues, would, on the contrary, wisely spring forward to the anticipated fields of future cultivation and improvement, to the future extent of those generations which are to replenish and embellish this boundless continent. There the half-ruined amphitheatres, and the putrid fevers of the Campania, must fill the mind with the most melancholy reflections, whilst he is seeking for the origin and the intention of those structures with which he is surrounded, and for the cause of so great a decay. Here he might contemplate the very beginnings and outlines of human society, which can be traced nowhere now but in this part of the world. The rest of the earth, I am told, is in some places too full, in others half depopulated. Misguided religion, tyranny, and absurd laws everywhere depress and afflict mankind. Here we have in some measure regained the ancient dignity of our species; our laws are simple and just, we are a race of cultivators, our cultivation is unrestrained, and therefore everything is prosperous and flourishing. For my part I had rather admire the ample barn of one of our opulent farmers, who himself felled the first tree in his plantation, and was the first founder of his settlement, than study the dimensions of the temple of Ceres. I had rather record the progressive steps of this industrious farmer, throughout all the stages of his labours and other operations, than examine how modern Italian convents can be supported without doing anything but singing and praying.
However confined the field of speculation might be here, the time of English travellers would not be wholly lost. The new and unexpected aspect of our extensive settlements; of our fine rivers; that great field of action everywhere visible; that ease, that peace with which so many people live together, would greatly interest the observer: for whatever difficulties there might happen in the object of their researches, that hospitality which prevails from one end of the continent to the other would in all parts facilitate their excursions. As it is from the surface of the ground which we till that we have gathered the wealth we possess, the surface of that ground is therefore the only thing that has hitherto been known. It will require the industry of subsequent ages, the energy of future generations, ere mankind here will have leisure and abilities to penetrate deep, and, in the bowels of this continent, search for the subterranean riches it no doubt contains.—Neighbour James, we want much the assistance of men of leisure and knowledge, we want eminent chemists to inform our iron masters; to teach us how to make and prepare most of the colours we use. Here we have none equal to this task. If any useful discoveries are therefore made among us, they are the effects of chance, or else arise from that restless industry which is the principal characteristic of these colonies.
James: Oh! could I express myself as you do, my friend, I should not balance a single instant, I should rather be anxious to commence a correspondence which would do me credit.
Minister: You can write full as well as you need, and will improve very fast; trust to my prophecy, your letters, at least, will have the merit of coming from the edge of the great wilderness, three hundred miles from the sea, and three thousand miles over that sea: this will be no detriment to them, take my word for it. You intend one of your children for the gown, who knows but Mr. F. B. may give you some assistance when the lad comes to have concerns with the bishop; it is good for American farmers to have friends even in England. What he requires of you is but simple—what we speak out among ourselves we call conversation, and a letter is only conversation put down in black and white.
