Letters From An American Farmer

J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur


COLOPHON

Text: Letters from an American Farmer, by J. Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, reprinted from the original ed., with a prefatory note by W. P. Trent and an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. New York, Fox, Duffield, 1904.

Formatted and linked to xroads: Eric J. Gislason 2/6/96

AS@UVA Hypertexts


LETTER XI.

FROM MR. IW-- N AL--Z, A RUSSIAN GENTLEMAN; DESCRIBING THE VISIT HE PAID AT MY REQUEST TO MR. JOHN BERTRAM, THE CELEBRATED PENSYLVANIAN BOTANIST.

EXAMINE this flourishing province, in whatever light you will, the eyes as well as the mind of an European traveller are equally delighted; because a diffusive happiness appears in every part: happiness which is established on the broadest basis. The wisdom of Lycurgus and Solon, never conferred on man one half of the blessings and uninter- rupted prosperity which the Pennsylvanians now possess: the name of Penn, that simple but illustrious citizen, does more honour to the English nation than those of many of their kings. In order to convince you that I have not bestowed undeserved praises, in my former letters on this celebrated government; and that either nature or the climate seems to be more favourable here to the arts and sciences, than to any other American province; let us together, agreeable

THE BOTANIST. 259

agreeable to your desire, pay a visit to Mr. John Bertram, the first botanist, in this new hemisphere: become such by a native impulse of disposition. It is to this simple man that America is indebted for several useful discoveries, and the knowledge of many new plants. I had been greatly prepossessed in his favour by the extensive correspondence which I knew he held with the most eminent Scotch and French botanists; I knew also that he had been honoured with that of Queen Ulrica of Sweden. His house is small, but decent; there was something peculiar in its first appearance, which seemed to distinguish it from those of his neighbours: a small tower in the middle of it, not only helped to strengthen it but afforded convenient room for a staircase. Every disposition of the fields, fences, and trees, seemed to bear the marks of perfect order and regularity, which in rural affairs, always indicate a prosperous industry. I was received at the door by a woman dressed extremely neat and simple, who without courtesying, or any other ceremonial, asked me, with an air of benignity, who I wanted? I answered, I should be glad to see Mr. Bertram. If thee wilt step in and take a chair, I will send for him. No, I said, I had rather have the pleasure of walking through his farm, I shall

260 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

I shall easily find him out, with your directions. After a little time I perceived the Schuylkill, winding through delightful meadows, and soon cast my eyes on a new-made bank, which seemed greatly to confine its stream. After having walked on its top a considerable way I at last reached the place where ten men were at work. I asked, if any of them could tell me where Mr. Bertram was? An elderly looking man, with wide trowsers and a large leather apron on, looking at me said, "My name is Bertram, dost thee want me?" Sir, I am come on purpose to converse with you, if you can be spared from your labour. "Very easily (he answered) I direct and advise more than I work." We walked toward the house, where he made me take a chair while he went to put on clean clothes, after which he returned and sat down by me. The fame of your knowledge, said I, in American botany, and your well-known hospitality, have induced me to pay you a visit, which I hope you will not think troublesome: I should be glad to spend a few hours in your garden. "The greatest advantage (replied he) which I receive from what thee callest my botanical fame, is the pleasure which it often procureth me in receiving the visits of friends and foreigners: but our jaunt into the garden must be postponed for the present,

THE BOTANIST. 261

present, as the bell is ringing for dinner." We entered into a large hall, where there was a long table full of victuals; at the lowest part sat his negroes, his hired men were next, then the family and myself; and at the head, the venerable father and his wife presided. Each reclined his head and said his prayers, divested of the tedious cant of some, and of the ostentatious stile of others. "After the luxuries of our cities, (observed he) this plain fare must appear to thee a severe fast." By no means, Mr. Bertram, this honest country dinner convinces me, that you receive me as a friend and an old acquaintance. "I am glad of it, for thee art heartily welcome. I never knew how to use ceremonies; they are insufficient proofs of sincerity; our society, besides, are utterly strangers to what the world calleth polite expressions. We treat others as we treat ourselves. I received yesterday a letter from Philadelphia, by which I understand thee art a Russian; what motives can possibly have induced thee to quit thy native country and to come so far in quest of knowledge or pleasure? Verily it is a great compliment thee payest to this our young province, to think that any thing it exhibiteth may be worthy thy attention." I have been most amply repaid for the trouble of the passage. I

