Ins. Kris Keeney American Literature, Paper #1 November 9, 2001

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Ins. Kris Keeney

American Literature, Paper #1

November 9, 2001

Defining Characteristics of an American
Each American has a different perspective of how an American can be truly defined. J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur has articulated his definition of an American in his recognized narrative, What is an American. Thomas Paine, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Crevecoeur each contribute to the notion that Americans are prosperous, self-interested, and cohesive with one another.

According to Crevecoeur, “The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions” (3). The ideas and principles formed by the early settlers of our country are the foundations for our present government and society. Book I, Chapter 14 of de Tocqueville’s narrative Democracy in American is dedicated to comparing the American society to our democratic government. De Tocqueville declares that the people of America think on their feet, while incorporating their new ideas and opinions into our society. “They unconsciously fashion society to their own ends and prepare it for their own descendants” (de Tocqueville, 3). Each citizen of America contributes their ideas and opinions to the decision makers, helping to form a sturdy democracy. The settlers of America brought their talents and morals with them to prosper as laborers and citizens. Alex de Tocqueville observes the level of participation in the government by people of numerous classes. “In the United States, except slaves, servants, and paupers supported by the townships, there is no class of persons who do not exercise the elective franchise and who do not indirectly contribute to make the laws. Those who wish to attack the laws

must consequently either change the opinion of the nation or trample upon its decision” (de Tocqueville, 7). De Tocqueville and Crevecoeur seem to agree upon the idea that the settlers of America happily embraced their new country, and furnished it with much wealth and prosperity. Referring to America, “The country which exerts itself so strenuously to become happy is generally more wealthy and prosperous than that which appears so contented with its lot” (de Tocqueville, 9). Here are several of de Tocqueville’s examples of how the American people innovated and improvised with their new territory and fellow citizens: “Everything is in motion around you; here the people of one quarter of a town are met to decide upon the building of a church; there the election of a representative is going on; a little farther, the delegates of a district are hastening to the town in order to consult upon some local improvements; in another place, the laborers of a village quit their plows to deliberate upon the project of a road or a public school” (9). In Chapter 1 of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, the writer states that each person plays an important role in the government and society, and that each citizen benefits from each other. “When men, as well from natural instinct as from reciprocal benefits, have habituated themselves to social and civilized life, there is always enough of its principles in practice to carry them through any changes they may find necessary or convenient to make in their government” (Paine, 2). The new ideas and opinions formed by the true American’s have been built based on the newly discovered principles, and each person’s instinct to help themselves before others.

Each of the three writers have confirmed that a prominent motive behind the wealth and prosperity that has been brought to America is interest in self. To begin with, Crevecoeur states, “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” (4)? The driving force of self-interest is one of the powers behind all that man perseveres. Although most ideas are based on the best interest of the individual, a decision of one person almost always has an impact on at least one other person. In a democracy, the interest of one person has an impact on the interest of the entire group. This concept of self-interest is another American characteristic identified numerous times in de Tocqueville’s narrative. “Instinctive patriotism—Patriotism of reflection—Their different characteristics—Nations ought to strive to acquire the second when the first has disappeared—Efforts of the Americans to acquire it—Interest of the individual intimately connected with that of the country” (de Tocqueville, 4). De Tocqueville identifies the force of self-interest as a key player in the development of patriotism. “A man comprehends the influence which the well-being of his country has upon his own; he is aware that the laws permit him to contribute to that prosperity, and he labors to promote it, first because it benefits him, and secondly because it is in part his own work” (de Tocqueville, 4). Americans understand that what impacts the government as a whole impacts them as an individual as well. De Tocqueville also states that “As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured in it; for it is not only his country that is then attacked, it is himself” (5). The democratic government depends on citizens to share their thoughts and opinions. People’s thoughts and opinions are formed dependent on what is best for the individual and the individual’s family. Collectively, the interests of the majority form the basis for the American government. “In the United States everyone is personally interested in enforcing the obedience of the whole community to the law; for as the minority may shortly rally the majority to its principles, it is interested in professing that respect for the decrees of the legislator which it may soon have occasion to claim for its own” (de Tocqueville, 8). Thomas Paine also claims that each individual’s interests and the interests of an entire society are dependent on each other. “No one man is capable, without the aid of society, of supplying his own wants, and those wants, acting upon every individual, impel the whole of them into society, as naturally as gravitation acts to a center” (Paine, 1). Each man has a mutual relationship with his society, both beneficial to each other. “Those of trade and commerce, whether with respect to the intercourse of individuals or of nations, are laws of mutual and reciprocal interest” (Paine, 3). Finding new ways that will benefit self and society helps the American democracy to continue to move forward and revolutionize.

He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient 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. 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” (Crevecouer, 3). This is a third definition of an American. The ability of American citizens to learn from mistakes and leave the past behind has helped form a greater society. The unity of classes to improve upon processes and procedures for running the democratic government began at a very early time in America’s history. De Tocqueville comments on such unity: “In these states it is not a portion only of the people who endeavor to improve the state of society, but the whole community is engaged in the task; and it is not the exigencies and convenience of a single class for which provision is to be made, but the exigencies and convenience of all classes at once” (9). In spite of the racism and prejudice that has been a part of our society since creation, there has been major unity of the classes and races, contributing to the major success of our democracy. Furthermore, “They are emancipated from prejudice without having acknowledged the empire of reason; they have neither the instinctive patriotism of a monarchy nor the reflecting patriotism of a republic; but they have stopped between the two in the midst of confusion and distress” (de Tocqueville, 4). Thomas Paine declares that nature has forced us to be unified, and to have a love for society respectively. “She has not only forced man into society by a diversity of wants which the reciprocal aid of each other can supply, but she has implanted in him a system of social affections, which, though not necessary to his existence, are essential to his happiness. There is no period in life when this love for society ceases to act” (Paine, 1).

Crevecoeur has identified several key characteristics of an American; the writings of de Tocqueville and Paine have supported them. Thomas Paine, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Crevecoeur share these similarities in the definition of an American: A man who forms new opinions and ideas, then prospers from them, a man who’s motivating force is interest in self, and a man who leaves old prejudices and manners behind to create new ones with his new members of society.
This is one of the best papers on this topic that I've read. GREAT JOB! I always look forward to reading your responses, and your paper did not disappoint.

100 A+

Works Cited

Crevecoeur, J. Hector St. John. “Letters from an American Farmer.” New York: Fox, Duffield, 1904.

De Tocqueville, Alexis. “Democracy in America” Book I, Chapter 14. France: Gosselin, 1835.

Paine, Thomas. “The Rights of Man: Of Society and Civilization.” England: 1791-1792.
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