James: You quite persuade me—if he laughs at my awkwardness, surely he will be pleased with my ready compliance. On my part, it will be well meant let the execution be what it may. I will write enough, and so let him have the trouble of sifting the good from the bad, the useful from the trifling; let him select what he may want, and reject what may not answer his purpose. After all, it is but treating Mr. F. B. now that he is in London, as I treated him when he was in America under this roof; that is with the best things I had; given with a good intention; and the best manner I was able. Very different, James, very different indeed, said my wife, I like not thy comparison; our small house and cellar, our orchard and garden afforded what he wanted; one half of his time Mr. F. B., poor man, lived upon nothing but fruit-pies, or peaches and milk. Now these things were such as God had given us, myself and wench did the rest; we were not the creators of these victuals, we only cooked them as well and as neat as we could. The first thing, James, is to know what sort of materials thee hast within thy own self, and then whether thee canst dish them up.—Well, well, wife, thee art wrong for once; if I was filled with worldly vanity, thy rebuke would be timely, but thee knowest that I have but little of that. How shall I know what I am capable of till I try? Hadst thee never employed thyself in thy father's house to learn and to practise the many branches of house-keeping that thy parents were famous for, thee wouldst have made but a sorry wife for an American farmer; thee never shouldst have been mine. I married thee not for what thee hadst, but for what thee knewest; doest not thee observe what Mr. F. B. says beside; he tells me, that the art of writing is just like unto every other art of man; that it is acquired by habit, and by perseverance. That is singularly true, said our minister, he that shall write a letter every day of the week, will on Saturday perceive the sixth flowing from his pen much more readily than the first. I observed when I first entered into the ministry and began to preach the word, I felt perplexed and dry, my mind was like unto a parched soil, which produced nothing, not even weeds. By the blessing of heaven, and my perseverance in study, I grew richer in thoughts, phrases, and words; I felt copious, and now I can abundantly preach from any text that occurs to my mind. So will it be with you, neighbour James; begin therefore without delay; and Mr. F. B.'s letters may be of great service to you: he will, no doubt, inform you of many things: correspondence consists in reciprocal letters. Leave off your diffidence, and I will do my best to help you whenever I have any leisure. Well then, I am resolved, I said, to follow your counsel; my letters shall not be sent, nor will I receive any, without reading them to you and my wife; women are curious, they love to know their husband's secrets; it will not be the first thing which I have submitted to your joint opinions. Whenever you come to dine with us, these shall be the last dish on the table. Nor will they be the most unpalatable, answered the good man. Nature hath given you a tolerable share of sense, and that is one of her best gifts let me tell you. She has given you besides some perspicuity, which qualifies you to distinguish interesting objects; a warmth of imagination which enables you to think with quickness; you often extract useful reflections from objects which presented none to my mind: you have a tender and a well meaning heart, you love description, and your pencil, assure yourself, is not a bad one for the pencil of a farmer; it seems to be held without any labour; your mind is what we called at Yale college a Tabula rasa, where spontaneous and strong impressions are delineated with facility. Ah, neighbour! had you received but half the education of Mr. F. B. you had been a worthy correspondent indeed. But perhaps you will be a more entertaining one dressed in your simple American garb, than if you were clad in all the gowns of Cambridge. You will appear to him something like one of our wild American plants, irregularly luxuriant in its various branches, which an European scholar may probably think ill placed and useless. If our soil is not remarkable as yet for the excellence of its fruits, this exuberance is however a strong proof of fertility, which wants nothing but the progressive knowledge acquired by time to amend and to correct. It is easier to retrench than it is to add; I do not mean to flatter you, neighbour James, adulation would ill become my character, you may therefore believe what your pastor says. Were I in Europe I should be tired with perpetually seeing espaliers, plashed hedges, and trees dwarfed into pigmies. Do let Mr. F. B. see on paper a few American wild cherry trees, such as nature forms them here, in all her unconfined vigour, in all the amplitude of their extended limbs and spreading ramifications—let him see that we are possessed with strong vegetative embryos. After all, why should not a farmer be allowed to make use of his mental faculties as well as others; because a man works, is not he to think, and if he thinks usefully, why should not he in his leisure hours set down his thoughts? I have composed many a good sermon as I followed my plough. The eyes not being then engaged on any particular object, leaves the mind free for the introduction of many useful ideas. It is not in the noisy shop of a blacksmith or of a carpenter, that these studious moments can be enjoyed; it is as we silently till the ground, and muse along the odoriferous furrows of our low