262 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

I view the present Americans as the seed of future nations, which will replenish this boundless continent; the Russians may be in some respects compared to you; we likewise are a new people, new I mean in knowledge, arts, and improvements. Who knows what revolutions Russia and America may one day bring about; we are perhaps nearer neighbours than we imagine. I view with peculiar attention, all your towns, I examine their situation and the police, for which many are already famous. Though their foundations are now so recent, and so well remembered, yet their origin will puzzle posterity as much as we are now puzzled to ascertain the beginning of those which time has in some measure destroyed. Your new buildings, your streets, put me in mind of those of the city of Pompeia, where I was a few years ago; I attentively examined every thing there, particularly the foot-path which runs along the houses. They appeared to have been considerably worn by the great number of people which had once travelled over them. But now how distant; neither builders nor proprietors remain; nothing is known! "Why thee hast been a great traveller for a man of thy years." Few years, Sir, will enable any body to journey over a great track of country; but it requires a superior degree of knowledge to gather harvests

THE BOTANIST. 263

harvests as we go. Pray, Mr. Bertram, what banks are those which you are making: to what purpose is so much expence and so much labour bestowed? "Friend Iwan, no branch of industry was ever more profitable to any country, as well as to the proprietors; the Schuylkill in its many windings once covered a great extent of ground, though its waters were but shallow even in our highest tides: and though some parts were always dry, yet the whole of this great track presented to the eye nothing but a putrid swampy soil, useless either for the plough or for the scythe. The proprietors of these grounds are now incorporated; we yearly pay to the treasurer of the company a certain sum, which makes an aggregate, superior to the casualties that generally happen either by inundations or the musk squash. It is owing to this happy contrivance that so many thousand acres of meadows have been rescued from the Schuylkill, which now both enricheth and embellisheth so much of the neighbourhood of our city. Our brethren of Salem in New Jersey have carried the art of banking to a still higher degree of perfection." It is really an admirable contrivance, which greatly redounds to the honour of the parties concerned; and shews a spirit of discernment and perseverance which is highly praise-worthy:

264 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

praise-worthy: if the Virginians would imitate your example, the state of their husbandry would greatly improve. I have not heard of any such association in any other parts of the continent; Pensylvania hitherto seems to reign the unrivalled queen of these fair provinces. Pray, Sir, what expence are you at e'er these grounds be fit for the scythe? "The expences are very considerable, particularly when we have land, brooks, trees, and brush to clear away. But such is the excellence of these bottoms and the goodness of the grass for fattening of cattle, that the produce of three years pays all advances." Happy the country where nature has bestowed such rich treasures, treasures superior to mines, said I: if all this fair province is thus cultivated, no wonder it has acquired such reputation, for the prosperity and the industry of its inhabitants. By this time the working part of the family had finished their dinner, and had retired with a decency and silence which pleased me much. Soon after I heard, as I thought, a distant con- cert of instruments. However simple and pastoral your fare was, Mr. Bertram, this is the desert of a prince; pray what is this I hear? " Thee must not be alarmed, it is of a piece with the rest of thy treatment, friend Iwan." Anxious I followed the sound, and by ascending the

