W ith a sense of timing that all successful authors require,a book was published in London in 1782 that posed a famous question: ‘what is the American, this new man?’ This was the issue

of the hour for many Britons, stung by the humiliating defeat of the great-

est military superpower on Earth by a rabble of colonists with pretensions

of national destiny. How should this upstart new nation be explained and

understood? The book, Letters from an American Farmer, was written by an

upstate New Yorker of French ancestry, J. Hector St John de Crèvecoeur. It

was a classic formulation of the argument that America was a truly excep-

tional place, severed from the rules that determined the historical devel-

opment of the Old World. In America, Crèvecoeur insisted, ‘individuals of

all nations are melted into a new race of men’. The richness and abundance

of the land, he explained, offered opportunities for even the lowliest settler,

creating a more egalitarian society than Europeans could ever imagine in

their homelands. More than that, Crèvecoeur argued that becoming an

American was an act of faith, a declaration of a commitment to a new set

of egalitarian assumptions about society. ‘He is an American’, wrote

Crèvecoeur, ‘who, leaving behind him all his antient prejudices and man-

ners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the

new government he obeys and the new rank he holds’. Making a claim that

would find many an echo in subsequent efforts to explain America,

Crèvecoeur told his readers that the passage across the Atlantic was as much

an ideological journey as a geographical one.