The French writer and philosopher Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, wondered in Letters from an American Farmer, written in 1782, “What, then, is the American, this new man?” Crevecoeur, a European writing for Europeans, believed that the immigrants who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to America were changed by the wide-open wilderness environment, and the social and cultural institutions peculiar to Americans. The European immigrant who had experienced the sameness and degeneration of European peasantry found in America a frontier environment conducive to feelings of liberty and opportunity. Land was available for those with the courage and energy to build farms from the forest. There was a profound sense of equality among the poor and middle class farm immigrants. America was not a land for aristocrats, those with privileges of inherited wealth and power, rather for the poor and downtrodden, the seekers and discoverers. The American in short, according to Crevecoeur, was a new human living in a new society that, like youth, was filled with purity, potential, and energy rather than the Old World society of Europe, stuck in the old ways and prejudices of a traditional society.
Many of the images and concepts by which we best know America–such as the Statue of Liberty and its proclamation “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”; the American dream of economic independence; the ideal of American democracy; the words of the Declaration of Independence–“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”–give weight to the contention that America is still a New World inhabited by Crevecoeur’s New Man who lives according to freedom, liberty, and opportunity. Americans see themselves as the defenders of freedom and the open society throughout the world.
The American is most often identified with the idea of democracy, which promises much, though the reality always falls short. The promise is of wide participation in government, free and open competition among diverse groups, self-determination. Democracy offers the vision of individuals working together to achieve their own particular goals, using similar means to accomplish collectively individual wealth and freedom. History offers few examples of really successful democracies, success being defined as actual structures of government and society that make concrete the image that the word democracy conjures up. Democracy–like liberty, freedom, equality–is elusive, visualized in the mind and a part of one’s dreams yet never quite fulfilled……
(This is an abridged version of a much longer, 1100 word essay, a complete version of which can be purchased at this link: https://www.paypal.com/cgi-bin/webscr?cmd=_s-xclick&hosted_button_id=G6YXJV4NELAUG)