6. A New Man: The American
What then is the American, this new man? asked a French immigrant who had become a naturalized New York citizen and gentleman farmer in the 1760s. How is he different from a European? How does this difference make him a "new man" on the face of the earth? What does his unique identity offer the world? Here we consider two dominant works of the revolutionary era that addressed these questions—one by the French-born farmer, writing before and during the Revolution, and the other by a native-born New Englander writing after the Revolution. Each man strove to capture the essence of "the American, this new man."
Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur (writing as J. Hector St. John), "What Is an American?" Letter III of Letters from an American Farmer, written late 1760s-early 1770s, publ. 1782, selections. The landscape images above depict the New York Catskill Mountains in 1761—the embodiment of American expanse and opportunity, far from the class-locked societies of Europe. Here the Frenchman Michel-Guillaume Jean de Crèvecoeur bought farmland in 1764 after having served in the French and Indian War. He married, raised a family, and lived the life of an "American farmer" until the upheaval of the American Revolution drove him first to join Loyalist refugees in New York City and then, after being imprisoned as a suspected spy by the British, back to his homeland in France. There he amassed his writings on American culture and agriculture into a series of "letters" to a fictional English recipient, publishing them in London in 1782. The most famous of these letters is the third—"What Is an American?"—long considered the classic statement of this "new man": individualistic, self-reliant, pragmatic, hard-working, a stolid man of the land free to pursue his self-defined goals and, in the process, rejecting the ideological zeal that had racked Europe for centuries. While the letter is romantic and often utopian, it reflects the real experiences of a European-born American who long pursued the question "what is an American?" As historian Edmund S. Morgan reflects, "Crèvecoeur’s answer to the question was flattering to Americans of his own day, and it still reverberates in a society that has never stopped asking the same question of itself."1 Who is Crèvecoeur’s "American"?—and what is Crèvecoeur’s "America"? What do they offer Europe and the world? On the other hand, what most distressed Crèvecoeur about the emerging American? (15 pp.)
Royall Tyler, The Contrast, comedy of manners, 1787. The first full-length play by an American and the first to be performed by a professional theater, The Contrast premiered in New York City in April 1787 to enthusiastic acclaim. It "must give sincere satisfaction to every lover of his country," wrote one critic, "to find that this, the most difficult of all the works of human genius [i.e., theater], has been attempted with such abundant success."2 Modelled after the English "comedy of manners" in which the pretensions of a social class are satirized, the play contrasts the stolid, honorable, no-airs American with the frivolous class-conscious American who aspires to European sophistication. (Amidst the subplots typical in a comedy of manners, this central contrast is emphasized in Act II, Scene 1; Act III, Scene 2; Act IV, Scene 1; and Act V, Scene 2). A multitude of related contrasts are dramatized including, as listed by cultural historian Kenneth Silverman, "revolutionary stoicism and high-mindedness against the new spirit of display and fun, republicanism against aristocracy, country against city, soldier against beau, Boston against New York, marriage against seduction, homespun against lace, the language of the heart against Frenchified elevation, American simplicity and sincerity against European affectation and preoccupation with fashion."3 Much fodder for a full-length five-act play.
The venerable American (who wins the girl in the end) is Col. Henry Manly, a Revolutionary War veteran and an officer in the Massachusetts militia during Shays’s Rebellion of 1787-1788 (as was the playwright). When he comes to New York City to appeal to the Continental Congress for pensions for his wounded fellow veterans, he visits his young sister Charlotte and is engulfed in New York wannabe society. A horrified Charlotte insists that she cannot introduce him to society wearing his regimental coat, and a servant dismisses him as an "unpolished animal." But Manly knows what he stands for and why it matters. His monologue against luxury that opens Act III, Scene II, mirrors the alarm raised by many Americans in the 1780s that consumer excess would sap the energy of the young nation and threaten its very survival (see Noah Webster and David Ramsay in this Theme). He ardently defends American patriotism, civic commitment, and simple virtue from the disparaging barbs of (the villain) Billy Dimple. In the end, Dimple is exposed as a deceitful fraud, Charlotte disavows her frivolous aspirations, and Col. Manly affirms to the audience that the "probity, virtue [and] honor" of the "unpolished" American will triumph. The first play written by Royall Tyler, a wealthy Harvard- and Yale-educated Bostonian, The Contrast merits study along with Crèvecoeur’s well-known Letters. We recommend that you read the Act-Scene summaries and study the character chart before beginning the play. Do note the poem prologue, worth a study in itself. (38 pp.)
- Overall, how did Crèvecoeur and Tyler describe "the American, this new man?"
- How did each address these questions?