THE BOTANIST. 265

the staircase, found that it was the effect of the wind through the strings of an Eolian harp; an instrument which I had never before seen. After dinner we quaffed an honest bottle of Madeira wine, without the irksome labour of toasts, healths, or sentiments; and then retired into his study. I was no sooner entered, than I observed a coat of arms in a gilt frame with the name of John Bertram. The novelty of such a decoration, in such a place, struck me; I could not avoid asking, Does the society of Friends take any pride in those armorial bearings, which sometimes serve as marks of distinction be- tween families, and much oftener as food for pride and ostentation ? "Thee must know (said he) that my father was a French man, he brought this piece of painting over with him; I keep it as a piece of family furniture, and as a memorial of his removal hither." From his study we went into the garden, which contained a great variety of curious plants and shrubs; some grew in a green-house, over the door of which were written these lines, "Slave to no sect, who takes no private road, "But looks through nature, up to nature's God!" He informed me that he had often followed General

266 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

General Bouquet to Pittsburgh, with the view of herbalising; that he had made useful collections in Virginia, and that he had been employed by the king of England to visit the two Floridas. Our walks and botanical observations engrossed so much of our time, that the sun was almost down ere I thought of returning to Philadelphia; I regretted that the day had been so short, as I had not spent so rational a one for a long time before. I wanted to stay, yet was doubtful whether it would not appear improper, being an utter stranger. Knowing however, that I was visiting the least ceremonious people in the world, I bluntly informed him of the pleasure I had enjoyed, and with the desire I had of staying a few days with him. " Thee art as welcome as if I was thy father; thee art no stranger; thy desire of knowledge, thy being a foreigner besides, entitleth thee to consider my house as thine own, as long as thee pleaseth: use thy time with the most perfect freedom; I too shall do so myself." I thankfully accepted the kind invitation. We went to view his favourite bank; he shewed me the principles and method on which it was erected; and we walked over the grounds which had been already drained. The whole store of nature's kind luxuriance seemed to have

THE BOTANIST. 267

have been exhausted on these beautiful meadows; he made me count the amazing number of cattle and horses now feeding on solid bottoms, which but a few years before had been covered with water. Thence we rambled through his fields, where the right-angular fences, the heaps of pitched stones, the flourishing clover, announced the best husbandry, as well as the most assiduous attention. His cows were then returning home, deep bellied, short legged, having udders ready to burst; seeking with seeming toil, to be delivered from the great exuberance they contained: he next shewed me his orchard, formerly planted on a barren sandy soil, but long since converted into one of the richest spots in that vicinage. "This (said he) is altogether the fruit of my own contrivance; I purchased some years ago the privilege of a small spring, about a mile and a half from hence, which at a considerable expence I have brought to this reservoir; therein I throw old lime, ashes, horse dung, &c. and twice a week I let it run, thus impregnated; I regularly spread on this ground in the fall, old hay, straw, and whatever damaged fodder I have about my barn. By these simple means I mow, one year with another, fifty-three hundreds of excellent hay per acre, from a soil, which scarcely produced five-fingers

268 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

five-fingers [a small plant resembling strawberries] some years before." This is, Sir, a miracle in husbandry; happy the country which is cultivated by a society of men, whose application and taste lead them to prosecute and accomplish useful works. "I am not the only person who do these things (he said) wherever water can be had it is always turned to that important use; wherever a farmer can water his meadows, the greatest crops of the best hay and excellent after-grass, are the sure rewards of his labours. With the banks of my meadow ditches, I have greatly enriched my upland fields, those which I intend to rest for a few years, I constantly sow with red clover, which is the greatest meliorator of our lands. For three years after, they yield abundant pasture; when I want to break up my clover fields, I give them a good coat of mud, which hath been exposed to the severities of three or four of our winters. This is the reason that I commonly reap from twenty-eight to thirty-six bushels of wheat an acre; my flax, oats, and Indian corn, I raise in the same proportion. Wouldst thee inform me whether the inhabitants of thy country follow the same methods of husbandry?" No, Sir; in the neighbourhood of our towns, there are indeed some intelligent farmers, who prosecute their

