Crevecoeur was born in France, the son of a minor nobleman. He attended a Jesuit college, and in 1754 traveled to England to complete his education. The next year, after a disappointing love affair, he sailed to America, arriving in New France at the beginning of the French and Indian War (1756-1763). In Canada he enlisted in the French Colonial Militia and was commissioned an officer, but in 1758 he was captured in the defeat of the French forces at Quebec. Resigning his commission, Crevecoeur migrated to New York, where he changed his name to J. Hector St. John. He worked as a surveyor and an Indian trader, and he traveled the length and breadth of the English Colonies. In 1765 he became a naturalized citizen of New York. Four years later he married, purchased 120 acres of farmland 60 miles northeast of New York City, and settled down to become an American farmer.
Around 1774 Crevecoeur began to write a series of essays on American life and manners, but before they were completed, the American Revolution had begun, and Crevecoeur, a British sympathizer, found himself living in the midst of hostile revolutionaries. In 1778 he applied for permission to return to Europe, giving as his reason a wish to re-establish his claim to his ancestral property in France. In 1780, after long delays and three months' imprisonment by the British in New York City (who suspected that he was a spy), Crevecoeur sailed for Britain. In London he placed the manuscript of his essays on American life with a publisher, and in 1781, after an absence of twenty-seven years, he returned to France.
In 1782, Crevecoeur’s essays, now revised into epistolary form, were published in London as Letters from an American Farmer. They were soon reprinted in Germany, Holland, and Ireland. While living in France, Crevecoeur began rewriting and translating his essays for a French edition, but, before it could be published, he was appointed French consul to America and returned to New York. In America his success as a French diplomat was so great that he was elected to the American Philosophical Society; various American cities gave him honorary citizenship, and the Vermont Legislature named the town of St. Johnsbury in his honor. In 1785 he returned on leave to France and discovered that the French version of his Letters, published in his absence the previous year, had made him a literary celebrity. Crevecoeur returned to America in 1787 to resume his duties as consul, but shortly after the French Revolution began in 1789, he was obliged to return once again to Paris, leaving his adopted home, never to return.
With the outbreak of the Reign of Terror in 1793, Crevecoeur fled Paris for the safety of his family home in Normandy, and there he set to work on yet another book on America. It was published in 1801 as Journey into Northern Pennsylvania and the State of New York. But the French, now swollen with the glory of the European triumphs of Napoleon, showed little interest in another book on America, and Crevecoeur spent the remaining twelve years of his life living as an obscure Frenchman amid the turmoil of the French European wars.
From their first appearance, Crevecoeur’s writings served as a major contribution to the European interpretation of American society. His essay “What is an American?”, published as one of the “letters,” became one of the most influential single reports on America ever written. Many Americans found Crevecoeur’s views, as George Washington did, “embellished” and “rather too flattering,” and Crevecoeur’s exuberant praise of the new nation as “the most perfect society now existing in the world,” often led his readers to ignore the harsh realities of colonial life. But Crevecoeur’s essays confirmed the hopes of a revolutionary generation yearning for a Jeffersonian Eden, a place of serenity and plenty that could be a haven from the disillusionments of history. His writing appeared at a time when the European imagination was warmly receptive to the paradoxical notion of America as a land of both innocence and progress, a comforting idea that remained an article of faith for Europeans and Americans alike, until the twentieth century.