Washington, CT. The unanimously anointed Soothsayer of the American Republic, Alexis de Tocqueville is deservedly credited with divining the essential and lasting traits of the mythological American. That he did so, long before there really was such a collective thing as a national identity only serves to make his achievement all the more remarkable. He discerned it all…our restlessness, our physicality, our endless busyness and cocksure, open-faced optimism. But there was someone else, a fellow French national in fact who first hit upon the two most defining aspects of the American Character. On the one hand, we are joyfully independent but collective partisans in a civil communion of the future and on the other, we are malcontents, chucking the group-grope in favor of following the sun towards the western horizon. Both are revolutionaries of a sort but both, by all rights, should not inhabit the same sphere of national ends. But we do, to varying degrees of success or messiness over the years. Currently, the bumpy equipoise is more than a bit agitato and the competing forces are being used to great effect by the various hucksters who prod the national beast for their own malign ends. It would seem to me however, that a little of this “crisis management” goes a long way. True to form, if we do not watch out, we’ll once again come to unnecessarily destructive blows over aims and ends which we will have forgotten by the time the fists really fly. Such are the wages of socio-political schizophrenia.
Tocqueville’s worthy predecessor was a man named J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur. Born of minor French nobility on December 31, 1735 and armored with a Jesuit Education, the future Classic American visited England as a young man and there, he became an enthralled Anglophile. After his English sojourn, he entered the service of the French Colonial Militia as a surveyor in time to watch the French lose Quebec to the British he so admired. Moving to the Colony of New York in 1759, he married a colonial girl and bought a farm in the rich black dirt country of Orange County, New York, just north of the Hudson River Narrows. Instantly loving the agrarian life on the frontier, he took up writing so as to fully plumb and realize his infatuations with life in the furrows at the edge of the world.
In 1779, his peacefulness aggressively jarred by the American Revolution, de Crevecoeur attempted to travel back to France on family business but was intercepted by the British forces occupying New York and charged as a spy. Freed after a three month incarceration, he traveled to England where he published a volume of essays entitled “Letters From an American Farmer”. He anticipated little from this initial literary endeavor but to his joy and surprise, the book became the first big sensation by an “American” author in Europe. This book was the first publication to attempt a description of the colonists as a unique and culturally diverse people comprised of agrarian independent citizens living a new form of life. He frequently used the latin term “Ubi panis ibi patria”………”where my bread is, there is my homeland” as the prime logos of the nascent American.
With success on his shoulders, he returned briefly to France and was reunited with his father. After the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Crevecoeur returned to New York to find his American Idyll transformed to nightmare. His wife had been murdered, his farm burned to the ground and his children had vanished. Eventually regaining custody of his children, he settled in Manhattan where he launched a career as a diplomat , serving as French Consul in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. During this time, he expanded his original book into a three volume version which was ultimately translated into many languages and served as the essential description of that mysterious New World thing that would come to be known in the Old World as an “American”. The Cottage Industry of the American Dream was off and running. Decades later, Tocqueville would add his own indelible and more widely appreciated stamp.
Sadly, at the end of his life, trapped in France by their revolution and in hiding as an aristocrat, Crevecoeur was denied freedom by the American Ambassador James Monroe and so never again saw his beloved agrarian paradise. J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur met his maker on November 12, 1813 in Sarcelles, Val d’Oise, France.
Crevecoeur’s three volume book is roughly divided into four parts. It is presented as the correspondence of a “Farmer John” to a wealthy friend in England . In the first section of the book, the reader is treated to an unabashed love letter to the life of a gentleman farmer within a dispersed community of like-minded transplants. The fecundity of the landscape is discussed at great length and one is treated to a brief description of a variety of folk-occupations that were required of a freeholding farmer. Crevecoeur is revealed as a combination philosopher, husbandman, naturalist and sociologist and his various ruminations are exultant in their enthusiasms for the new life that had replaced Europe’s fusty and frequently tyrannical drudgery. Here, he remarks upon the endless challenges and joys of the farming life and composes a definition of the American that still stands today if we want it so:
“What then is the American, this new man? He is neither an European nor a
descendent of an European: hence that strange mixture of blood, which you
will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family, whose grandfather
was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French
woman, and whose present four sons now have four wives of different nations.
He is an American , who, leaving behind him all his antient prejudices and
manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the
new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. He becomes an
American by being received in the broad lap of our great alma mater. Here
individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men, whose labours
and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world. Americans are the
western Pilgrims, who are carrying along with them that great mass of arts,
sciences, vigour, and industry which began long since in the east. They will
finish the great circle. The Americans were once scattered all over Europe.