lands, uninterrupted either by stones or stumps; it is there that the salubrious effluvia of the earth animate our spirits and serve to inspire us; every other avocation of our farms are severe labours compared to this pleasing occupation: of all the tasks which mine imposes on me ploughing is the most agreeable, because I can think as I work; my mind is at leisure; my labour flows from instinct, as well as that of my horses; there is no kind of difference between us in our different shares of that operation; one of them keeps the furrow, the other avoids it; at the end of my field they turn either to the right or left as they are bid, whilst I thoughtlessly hold and guide the plough to which they are harnessed. Do therefore, neighbour, begin this correspondence, and persevere, difficulties will vanish in proportion as you draw near them; you'll be surprised at yourself by and by: when you come to look back you'll say as I have often said to myself; had I been diffident I had never proceeded thus far. Would you painfully till your stony up-land and neglect the fine rich bottom which lies before your door? Had you never tried, you never had learned how to mend and make your ploughs. It will be no small pleasure to your children to tell hereafter, that their father was not only one of the most industrious farmers in the country, but one of the best writers. When you have once begun, do as when you begin breaking up your summer fallow, you never consider what remains to be done, you view only what you have ploughed. Therefore, neighbour James, take my advice; it will go well with you, I am sure it will.—And do you really think so, Sir? Your counsel, which I have long followed, weighs much with me, I verily believe that I must write to Mr. F. B. by the first vessel.—If thee persistest in being such a foolhardy man, said my wife, for God's sake let it be kept a profound secret among us; if it were once known abroad that thee writest to a great and rich man over at London, there would be no end of the talk of the people; some would vow that thee art going to turn an author, others would pretend to foresee some great alterations in the welfare of thy family; some would say this, some would say that: Who would wish to become the subject of public talk? Weigh this matter well before thee beginnest, James—consider that a great deal of thy time, and of thy reputation is at stake as I may say. Wert thee to write as well as friend Edmund, whose speeches I often see in our papers, it would be the very self same thing; thee wouldst be equally accused of idleness, and vain notions not befitting thy condition. Our colonel would be often coming here to know what it is that thee canst write so much about. Some would imagine that thee wantest to become either an assembly-man or a magistrate, which God forbid; and that thee art telling the king's men abundance of things. Instead of being well looked upon as now, and living in peace with all the world, our neighbours would be making strange surmises: I had rather be as we are, neither better nor worse than the rest of our country folks. Thee knowest what I mean, though I should be sorry to deprive thee of any honest recreation. Therefore as I have said before, let it be as great a secret as if it was some heinous crime; the minister, I am sure, will not divulge it; as for my part, though I am a woman, yet I know what it is to be a wife.—I would not have thee, James, pass for what the world calleth a writer; no, not for a peck of gold, as the saying is. Thy father before thee was a plain dealing honest man, punctual in all things; he was one of yea and nay, of few words, all he minded was his farm and his work. I wonder from whence thee hast got this love of the pen? Had he spent his time in sending epistles to and fro, he never would have left thee this goodly plantation, free from debt. All I say is in good meaning; great people over sea may write to our town's folks, because they have nothing else to do. These Englishmen are strange people; because they can live upon what they call bank notes, without working, they think that all the world can do the same. This goodly country never would have been tilled and cleared with these notes. I am sure when Mr. F. B. was here, he saw thee sweat and take abundance of pains; he often told me how the Americans worked a great deal harder than the home Englishmen; for there he told us, that they have no trees to cut down, no fences to make, no negroes to buy and to clothe: and now I think on it, when wilt thee send him those trees he bespoke? But if they have no trees to cut down, they have gold in abundance, they say; for they rake it and scrape it from all parts far and near. I have often heard my grandfather tell how they live there by writing. By writing they send this cargo unto us, that to the West, and the other to the East Indies. But, James, thee knowest that it is not by writing that we shall pay the blacksmith, the minister, the weaver, the tailor, and the English shop. But as thee art an early man follow thine own inclinations; thee wantest some rest, I am sure, and why shouldst thee not employ it as it may seem meet unto thee.—However let it be a great secret; how wouldst thee bear to be called at our country meetings, the man of the pen? If this scheme of thine was once known, travellers as they go along would point out to our house, saying, here liveth the scribbling fanner; better hear them as usual observe, here liveth the warm substantial family, that never begrudgeth a meal of victuals, or a mess of oats, to any one that steps in. Look how fat and well clad their negroes are.