THE BOTANIST. 269

their rural schemes with attention; but we should be too numerous, too happy, too powerful a people, if it were possible for the whole Russian Empire to be cultivated like the province of Pennsylvania. Our lands are so unequally divided, and so few of our farmers are possessors of the soil they till, that they cannot execute plans of husbandry with the same vigor as you do, who hold yours, as it were from the Master of nature, unincumbered and free. Oh, America! exclaimed I, thou knowest not as yet the whole extent of thy happiness: the foundation of thy civil polity must lead thee in a few years to a degree of population and power which Europe little thinks of ! "Long before this happen (answered the good man) we shall rest beneath the turf; it is vain for mortals to be presumptuous in their conjectures: our country, is, no doubt, the cradle of an extensive future population; the old world is growing weary of its inhabitants, they must come here to flee from the tyranny of the great. But doth not thee imagine, that the great will, in the course of years, come over here also; for it is the misfortune of all societies every where to hear of great men, great rulers, and of great tyrants." My dear Sir, I replied, tyranny never can take a strong hold in this country, the land is too widely distributed:

270 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

-tributed: it is poverty in Europe that makes slaves. "Friend Iwan, as I make no doubt that thee understandest the Latin tongue, read this kind epistle which the good Queen of Sweden, Ulrica, sent me a few years ago. Good woman! that she should think in her palace at Stockholm of poor John Bertram, on the banks of the Schuylkill; appeareth to me very strange." Not in the least, dear Sir; you are the first man whose name as a botanist hath done honour to America; it is very nat- ural at the same time to imagine, that so extensive a continent must contain many curious plants and trees: is it then surprising to see a princess, fond of useful knowledge, descend sometimes from the throne, to walk in the gardens of Linnaeus? " 'Tis to the directions of that learned man (said Mr. Bertram) that I am indebted for the method which has led me to the knowledge I now possess; the science of botany is so diffusive, that a proper thread is absolutely wanted to conduct the beginner." Pray, Mr. Bertram, when did you imbibe the first wish to cultivate the science of botany; was you regularly bred to it in Philadelphia ? "I have never received any other education than barely reading and writing; this small farm was all the patrimony my father left me, certain debts and the want of meadows

THE BOTANIST. 271

meadows kept me rather low in the beginning of my life; my wife brought me nothing in money, all her riches consisted in her good temper and great knowledge of housewifery. I scarcely know how to trace my steps in the botanical career; they appear to me now like unto a dream: but thee mayest rely on what I shall relate, though I know that some of our friends have laughed at it." I am not one of those people, Mr. Bertram, who aim at finding out the ridiculous in what is sincerely and honestly averred. "Well, then, I'll tell thee: One day I was very busy in holding my plough (for thee seest that I am but a ploughman) and being weary I ran under the shade of a tree to repose myself. I cast my eyes on a daisy, I plucked it mechanically and viewed it " with more curiosity than common country farmers are wont to do; and observed therein very many distinct parts, some perpendicular, some horizontal. What a shame, said my mind, or somthing that inspired my mind, that thee shouldest have employed so many years in tilling the earth and destroying so many flowers and plants, without being ac- quainted with their structures and their uses! This seeming inspiration suddenly awakened my curiosity, for these were not thoughts to which I had been accustomed. I returned to my

272 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

my team, but this new desire did not quit my mind; I mentioned it to my wife, who greatly discouraged me from prosecuting my new scheme, as she called it; I was not opulent enough, she said, to dedicate much of my time to studies and labours which might rob me of that portion of it which is the only wealth of the American farmer. However her prudent caution did not discourage me; I thought about it continually, at supper, in bed, and wherever I went. At last I could not resist the impulse; for on the fourth day of the following week, I hired a man to plough for me, and went to Philadelphia. Though I knew not what book to call for, I ingeniously told the bookseller my errand, who provided me with such as he thought best, and a Latin grammar beside. Next I applied to a neighbouring schoolmaster, who in three months taught me Latin enough to understand Linnaeus, which I purchased afterward. Then I began to botanize all over my farm; in a little time I became acquainted with every vegetable that grew in my neighbourhood; and next ventured into Maryland, living among the Friends: in proportion as I thought myself more learned I proceeded farther, and by a steady application of several years I have acquired a pretty general knowledge