Here, they are incorporated into one of the finest systems of population which
has ever appeared, and which will hereafter become distinct by the power of
the different climates they inhabit. The American ought therefore to love this
country, much better than that wherein either he or his forefathers were born.
Here, the rewards of his industry follow, with equal steps, the progress of his
labour. His labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest: can it want a
stronger allurement? Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of
him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicksome, gladly help their father to clear
those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise, to feed and clothe them all,
without any part being claimed, either by despotic prince, a rich abbot, or a
mighty lord. Here, religion demands little of him; a small voluntary salary to the
minister and gratitude to God: can he refuse these? The American is a new
man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefor entertain new ideas and
form new opinions. From involuntary idleness, servile dependence, penury,
and useless labour, he has passed to toils of a very different nature, rewarded
by ample subsistence.—This is an American”.
After touching upon the different qualities of each region, he alludes to the fact that while America might not have as many “variety of tinges and gradations which may be observed in Europe”, he asserts that “we have colours peculiar to ourselves”. Coast dwellers will by dint of occupation and latitude be different from those settlers of the forest or mountains. Then, he presciently describes how the American will be stamped with a deep imprint from this fortuitous continent we occupy. Fittingly and because it is, after all, a Frenchman in the analysts chair, Crevecoeur posits a kind of Terroir of Mankind, where we, like our produce, become unique products of the land we occupy:
“Men are like plants. The goodness and flavour of the fruit proceeds from the
peculiar soil and exposition in which they grow. We are nothing but what we
derive from the air we breathe, the climate we inhabit, the government we
obey, the system of religion we profess, and the nature of our employment.”
It is important here to acknowledge that these initial parts of the book were first written when the colonies were still subjects of the English King. Despite our building resentments….felt earliest amongst the Planters and those urban elite engaged in trade, early colonists enjoyed the protection of the Sovereign but suffered very little in the way of imposition. The early American was literally a “freeman” and subject only to the various restrictions and opportunities of their own character at work within a challenging environment. As an important summary to this initial section of the book, Crevecoeur presents a description of the life of a Scottish immigrant from the barren Hebrides Islands and how this simple but hardworking man advanced his way in the world through a combination of his own hard work, the business-like charity of his fellow citizen and the productivity of the land. One shares in the sweet awe of the opportunity life affords us here and how the old adage of “the harder I work, the luckier I get” holds no middling truth in this land.
The next section of the book revolves around a visit to the seafaring island cultures of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard where the landscape was less productive and diverse but the people, primarily Quakers, were rich in contentment. Crevecoeur speaks highly of the neat and ordered townscapes, the thrift and hard work of the people and their simple, forthright religion. He describes elements of the Whale trade at length and in a moment of love for the female that is almost feminist, he describes how the spouses of the whalers frequently dispatch the business of the household for extended periods with aplomb. He describes one handsome woman of forty as arising from the mutual meditations of their Sunday gathering and executing as fine a disquisition on the spiritual and temporal affairs of their lives as any man could achieve.
If there is any downside to his observations on life surrounded by the sea, it is in the age-old tradition of beating up on the lawyers. I am reminded of early descriptions from yankee dairies about the atrocious roads they endured in crossing the “Land of Steady Habits” called Connecticut and how the same generally squalid trait continues today. But here, in honor of our good friend Farmer Stegall Esq. and his voluntary exile among his hogs and cattle, I will share Crevecoeur’s not-so-gentle diatribe against the Tribe of Barristers who continue to freight our existence with that plastic thing called The Law.
“One single lawyer has of late years, found means to live here, but his best
fortune proceeds more from having married one of the wealthiest heiresses of
the island than from the emoluments of his practice: however, he is sometimes
employed in recovering money lent on the main, or in preventing those
accidents to which the contentious propensity of its inhabitants may sometimes
expose them. He is seldom employed as a means of self-defence, and much
seldomer as the channel of attack; to which they are strangers, except the fraud
is manifest and the danger imminent. Lawyers are so numerous in all our
populous towns, that I am surprised they never thought before of establishing
themselves here: they are plants that will grow in any soil that is cultivated by the
hands of others; and, when once they have taken root, they will extinguish every
other vegetable that grows around them. The fortunes they daily acquire, in every
province, from the misfortunes of their fellow citizens, are surprising! The most
ignorant, the most bungling member of that profession , will, if placed in the most
obscure part of the country, promote litigiousness, and amass more wealth,
without labor, than the most opulent farmer with all his toils. They have so
dexterously interwoven their doctrines and quirks with the laws of the land, or
rather they are become so necessary an evil in our present constitutions that it
seem unavoidable and past all remedy. What a pity that our forefathers, who
happily extinguished so many fatal customs, and expunged from their new
government so many errors and abuses, both religious and civil, did not also
prevent the introduction of a set of men so dangerous. “
Alarmingly, he goes on a bit more but we should not want to see Brother Caleb water yon hog wallow with tears. I am only relieved that Crevecoeur never hired a landscape architect to tart up his beloved “Pine Hill”.