Thus, Sir, have I given you an unaffected and candid detail of the conversation which determined me to accept of your invitation. I thought it necessary thus to begin, and to let you into these primary secrets, to the end that you may not hereafter reproach me with any degree of presumption. You'll plainly see the motives which have induced me to begin, the fears which I have entertained, and the principles on which my diffidence hath been founded. I have now nothing to do but to prosecute my task—Remember you are to give me my subjects, and on no other shall I write, lest you should blame me for an injudicious choice—However incorrect my style, however unexpert my methods, however trifling my observations may hereafter appear to you, assure yourself they will all be the genuine dictates of my mind, and I hope will prove acceptable on that account. Remember that you have laid the foundation of this correspondence; you well know that I am neither a philosopher, politician, divine, nor naturalist, but a simple farmer. I flatter myself, therefore, that you'll receive my letters as conceived, not according to scientific rules to which I am a perfect stranger, but agreeable to the spontaneous impressions which each subject may inspire. This is the only line I am able to follow, the line which nature has herself traced for me; this was the covenant which I made with you, and with which you seemed to be well pleased. Had you wanted the style of the learned, the reflections of the patriot, the discussions of the politician, the curious observations of the naturalist, the pleasing garb of the man of taste, surely you would have applied to some of those men of letters with which our cities abound. But since on the contrary, and for what reason I know not, you wish to correspond with a cultivator of the earth, with a simple citizen, you must receive my letters for better or worse.
ON THE SITUATION, FEELINGS, AND PLEASURES, OF AN AMERICAN FARMER
As you are the first enlightened European I have ever had the pleasure of being acquainted with, you will not be surprised that I should, according to your earnest desire and my promise, appear anxious of preserving your friendship and correspondence. By your accounts, I observe a material difference subsists between your husbandry, modes, and customs, and ours; everything is local; could we enjoy the advantages of the English farmer, we should be much happier, indeed, but this wish, like many others, implies a contradiction; and could the English farmer have some of those privileges we possess, they would be the first of their class in the world. Good and evil I see is to be found in all societies, and it is in vain to seek for any spot where those ingredients are not mixed. I therefore rest satisfied, and thank God that my lot is to be an American farmer, instead of a Russian boor, or an Hungarian peasant. I thank you kindly for the idea, however dreadful, which you have given me of their lot and condition; your observations have confirmed me in the justness of my ideas, and I am happier now than I thought myself before. It is strange that misery, when viewed in others, should become to us a sort of real good, though I am far from rejoicing to hear that there are in the world men so thoroughly wretched; they are no doubt as harmless, industrious, and willing to work as we are. Hard is their fate to be thus condemned to a slavery worse than that of our negroes. Yet when young I entertained some thoughts of selling my farm. I thought it afforded but a dull repetition of the same labours and pleasures. I thought the former tedious and heavy, the latter few and insipid; but when I came to consider myself as divested of my farm, I then found the world so wide, and every place so full, that I began to fear lest there would be no room for me. My farm, my house, my barn, presented to my imagination objects from which I adduced quite new ideas; they were more forcible than before. Why should not I find myself happy, said I, where my father was before? He left me no good books it is true, he gave me no other education than the art of reading and writing; but he left me a good farm, and his experience; he left me free from debts, and no kind of difficulties to struggle with.—I married, and this perfectly reconciled me to my situation; my wife rendered my house all at once cheerful and pleasing; it no longer appeared gloomy and solitary as before; when I went to work in my fields I worked with more alacrity and sprightliness; I felt that I did not work for myself alone, and this encouraged me much. My wife would often come with her knitting in her hand, and sit under the shady trees, praising the straightness of my furrows, and the docility of my horses; this swelled my heart and made everything light and pleasant, and I regretted that I had not married before.