THE BOTANIST. 273

knowledge of every plant and tree to be found in our continent. In process of time I was applied to from the old countries, whither I every year send many collections. Being now made easy in my circumstances, I have ceased to labour, and am never so happy as when I see and converse with my friends. If among the many plants or shrubs I am acquainted with, there are any thee wantest to send to thy native country, I will chear- fully procure them, and give thee moreover whatever directions thee mayest want." Thus I passed several days in ease, improvement, and pleasure; I observed in all the operations of his farm, as well as in the mutual correspondence between the master and the inferior members of his family, the greatest ease and decorum; not a word like command seemed to exceed the tone of a simple wish. The very negroes themselves appeared to partake of such a decency of behaviour, and modesty of countenance, as I had never before observed. By what means, said I, Mr. Bertram, do you rule your slaves so well, that they seem to do their work with all the cheerfulness of white men? " Though our erroneous prejudices and opinions once induced us to look upon them as fit only for slavery, though ancient custom had very unfortunately taught us to keep them in bondage;

274 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

bondage; yet of late, in consequence of the remonstrances of several Friends, and of the good books they have published on that subject, our society treats them very differently. With us they are now free. I give those whom thee didst see at my table, eighteen pounds a year, with victuals and clothes, and all other privileges which white men enjoy. Our society treats them now as the companions of our labours; and by this management, as well as by means of the education we have given them, they are in general become a new set of beings. Those whom I admit to my table, I have found to be good, trusty, moral men; when they do not what we think they should do, we dismiss them, which is all the punishment we inflict. Other societies of Christians keep them still as slaves, without teaching them any kind of religious principles: what motive beside fear can they have to behave well? In the first settlement of this province, we employed them as slaves, I acknowledge; but when we found that good example, gentle admonition, and religious principles could lead them to subordination and sobriety, we relinquished a method so contrary to the profession of Christianity. We gave them freedom, and yet few have quitted their ancient masters. The women breed

THE BOTANIST. 275

breed in our families; and we become attached to one another. I taught mine to read and write; they love God, and fear his judgements. The oldest person among them transacts my business in Philadelphia, with a punctuality, from which he has never deviated. They constantly attend our meetings, they participate in health and sickness, in fancy and old age, in the advantages our society affords. Such are the means we have made use of, to relieve them from that bondage and ignorance in which they were kept before. Thee perhaps hast been surprised to see them at my table, but by elevating them to the rank of freemen, they necessarily acquire that emulation without which we ourselves should fall into debasement and profligate ways." Mr. Bertram, this is the most philosophical treatment of negroes that I have heard of; happy would it be for America would other denominations of Christians imbibe the same principles, and follow the same admirable rules. A great number of men would be relieved from those cruel shackles, under which they now groan; and under this impression, I cannot endure to spend more time in the southern provinces. The method with which they are treated there, the meanness of their food, the severity of their tasks, are spectacles

276 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

-tacles I have not patience to behold. "I am glad to see that thee hast so much compassion; are there any slaves in thy country?" Yes, unfortunately, but they are more properly civil than domestic slaves; they are attached to the soil on which they live; it is the remains of ancient barbarous customs, established in the days of the greatest ignorance and savageness of manners ! and preserved notwithstanding the repeated tears of humanity, the loud calls of policy, and the commands of religion. The pride of great men, with the avarice of landholders, make them look on this class as necessary tools of husbandry; as if freemen could not cultivate the ground. "And is it really so, Friend Iwan? To be poor, to be wretched, to be a slave, are hard indeed; existence is not worth enjoying on those terms. I am afraid thy country can never flourish under such impolitic government." I am very much of your opinion Mr. Bertram, though I am in hopes that the present reign, illustrious by so many acts of the soundest policy, will not expire without this salutary, this necessary emancipation; which would fill the Russian empire with tears of gratitude. "How long hast thee been in this country?" Four years, Sir. "Why thee speakest English almost like a native; what a toil a traveller must undergo to learn various

