For many people, the American colonies was a chance to start anew, as they sought to escape political oppression, to be able to practice their religion, or for new opportunities that had been denied to them back home. This was the case for J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur and Phillis Wheatley, as they both were able to explore their own brands of freedom in the new land they called home. Crèvecoeur’s ‘Letters from an American Farmer’ and Phillis Wheatley’s poems both conveyed their admiring attitudes towards the British colonies. However, they maintain distinctive views that reflects who they are, as they explain their own perspective of British American society.
Through Crèvecœur’s character of James, a simple American farmer, he is able to portray his version of the America dream: freedom and success through hard work and land ownership. For Crèvecoeur, being able to own land is the embodiment of freedom. In Letter III, James notes, “here are no aristocratic families, no courts, no kings, no bishops, …no great manufacturers employing thousands…The rich and the poor are not so far removed from each other as they are in Europe”. In essence, Crèvecoeur defines freedom as owning land, as he believes that owning land enables men to eventually achieve success through hard work, without being impeded from a monarch, the church, or a landlord. As such, Crèvecoeur upholds a strong belief that anyone can become successful in America. For Wheatley, one might think that she would be bitter, having been forced into slavery in a foreign country. Indeed, she does appear to mourn her new status in society. In her poem ‘On Being Brought from Africa to America,’ she observes the white people who “view our sable race with scornful eye, /‘Their colour is a diabolic die’”. However, that is not her main focus; instead she is thankful for leaving her home country, which she terms as a “pagan land”, as she was given the opportunity to convert to Christianity. Despite being enslaved, she was freed from life without a God and sin. This viewpoint ultimately lines up with Crèvecoeur’s thoughts about British American society, in which they agree that it is a new kind of society where they are able to transform themselves into something better. Although these differing beliefs aren’t mutually exclusive, they demonstrate how the British American colonies had a variety of philosophical differences, stemming from the different cultural backgrounds of the inhabitants.
In his letters, Crèvecoeur addresses the identity of the American colonists. In Letter III, James ponders, “Can a wretch who wanders about, who works and saves, whose life is a continual scene of sore affliction or pinching penury... call England or any other kingdom his country?”. For Crèvecoeur, the absence of a societal system that is based on birth is the essential right of every American. What he is describing is an idealized depiction of the early years of colonial life, which is something to be proud of. However, despite this sunny optimism, James’s definition of the American identity is somewhat hypocritical, as these rights were only granted to an exclusive few. Although Crèvecoeur explains that the foundation of freedom is through land ownership and hard work, he neglects the additional requirement that one needs to be a white man. In contrast, Wheatley maintains a firm belief that anything is possible, with the help of God. Despite being a black female slave living in the late 1700s, she was able to learn how to read and write, becoming well-versed in Christianity and successfully publishing her first book of poems. Although she mostly avoids the subject of slavery, preferring to write about spiritual freedom, she does maintains the belief that anyone, even blacks, “May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. She demonstrates that she is not ashamed by any part of herself, whether it be her position as a slave or as a woman.