I felt myself happy in my new situation, and where is that station which can confer a more substantial system of felicity than that of an American farmer, possessing freedom of action, freedom of thoughts, ruled by a mode of government which requires but little from us? I owe nothing, but a pepper corn to my country, a small tribute to my king, with loyalty and due respect; I know no other landlord than the lord of all land, to whom I owe the most sincere gratitude. My father left me three hundred and seventy-one acres of land, forty-seven of which are good timothy meadow, an excellent orchard, a good house, and a substantial barn. It is my duty to think how happy I am that he lived to build and to pay for all these improvements; what are the labours which I have to undergo, what are my fatigues when compared to his, who had everything to do, from the first tree he felled to the finishing of his house? Every year I kill from 1500 to 2000 weight of pork, 1200 of beef, half a dozen of good wethers in harvest: of fowls my wife has always a great stock: what can I wish more? My negroes are tolerably faithful and healthy; by a long series of industry and honest dealings, my father left behind him the name of a good man; I have but to tread his paths to be happy and a good man like him. I know enough of the law to regulate my little concerns with propriety, nor do I dread its power; these are the grand outlines of my situation, but as I can feel much more than I am able to express, I hardly know how to proceed.
When my first son was born, the whole train of my ideas were suddenly altered; never was there a charm that acted so quickly and powerfully; I ceased to ramble in imagination through the wide world; my excursions since have not exceeded the bounds of my farm, and all my principal pleasures are now centred within its scanty limits: but at the same time there is not an operation belonging to it in which I do not find some food for useful reflections. This is the reason, I suppose, that when you was here, you used, in your refined style, to denominate me the farmer of feelings; how rude must those feelings be in him who daily holds the axe or the plough, how much more refined on the contrary those of the European, whose mind is improved by education, example, books, and by every acquired advantage! Those feelings, however, I will delineate as well as I can, agreeably to your earnest request.
When I contemplate my wife, by my fire-side, while she either spins, knits, darns, or suckles our child, I cannot describe the various emotions of love, of gratitude, of conscious pride, which thrill in my heart and often overflow in involuntary tears. I feel the necessity, the sweet pleasure of acting my part, the part of an husband and father, with an attention and propriety which may entitle me to my good fortune. It is true these pleasing images vanish with the smoke of my pipe, but though they disappear from my mind, the impression they have made on my heart is indelible. When I play with the infant, my warm imagination runs forward, and eagerly anticipates his future temper and constitution. I would willingly open the book of fate, and know in which page his destiny is delineated; alas! where is the father who in those moments of paternal ecstasy can delineate one half of the thoughts which dilate his heart? I am sure I cannot; then again I fear for the health of those who are become so dear to me, and in their sicknesses I severely pay for the joys I experienced while they were well. Whenever I go abroad it is always involuntary. I never return home without feeling some pleasing emotion, which I often suppress as useless and foolish. The instant I enter on my own land, the bright idea of property, of exclusive right, of independence exalt my mind. Precious soil, I say to myself, by what singular custom of law is it that thou wast made to constitute the riches of the freeholder? What should we American farmers be without the distinct possession of that soil? It feeds, it clothes us, from it we draw even a great exuberancy, our best meat, our richest drink, the very honey of our bees comes from this. privileged spot. No wonder we should thus cherish its possession, no wonder that so many Europeans who have never been able to say that such portion of land was theirs, cross the Atlantic to realise that happiness. This formerly rude soil has been converted by my father into a pleasant farm, and in return it has established all our rights; on it is founded our rank, our freedom, our power as citizens, our importance as inhabitants of such a district. These images I must confess I always behold with pleasure, and extend them as far as my imagination can reach: for this is what may be called the true and the only philosophy of an American farmer.
