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Lesson Plan American Lives in Two Centuries: What is an American?

In 1782 Jean de Crèvecoeur published Letters from an American Farmer in which he defined an American as a "descendent of Europeans" who, if he were "honest, sober and industrious," prospered in a welcoming land of opportunity which gave him choice of occupation and residence. Students will look at life histories from the interviews of everyday Americans conducted by Works Progress Administration officials between 1936-1940 to see if his definition still holds true in this country 150 years later. Students will conclude by working toward a modern definition.


Students will:

  • understand that the meaning of "being an American" has enlarged and become more complicated since 1782;
  • recognize key ideas from a famous document of American history;.
  • become familiar with rich online collections of primary sources;
  • be able to read an oral history and use such materials in historical analysis.

Time Required

Two classes

Lesson Preparation


"What Is an American?" Student Guide

The words of Crèvecoeur guide you in the questions you will look to answer in terms of your WPA Life History.

Directions: Take notes in response to each question

  1. "What then is the American, this new man?"
    Is your informant male?
  2. "We are tillers of the earth."
    Is your informant a farmer? If not, what does he/she do for a living?
  3. "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."
    Is your informant a descendant of a European? If not, where did his/her ancestors come from? Has your informant experienced discrimination because of his or her background?
  4. This is every person's country; the variety of our soils, situations, climates, governments, and produce, hath something which must please every body."
    Where has your informant lived and has it pleased him/her?
  5. "Here the rewards of his industry follow with equal steps the progress of his labour; his labour is founded on the basis of nature, self-interest; can it want a stronger allurement? … I do not mean that every one who comes will grow rich in a little time; no, but he may procure an easy, decent maintenance, by his industry."
    What was your informant's work history?
    What sorts of occupations/jobs has your informant had?
    Did he/she choose the field in which he/she was employed?
    Is it work he/she has enjoyed?
  6. "It is not every emigrant who succeeds; no, it is only the sober, the honest, and industrious."
    Can he/she blame any of his misfortunes on his or her own weaknesses?
  7. "There is room for every body in America; has he any particular talent, or industry…he exerts it in order to procure a livelihood, and it succeeds… Wives and children, who before in vain demanded of him a morsel of bread, now, fat and frolicsome, gladly help their father to clear those fields whence exuberant crops are to arise to feed and to clothe them all…"
    Has your informant been economically successful?
  8. "He meets with hospitality, kindness, and plenty every where; he beholds hardly any poor, he seldom hears of punishments and executions."
    Does your informant talk about others living in prosperity and happiness?
  9. "If he is a good man, he forms schemes of future prosperity, he proposes to educate his children better than he has been educated himself; he thinks of future modes of conduct, feels an ardor to labour he never felt before."
    Is he/she educated? Is he/she optimistic about the future? Does he/she have higher expectations for his or her children?
  10. "He now feels himself a man, because he is treated as such".
    Does your informant feel he has a valued place in society?
    Has your informant been treated humanely?
  11. "As Christians, religion curbs (Americans) not in their opinions; the general indulgence leaves everyone to think for themselves in spiritual matters."
    Is your informant Christian? If not, what is his/her religion?
    Has your informant experienced religious discrimination? If so, what kind?
  12. "His country is now that which gives him land, bread, protection, and consequence."
    Has this been true for your American? How has his or her life been different?


Lesson Procedure

Activity 1: What Is an American?

Students write a paragraph answering the question "What is an American?"

Activity 2: Being an American in 1782

  1. Introduce Crèvecoeur's "What Is an American?"
  2. Discussion question: What does Crèvecoeur's piece tell us about late 18th century America?

Activity 3: Life Histories as Historical Sources

  1. Introduce oral histories as primary sources.
  2. Read Using Primary Sources and discuss concepts with students as necessary.
  3. Introduce students to American Life Histories, 1936-1940.
  4. Students read American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

Activity 4: Finding a Life History

  1. Modeling:
  2. Practice:
    • Keyword development: Class brainstorms occupations.
    • Students search for a life history by occupation.
    • Students record their search.
    • Students look at their life history through the lens of Crèvecoeur's definition using What Is an American? Student Guide.

Activity 5: Making a Biography

Students produce a single page biography. See a sample biography below.

Sample Biography

Maude Cromwell is an American.

Maude Cromwell is a woman of 42, with bleached blonde hair, heavily mascaraed blue eyes and vulgarly rouged cheeks. Her speech suggests a woman who has seen much of the world, but has not spent much time in the classroom.

A working woman of Irish ancestry, she has lived an adventurous life as a trapeze artist. Although short in areas often measured as "success"--she has no children and her professional life has been interrupted by serious workplace accidents--Maude seems content with her station in life. With her husband, Maude now has a home on Long Island that boasts a yard large enough to accommodate a garden she loves and a trapeze that enables she and her husband to "keep in shape."

Maude was but a teenager when she met and married her husband, a fellow acrobat. After short stints with local fairs, they embarked on a peripatetic career with Ringling Brothers circus. For fourteen years, they plied their trade on high wires in cities and towns across the country.

Life with the circus was a good life. The company provided performers, like Maude and her husband, with all the necessities of life--separate berths juiced with electricity, family-style meals in the "privilege-car," protection by the circus' own police force, and even Sunday outings, like picnics and golf. Maude notes that she much preferred her circus lifestyle to vaudeville, where she periodically found work over the years. While vaudeville paid a higher salary, the circus took care of its performers much better.

Maude has not enjoyed an easy life. Trapeze artists face challenges few professionals face; and Maude has suffered periodic accidents. Most seriously, she endured a 9-week hospital stay after a 40-foot fall during a performance. This fall seems not to have have soiled her view of life; in fact, she playfully suggests that falling is part of the act, and sometimes an accidental fall feels exactly like the fall in well-executed air-borne tumbles. Maude certainly feels no rancor toward her employer for her misfortune, accepting it as the price you pay for practicing such a wonderful trade.

Source: Circus People. Oral history. From Library of Congress, American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940.

Activity 6: Sharing Life History and Drawing Conclusions

  1. Oral presentations by students.
  2. Each student adds name to wall map.
  3. Class charts lives by Crèvecoeur's categories.
  4. Class discusses how the meaning of being an American had changed.
  5. Students write a paragraph on how the definition has changed.
  6. (Optional) Teacher compiles biographies "What Is an American?"

Lesson Evaluation

  • Pre-lesson paragraph on "What Is An American?"
  • What is an American?
  • Biography of informant (page of writing and image)
  • Presentation of informant to class
  • "How the definition of being American has changed" paragraph


Mary Virginia Attarian & Kathleen T. Isaacs