Leaving the tidy windblown islands off the Main, Crevecouer, in the guise of a visiting Russian, then pays a visit to the famed early Botanist John Bartram at his lush farm outside Philadelphia. In addition to saluting the cheerful acceptance by this esteemed Quaker of an un-announced guest , Crevecoeur discusses Bartram’s manumitted former slaves at length and in particular, during a peaceful repast where all assembled at the same table for victuals. He describes the various diking of the Schuylkill river that has afforded several good fields in rich floodplain and provides extended glimpses of the happy naturalism of America’s first botanic champion.
After all of this celebratory if gentle adulation of the New World, her manifold opportunities and multifarious people, Crevecoeur descends abruptly into the dark heart of the American and paints a picture of frustration, unease and escapism that stubbornly continues into this day. This is the altar-ego of the optimistic, can-do American . Farmer John, deprived of sleep with his fearful family at the mercy of marauding agents turned loose by revolution, he solicits lodging from a distant Indian sachem who obliges gladly. While fitfully listening for noises and movement in the dark, his family barricaded in the cellar, Farmer John muses on the disaster and disorder that has befallen the settled frontier since Revolution descended. He imagines a renewed life farther out into the western woods where he can reclaim the individualism, safety and mutually reinforcing community lost to him as he nervously awaits doom. Here, he abandons his love for the transplanted European and exalts instead, the simplicity of the original Native American Indian. He had no doubt either known of or met Sir William Johnson, the so called “White Savage” and Indian agent for the crown among the fabled Iroquois and fancied himself as that combination ex pat European, early American and native forest-dweller, combining the best facets of the two distinct lives. These two figures, Crevecoeur’s “Farmer John” and the “White Savage” Johnson became models for James Fenimore Cooper’s “Natty Bumppo” in the “Leatherstocking Tales” of which “Last of the Mohicans” is the most widely heralded.
Here, even before the Revolution had found a happy denouement and long before the epic migrations and settlement of the 19th century….. or the vast hordes channeling through Ellis Island during the early years of the last century…here we have the bookends of the American Identity…or what has been referred to as “The Continental Mind.” Utopian communalism leavened by independent thinking and self-reliance on the one hand and on the other, a desperate frustration, almost paranoia at what has been lost and vague notions of how one might light out for the farther frontier to escape the clutches of the perverted hordes who want to destroy the very thing they extol. These two competing “Americans” have both informed our civic life and been manipulated by those who cadge the citizen under the rubric of “politics”. We have seen it during war time and now once again, we are watching this same epic American Mock-Battle unfold over the so called “Crisis of Health Care”. Crisis, as usual, is not being wasted by either side and battle lines are being drawn over misinformation that builds for lack of critical discourse regarding what…exactly…we are fighting over.
What I find most distasteful about the current imbroglio is not that there is argument but that the argument is so inchoate and un-illuminating. A box-checking , leveling, profligate, armed and frequently dangerous Florence Nightingale is in one corner of the ring and in the other, a frustrated, cornered and increasingly agitated Natty Bumppo, sharpening his buck knife on a gleaming whetstone. What is becoming obvious to me in this latest debate is that both sides have become politically sophisticated in their own way and have reached an impasse where the point at which they meet is something not even “Farmer John” expressed as he warily watched for marauders out his front door: Cynicism. This cynicism has placed a heavy European Cloak upon the American Freeman and he cannot now see through the shroud to meet our common challenges with mutual honesty and respect. Everything now is a “crisis” and the boy has called wolf for so long that the wolf is tamed and we must invent new demons both real and imagined, like that of the well-dressed Menshevik corporatists boating us as a lusty band of Brooks Brothers Pirates while we attempt to live out our final days in relative peace and decent health.