THE BOTANIST. 277

various languages, to divest himself of his native prejudices, and to accommodate himself to the customs of all those among whom he chuseth to reside." Thus I spent my time with this enlightened botanist this worthy citizen; who united all the simplicity of rustic manners to the most useful learning. Various and extensive were the conversations that filled the measure of my visit. I accompanied him to his fields, to his barn, to his bank, to his garden, to his study, and at last to the meeting of the society on the Sunday following. It was at the town of Chester, whither the whole family went in two waggons; Mr. Bertram and I on horse back. When I entered the house where the friends were assembled, who might be about two hundred men and women, the involuntary impulse of ancient custom made me pull off my hat; but soon recovering myself, I sat with it on, at the end of a bench. The meeting-house was a square building devoid of any ornament whatever; the whiteness of the walls, the conveniency of seats, that of a large stove, which in cold weather keeps the whole house warm, were the only essential things which I observed. Neither pulpit nor desk, fount nor altar, tabernacle nor organ, were there to be seen; it is merely a spacious room, in which these good people meet every

278 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM,

every Sunday. A profound silence ensued, which lasted about half an hour; every one had his head reclined, and seemed absorbed in pro. found meditation, when a female friend arose and declared with a most engaging modesty that the spirit moved her to entertain them on the subject, she had chosen. She treated it with great propriety, as a moral useful discourse, and delivered it without theological parade or the ostentation of learning. Either she must have been a great adept in public speaking, or had studiously prepared herself; a circumstance that cannot well be supposed, as it is a point, in their profession, to utter nothing but what arises from spontaneous impulse: or else the great spirit of the world, the patronage and influence of which they all came to invoke, must have inspired her with the soundest morality. Her discourse lasted three quarters of an hour. I did not observe one single face turned toward her; never before had I seen a congregation listening with so much attention to a public oration. I observed neither contortions of body, nor any kind of affectation in her face, stile, or manner of utterance; every thing was natural, and therefore pleasing, and shall I tell you more, she was very handsome, although upward of forty. As soon as she had finished, every one seemed to return to their former meditation

THE BOTANIST. 279

meditation for about a quarter of an hour; when they rose up by common consent, and after some general conversation, departed.How simple their precepts, how unadorned their religious system: how few the ceremonies through which they pass during the course of their lives! At their deaths they are interred by the fraternity, without pomp, without prayers; thinking it then too late to alter the course of God's eternal decrees: and as you well know, without either monument nor tomb-stone. Thus after having lived under the mildest gov- ernment, after having been guided by the mildest doctrine, they die just as peaceably as those who being educated in more pompous religions, pass through a variety of sacraments, subscribe to complicated creeds, and enjoy the benefits of a church establishment. These good people flatter themselves, with following the doctrines of Jesus Christ, in that simplicity with which they were delivered: an happier system could not have been devised for the use of mankind. It appears to be entirely free from those ornaments and political additions which each country and each government, hath fashioned after its own manners. At the door of this meeting house, I had been invited to spend some days at the houses of some respectable farmers in the neighbourhood

280 VISIT TO MR. BERTRAM, &c.

hood. The reception I met with every where insensibly led me to spend two months among these good people; and I must say they were the golden days of my riper years. I never shall forget the gratitude I owe them for the innumerable kindnesses they heaped on me; it was to the letter you gave me that I am indebted for the extensive acquaintance I now have throughout Pennsylvania. I must defer thanking you as I ought, until I see you again. Before that time comes, I may perhaps entertain you with more curious anecdotes than this letter affords. Farewell.

I----N AL----Z.4

Back to Table of Contents| Letter XII