278 An Unstable Identity: The White American Man
Farmer James makes robust and patriotic claims about America, and what it means to be a real American. James celebrates the hybridity of Americans, exclaiming their rich mix of European heritage. He also boasts about the American government, and how they no longer have elite nobles or powerful monarchs. He then goes on to celebrate the liberty that religious freedom brings to the country! Farmer James paints a beautiful portrait of what being a true White American is all about, and he is not wrong!
During the years of early settling on what would become American soil, it was exclusively Europeans colonizing. There were no boats coming from Asia or Africa carrying willing travelers ready to colonize this untouched soil! This made for an elegantly white-washed community of only poor, hard working Europeans. But, that is not to say colonization was not tough! Of course there were quarrels between the different races, but as James states;
“What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European, or the descendant 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 have now four wives of different nations. 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” (3).
So, it is clear that all of the settlers were able to set aside the better part of their differences and “ancient prejudices” to procreate with one another, thus creating a new race of American men with new prejudices! How exciting? This new race, the “Americans” also created and received a new mode of life, which is very exciting given how stagnant the past thousand years of human history have been! An entirely new mode of life, nothing ever seen before, all their own. I see why James was such a patriot. Of course, this new race of Americans was also responsible for creating a new government, (of which they must obey) which was distinctly different from all other governments. This government was not like the corrupt European kings; no, this government was founded on self interest and labor! That meant that it could not fail, because so long as every man was willing to work, he would reap the benefits of his own work rather than have it taxed and stolen by a greedy King. Because all of the immigrants were poor Europeans, they understood that the struggle was real, therefore all social-class hierarchy was eliminated! Every white American man was an equal on American soil.
Of course, with all of these races mixing into one, religious mixing was also bound to occur. James ends his essay with an explanation of religious freedom in America–how Catholics, Christians, Lutherans and others all coexisted with one another so long as they were “a sober, peaceable, good citizen.” James explains that some of the religions even blended into “a strange religious medley” just as the races did, creating something “mixed,” something “that will be neither pure Catholicism nor pure Calvinism.”
This is the perfect Utopian America we have all dreamed of! A mixing of race, culture and religion, all coexisting in perfect harmony. A government free of corruption and without social classes. All of this holds true, for James, until certain truths are brought into question. For example, it is true that there were natives living on American soil long before the European colonization. It is also true that Africans immigrated to this wonderful land of the free, as slaves. It is true that although only mentioned as being wives in this essay, women also played a role in the cultivating of the America we know today. It is true that pagans were still prosecuted for their religious beliefs on American soil. It is true that the government became self-serving and corrupt. As we bring all of these unspoken truths into critical questioning, the America defined by Farmer James begins to destabilize, as does the American identity.
To speak broadly of this text as a work of American literature (the first work of American literature to boot!) it is a perfect representation of White America. The American literary canon includes works of literature that speak to a variety of races, genders, cultures, colors, religions, and even languages. Some texts speak to Native Americans, others to African Americans. “Letters from an American Farmer” is a work that speaks to the working class, White American man. It is a valid depiction of the fundamental American identity and values, as it devalues and disregards the Native Americans, African Americans, women, slavery, capitalist greed, pagan conversion and persecution, and all other heinous deeds enacted by the early colonizers. The identity of a White American differs from the identity of an African or Native American, because only the White American carries an eternal sense of ancestral white guilt for crimes they prefer to leave unspoken. For once spoken, the White American’s identity begins to destabilize.