Pray do not laugh in thus seeing an artless countryman tracing himself through the simple modifications of his life; remember that you have required it, therefore with candour, though with diffidence, I endeavour to follow the thread of my feelings, but I cannot tell you all. Often when I plough my low ground, I place my little boy on a chair which screws to the beam of the plough—its motion and that of the horses please him; he is perfectly happy and begins to chat. As I lean over the handle, various are the thoughts which crowd into my mind. I am now doing for him, I say, what my father formerly did for me, may God enable him to live that he may perform the same operations for the same purposes when I am worn out and old! I relieve his mother of some trouble while I have him with me, the odoriferous furrow exhilarates his spirits, and seems to do the child a great deal of good, for he looks more blooming since I have adopted that practice; can more pleasure, more dignity be added to that primary occupation? The father thus ploughing with his child, and to feed his family, is inferior only to the emperor of China ploughing as an example to his kingdom. In the evening when I return home through my low grounds, I am astonished at the myriads of insects which I perceive dancing in the beams of the setting sun. I was before scarcely acquainted with their existence, they are so small that it is difficult to distinguish them; they are carefully improving this short evening space, not daring to expose themselves to the blaze of our meridian sun. I never see an egg brought on my table but I feel penetrated with the wonderful change it would have undergone but for my gluttony; it might have been a gentle useful hen leading her chickens with a care and vigilance which speaks shame to many women. A cock perhaps, arrayed with the most majestic plumes, tender to its mate, bold, courageous, endowed with an astonishing instinct, with thoughts, with memory, and every distinguishing characteristic of the reason of man. I never see my trees drop their leaves and their fruit in the autumn, and bud again in the spring, without wonder; the sagacity of those animals which have long been the tenants of my farm astonish me: some of them seem to surpass even men in memory and sagacity. I could tell you singular instances of that kind. What then is this instinct which we so debase, and of which we are taught to entertain so diminutive an idea? My bees, above any other tenants of my farm, attract my attention and respect; I am astonished to see that nothing exists but what has its enemy, one species pursue and live upon the other: unfortunately our kingbirds are the destroyers of those industrious insects; but on the other hand, these birds preserve our fields from the depredation of crows which they pursue on the wing with great vigilance and astonishing dexterity.
Thus divided by two interested motives, I have long resisted the desire I had to kill them, until last year, when I thought they increased too much, and my indulgence had been carried too far; it was at the time of swarming when they all came and fixed themselves on the neighbouring trees, from whence they catched those that returned loaded from the fields. This made me resolve to kill as many as I could, and I was just ready to fire, when a bunch of bees as big as my fist, issued from one of the hives, rushed on one of the birds, and probably stung him, for he instantly screamed, and flew, not as before, in an irregular manner, but in a direct line. He was followed by the same bold phalanx, at a considerable distance, which unfortunately becoming too sure of victory, quitted their military array and disbanded themselves. By this inconsiderate step they lost all that aggregate of force which had made the bird fly off. Perceiving their disorder he immediately returned and snapped as many as he wanted; nay, he had even the impudence to alight on the very twig from which the bees had drove him. I killed him and immediately opened his craw, from which I took 171 bees; I laid them all on a blanket in the sun, and to my great surprise 54 returned to life, licked themselves clean, and joyfully went back to the hive; where they probably informed their companions of such an adventure and escape, as I believe had never happened before to American bees! I draw a great fund of pleasure from the quails which inhabit my farm; they abundantly repay me, by their various notes and peculiar tameness, for the inviolable hospitality I constantly show them in the winter. Instead of perfidiously taking advantage of their great and affecting distress, when nature offers nothing but a barren universal bed of snow, when irresistible necessity forces them to my barn doors, I permit them to feed unmolested; and it is not the least agreeable spectacle which that dreary season presents, when I see those beautiful birds, tamed by hunger, intermingling with all my cattle and sheep, seeking in security for the poor scanty grain which but for them would be useless and lost. Often in the angles of the fences where the motion of the wind prevents the snow from settling, I carry them both chaff and grain; the one to feed them, the other to prevent their tender feet from freezing fast to the earth as I have frequently observed them to do.