- – How is the American different from a European?
- – How does this difference make him a "new man" on the face of the earth?
- – What does his unique identity offer the world?
- – What did his unique identity offer the new nation?
- How did these factors influence their perspectives?
- – timing of their works, i.e., before, during, and/or after the Revolutionary War
- – heritage, i.e., European or American
- – class and economic background
- – personal experience in the military and in farming
- In what ways did Crèvecoeur and Tyler judge the "American man" as better than the European?
- What aspects of the "European man" were worth preserving in the new "American man," according to Crèvecoeur and Tyler?
- What most concerned each author about the emerging "American man"?
- What aspects of the American character would prevent these dangers from weakening the young nation?
- Discuss the men's works with this perspective: "Crèvecoeur considers Europeans aspiring to be Americans, and Tyler views Americans aspiring to be Europeans."
- How does the genre of each man's work influence the reader's response (Crèvecoeur's essays and Tyler's comedy of manners)?
- Imagine Crèvecoeur delivering his ideas as a comedy of manners, and Tyler delivering his as a series of letters to a fictional recipient. How would this change the tone and impact of their ideas?
- Create a dialogue between the authors' protagonists—Crèvecoeur's James Hector St. John and Tyler's Col. Henry Manly. Determine the date, setting, and topic of the dialogue. Conclude the dialogue in a way to provoke discussion, e.g., a question posed by both characters to future Americans, a hand-shake over a promise or shared conviction, an agreement to meet in twenty years, a time-warp into the present day, a sudden appearance of two characters (one from each man's work), etc.
- Relate Col. Manly's concerns about Americans' obsession with luxury and everything-European with the similar concerns expressed by Noah Webster and David Ramsay in this Theme, and by Benjamin Franklin (see the primary source collection Becoming American: The British Atlantic Colonies, 1690-1763).
- Compare these two works with the "information" essays by Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush to Europeans considering emigrating to America. How do the four works reflect the American-vs.-European discussion of the period?
- Continue this chart for an overview of the "advantages and disadvantages" of the Revolution as seen by the American and European commentators in this Theme, and to compile their recommendations for the new nation's survival and triumph. What patterns do you find? What issues were stressed as the most urgent?
- How did Americans envision independence and nationhood in the first years after the Revolutionary War?
- How did they begin to construct a national identity separate from their colonial identity as British subjects?
- In what ways was the new nation like "a child just learning to walk"? What postwar challenges most reflected this "state of infancy"?
Crèvecoeur, "What Is an American?" selections
Tyler, The Contrast, full text
, overview and short biography (Paul Reuben, California State University–Stanislaus)
Crèvecoeur, Letters from an American Farmer
, full text (Avalon Project, Yale Law School)
, overview (Heath Anthology of American Literature)
, overview (Annenberg Foundation)
Comedy of manners
, overview (Wikipedia)
Richard Sheridan, The School for Scandal
, British comedy of manners, 1777, full text (Bartleby.com)
"Unveiling the American Actor: The Evolution of Celebrity in the Early American Theater
," by Jason Shaffer, U.S. Naval Academy, Common-Place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life
, 10:2, January 2010
"Was the American Revolution Inevitable?
," not-to-miss teachable essay by Prof. Francis D. Cogliano, University of Edinburgh (BBC)
Teaching the Revolution
, valuable overview essay by Prof. Carol Berkin, Baruch College (CUNY)
General Online Resources
Edmund S. Morgan, The Birth of the Republic, 1763-89
(University of Chicago Press, 3d. ed., 1992), p. 121.
"Philo. Dramaticus," Letter to Mr. McLean, editor, Independent Journal
, New York, 5 May 1787; accessed through America’s Historical Newspapers, American Antiquarian Society with NewsBank/Readex; cited in Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution
(New York: Crowell, 1976), p. 562.
Kenneth Silverman, A Cultural History of the American Revolution
(New York: Thomas Crowell Co., 1976), p. 360.
– William Dunlap, frontispiece engraving for The Contrast
, by Royall Tyler, 1787 (detail). Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Digital ID 809938.
– Thomas Pownall et al., etchings, 1761, for Scenographia Americana
, London: J. Bowles, 1768. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.
- – A View in Hudson's River of Pakepsey & the Catts-Kill Mountains, from Sopos Island in Hudson's River, 20 May 1761 (details). LC-DIG-pga-04085.
- – A Design to Represent the Beginning and Completion of an American Settlement or Farm, 20 May 1761 (details). LC-DIG-pga-04017.
Banner image: Final design for the Great Seal of the United States, 1782, by Secretary of State Charles Thomson (detail). Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.
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