I have no idea what is going on in this “Health Care Crisis” and I doubt anyone really does. I do know that whatever results from the high-tech fracas will be some oddball creature assembled in a laboratory of dysfunction and in no way will it be a native plant. The success of the American as the transplanted fruit of a Terroir of Mankind has been weakened by industrialized artificiality and regional homogenization. Aside from a very few and reducing locales, there is increasing degree of no there, there…..no historic or unique regional identity nor, in many areas, any material reason at all to love the place we live nor enjoy anywhere else for its differences. This cultural and regional deracination was the only real way to achieve the victory of branding over substance that has been promoted in our commodified existence. Government, in this context is Big Business. In response to this very public elopement, Lobbying was a naturally occurring development, perhaps even a prudent one for a time as a result of increasingly complex law and a bigger spending government. These lobbyists are now an albatross about our necks, making us smell a crisis afoot when in reality, it is simply the dead and dirty bird of Old European-style Special Interests hanging around our necks. Cynicism and all the old fears are a rococo decoration encrusting the real debate like camouflage.
The Frontier Ethic has long exhausted the landscape and has indeed “completed the circle” described by de Crevecoeur. It has run squarely up against our most difficult but potentially enriching frontier to date: a maturing Republic, dimly aware of its foundational principles and intent upon continuing the unique polity that so entranced Farmer John even though there is no longer any physical frontier. The Checks and Balances the Framers adopted from the Athenian philosopher-king Solon were added to the Republican virtues of Cicero and together within a vast planting field, they have allowed both the Utopian and the Independent strains of our identity to grow a uniquely American life that is part Frontier and part City On a Hill. We depart from these truths at distinct hazard and if we do not fail to heed the signs all around us, we will become the last European nation of the 20th Century to descend into the flames of self-destruction….or at the very least, decadent, impoverished and mouldering decay. The Settled Utopian and the Frontiersman can and should continue their arms-length but fruitful discourse even though it would appear that there is no longer anywhere for the frontiersman to nourish his stand-offishness.
The Settled Utopian will continue to bring technological innovation and cultural expression to the land just as the Frontiersman occasionally seeks a new frontier with the Utopian or more vitally, checks the self-absorbed and frequently intemperate or impractical urges of the Utopian. These are competing impulses with contrary motives but they have made the Americans what they are. We have one principle job now and it is to remember that we are all Americans and are doing ourselves an old-fashioned disservice when we describe a policy debate on our collective health as some kind of “Crisis”. Crises beget confusion and because we see crisis everywhere now, confusion is everywhere as well. As a result, we would not recognize the real crisis of heedless factionalism confronting us if we tripped over it. The circle is completed and it is time to look inside it in a spirit of exploration to see what we might find…… instead of peering into it and inventing all manner of phantoms that do not exist. There are enough bureaucratic phantoms in this not-quite Free Market, not quite Socialized mongrel of American Health Care not to be making more up as we go along. Were we to be honest and forthright with one another, we could return to the exaltation and sweet awe of our American fate here amongst the furrows of our agrarian sensibilities. Like it or not, we inhabit a world banging hard up against a future that will require much from us. While we squabble, we remain distracted from the truth and are apt to slouch into a “solution” that fights monopoly with more monopoly, thus insuring that the subjects of cost control or price competition are never addressed. If there is one thing we have come to learn over the last 16 years, our government, such as it is, avoids the truth like the plague and like the Sophists, think man and his government to be the measure of all things. As a result, our debt to GNP ratio is something that should turn the mildest Quaker into a raving and tomahawk pumping Mohawk.
In September, when Natty Bumppo attempts to liberate Florence’s fevered brow from her empathetic skull, somebody is going to have to watch costs and ultimately pay the bill. That, dear reader, is our job…to put shoulder to plow and raise enough ruckus so that the issue is met head on. This will…. of course, require as much listening as talking and just to make sure nobody can accuse me of mere grumbling, I shall offer the following fiscally aware health care plan I have named : “Dirty Dick’s Health Care Off Track Betting Parlor”. Given the established fact that the average American gambles mightily on their health with all manner of sordid behaviors and compulsions, I think it high time we move our health care to Las Vegas and perhaps buy up their growing empty homes in foreclosure as out-patient locales. We can turn the health program and diagnosis over to parimutuel betting and plow that money generated into a fund that covers those less able to care for themselves. Needless to say, some organizations will attempt to beat the odds with racehorse quality results while once in a while, some ancient delta bluesman who smoked filterless camels and ate bacon-grease soaked ham hocks for breakfast his entire life will pay out big. This is a true Public-Private partnership that will insure our beloved Las Vegas will remain the wonderful family vacation center it truly is. Siegfried and Roy can even add field medical triage to their tiger act. Given the fact that on any given day, one can view five blocks of visiting Chinese tourists lining up to take their picture in front of the statue of Siggy and Roy, this will be a swell way to recapture some of that Chinese Interest money we’re going to be shoveling their way for the next dynasty or two.
I’m just trying to be helpful here.