I do not know an instance in which the singular barbarity of man is so strongly delineated, as in the catching and murthering those harmless birds, at that cruel season of the year. Mr.—-, one of the most famous and extraordinary farmers that has ever done honour to the province of Connecticut, by his timely and humane assistance in a hard winter, saved this species from being entirely destroyed. They perished all over the country, none of their delightful whistlings were heard the next spring, but upon this gentleman's farm; and to his humanity we owe the continuation of their music. When the severities of that season have dispirited all my cattle, no farmer ever attends them with more pleasure than I do; it is one of those duties which is sweetened with the most rational satisfaction. I amuse myself in beholding their different tempers, actions, and the various effects of their instinct now powerfully impelled by the force of hunger. I trace their various inclinations, and the different effects of their passions, which are exactly the same as among men; the law is to us precisely what I am in my barn yard, a bridle and check to prevent the strong and greedy from oppressing the timid and weak. Conscious of superiority, they always strive to encroach on their neighbours; unsatisfied with their portion, they eagerly swallow it in order to have an opportunity of taking what is given to others, except they are prevented. Some I chide, others, unmindful of my admonitions, receive some blows. Could victuals thus be given to men without the assistance of any language, I am sure they would not behave better to one another, nor more philosophically than my cattle do.
The same spirit prevails in the stable; but there I have to do with more generous animals, there my well-known voice has immediate influence, and soon restores peace and tranquillity. Thus by superior knowledge I govern all my cattle as wise men are obliged to govern fools and the ignorant. A variety of other thoughts crowd on my mind at that peculiar instant, but they all vanish by the time I return home. If in a cold night I swiftly travel in my sledge, carried along at the rate of twelve miles an hour, many are the reflections excited by surrounding circumstances. I ask myself what sort of an agent is that which we call frost? Our minister compares it to needles, the points of which enter our pores. What is become of the heat of the summer; in what part of the world is it that the N. W. keeps these grand magazines of nitre? when I see in the morning a river over which I can travel, that in the evening before was liquid, I am astonished indeed! What is become of those millions of insects which played in our summer fields, and in our evening meadows; they were so puny and so delicate, the period of their existence was so short, that one cannot help wondering how they could learn, in that short space, the sublime art to hide themselves and their offspring in so perfect a manner as to baffle the rigour of the season, and preserve that precious embryo of life, that small portion of ethereal heat, which if once destroyed would destroy the species! Whence that irresistible propensity to sleep so common in all those who are severely attacked by the frost. Dreary as this season appears, yet it has like all others its miracles, it presents to man a variety of problems which he can never resolve; among the rest, we have here a set of small birds which never appear until the snow falls; contrary to all others, they dwell and appear to delight in that element.
It is my bees, however, which afford me the most pleasing and extensive themes; let me look at them when I will, their government, their industry, their quarrels, their passions, always present me with something new; for which reason, when weary with labour, my common place of rest is under my locust-tree, close by my bee-house. By their movements I can predict the weather, and can tell the day of their swarming; but the most difficult point is, when on the wing, to know whether they want to go to the woods or not. If they have previously pitched in some hollow trees, it is not the allurements of salt and water, of fennel, hickory leaves, etc., nor the finest box, that can induce them to stay; they will prefer those rude, rough habitations to the best polished mahogany hive. When that is the case with mine, I seldom thwart their inclinations; it is in freedom that they work: were I to confine them, they would dwindle away and quit their labour. In such excursions we only part for a while; I am generally sure to find them again the following fall. This elopement of theirs only adds to my recreations; I know how to deceive even their superlative instinct; nor do I fear losing them, though eighteen miles from my house, and lodged in the most lofty trees, in the most impervious of our forests. I once took you along with me in one of these rambles, and yet you insist on my repeating the detail of our operations: it brings back into my mind many of the useful and entertaining reflections with which you so happily beguiled our tedious hours.
After I have done sowing, by way of recreation, I prepare for a week's jaunt in the woods, not to hunt either the deer or the bears, as my neighbours do, but to catch the more harmless bees. I cannot boast that this chase is so noble, or so famous among men, but I find it less fatiguing, and full as profitable; and the last consideration is the only one that moves me. I take with me my dog, as a companion, for he is useless as to this game; my gun, for no man you know ought to enter the woods without one; my blanket, some provisions, some wax, vermilion, honey, and a small pocket compass. With these implements I proceed to such woods as are at a considerable distance from any settlements. I carefully examine whether they abound with large trees, if so, I make a small fire on some flat stones, in a convenient place; on the fire I put some wax; close by this fire, on another stone, I drop honey in distinct drops, which I surround with small quantities of vermilion, laid on the stone; and then I retire carefully to watch whether any bees appear. If there are any in that neighbourhood, I rest assured that the smell of the burnt wax will unavoidably attract them; they will soon find out the honey, for they are fond of preying on that which is not their own; and in their approach they will necessarily tinge themselves with some particles of vermilion, which will adhere long to their bodies. I next fix my compass, to find out their course, which they keep invariably straight, when they are returning home loaded. By the assistance of my watch, I observe how long those are returning which are marked with vermilion. Thus possessed of the course, and, in some measure, of the distance, which I can easily guess at, I follow the first, and seldom fail of coming to the tree where those republics are lodged. I then mark it; and thus, with patience, I have found out sometimes eleven swarms in a season; and it is inconceivable what a quantity of honey these trees will sometimes afford. It entirely depends on the size of the hollow, as the bees never rest nor swarm till it is all replenished; for like men, it is only the want of room that induces them to quit the maternal hive. Next I proceed to some of the nearest settlements, where I procure proper assistance to cut down the trees, get all my prey secured, and then return home with my prize. The first bees I ever procured were thus found in the woods, by mere accident; for at that time I had no kind of skill in this method of tracing them. The body of the tree being perfectly sound, they had lodged themselves in the hollow of one of its principal limbs, which I carefully sawed off and with a good deal of labour and industry brought it home, where I fixed it up again in the same position in which I found it growing. This was in April; I had five swarms that year, and they have been ever since very prosperous. This business generally takes up a week of my time every fall, and to me it is a week of solitary ease and relaxation.
The seed is by that time committed to the ground; there is nothing very material to do at home, and this additional quantity of honey enables me to be more generous to my home bees, and my wife to make a due quantity of mead. The reason, Sir, that you found mine better than that of others is, that she puts two gallons of brandy in each barrel, which ripens it, and takes off that sweet, luscious taste, which it is apt to retain a long time. If we find anywhere in the woods (no matter on whose land) what is called a bee-tree, we must mark it; in the fall of the year when we propose to cut it down, our duty is to inform the proprietor of the land, who is entitled to half the contents; if this is not complied with we are exposed to an action of trespass, as well as he who should go and cut down a bee- tree which he had neither found out nor marked.
We have twice a year the pleasure of catching pigeons, whose numbers are sometimes so astonishing as to obscure the sun in their flight. Where is it that they hatch? for such multitudes must require an immense quantity of food. I fancy they breed toward the plains of Ohio, and those about lake Michigan, which abound in wild oats; though I have never killed any that had that grain in their craws. In one of them, last year, I found some undigested rice. Now the nearest rice fields from where I live must be at least 560 miles; and either their digestion must be suspended while they are flying, or else they must fly with the celerity of the wind. We catch them with a net extended on the ground, to which they are allured by what we call TAME WILD PIGEONS, made blind, and fastened to a long string; his short flights, and his repeated calls, never fail to bring them down. The greatest number I ever catched was fourteen dozen, though much larger quantities have often been trapped. I have frequently seen them at the market so cheap, that for a penny you might have as many as you could carry away; and yet from the extreme cheapness you must not conclude, that they are but an ordinary food; on the contrary, I think they are excellent. Every farmer has a tame wild pigeon in a cage at his door all the year round, in order to be ready whenever the season comes for catching them.