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Philhellenes vs. Merchants: Early American Humanitarianism and Commercial Trade

Dr. Maureen Santelli

Beginning in 1821, Americans had begun to mobilize efforts at supporting the Greek Revolution through collecting supplies and petitioning congress to officially recognize Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. Frustrated with the government’s unwillingness to comply, constituents began to write letters to their congressmen. Support for the Greeks was so intense that members of Congress began to reply in earnest, but in so doing, held firm to neutrality. In 1825, Congressman Williams defended the government’s decision not to officially support Greek independence by observing that, “it must be satisfactory to behold Russia taking an interest in their defense.” Joseph Gist, a congressman from South Carolina, did not even offer his constituents hope for other sources of aid to Greece, but simply apologized with: “I pray to God she [Greece] may be restored to her ancient liberties in a tenfold degree, and become one of the republics of the world.” Still another congressman from Tennessee, Robert Allen, wrote to his constituents explaining that the House of Representatives supported “the heroic struggle of the Greeks,” but “prudence pointed out many objections to a legislative act, that could be construed into any thing like an interference in the internal concerns of other nations.” Rather than defusing the popular support for the Greeks, congressional inaction helped spread American philhellenism at the local level and inspired new groups of people, both men and women, to join.

The reason for the neutral stance was due to the U.S. government’s desire to secure a trade agreement with the Ottoman Empire. American merchants had made several attempts at gaining an audience with Ottoman officials for that purpose, with no result. As American officials prepared to once again approach the Ottoman government with proposals for a trade agreement, they did not wish to antagonize the Ottomans and realized that openly supporting the Greek Revolution would be impossible.

Interest in Greece and Greek independence had long existed in the United States but intensified by 1821. At first inspired by a transatlantic phenomenon known as the philhellenic movement, many Europeans and Americans supported not only the prospect of a Greek nation but all things ancient Greek. Early Americans imagined themselves to be politically and ideologically connected with ancient Greece and wished to release the modern Greeks from their current state of oppression within the Ottoman Empire. Greek relief efforts were led by the classical scholar and philanthropist Edward Everett and supported by countless community groups throughout the country. Everett advocated for the United States to recognize Greek independence and pushed for an agent to be sent to Greece by the U.S. government, putting his own name forward for the post.

Philhellenism in the United States kindled a sense of historical and moral obligation among both men and women to support the cause. In order to continue expanding national support, however, philhellenic leaders began to alter the focus of the Greek cause to encompass a benevolence element, where aid would be raised for civilians instead of the Greek army. This expanded appeal made participation in the movement an especially appropriate outlet for women. Philhellenes joined efforts with benevolence and missionary groups and together they promoted humanitarianism, education reform, and evangelism. The redemption of the Greeks by various pro-Greek organizations assumed a “secularized missionary spirit,” which endeavored to spread an American understanding of freedom, liberty, and Christianity to all parts of the world.

There are a number of reasons for why this transition of sending aid to civilians took place. On the one hand, philhellenic leaders perceived that they would more likely be able to engage a broader base of interest, especially from women, if they directed their efforts toward the Greek populace rather than the military. There is also evidence, on the other hand, that American agents in the Mediterranean directed members of the Monroe and Adams administrations to discourage public support of the Greek army if they desired to successfully negotiate a trade agreement with the Ottoman Empire. With this in mind, President Monroe and later President Adams advocated for neutrality in the Greek Revolution in favor of advancing a strategic foreign policy. John Quincy Adams, while Secretary of State, certainly made it known to pro-Greece members of Congress that the executive branch would not support their foreign policy plans. With Everett’s close connections to government officials, it is possible that the government’s wish that philhellenic societies redirect their efforts toward civilian relief helped shape the American philhellenic movement in the final years of the war.

Whether a more humanitarian focused Greek cause was directed by philhellenic leadership or members of the government, a transition toward exclusive humanitarianism began to take shape by the end of 1824. Instead of merely relying upon philhellenic rhetoric to inspire citizens to donate funds and supplies to the Greek troops, societies turned their attention to Greek citizens, especially Greek women and children displaced by the war. Greek committees spearheaded this effort as they collected supplies, sponsored American volunteers in the Greek army, and even later sent and financially supported agents to Greece.

Rather than aid a rebellion against the Ottomans, American merchants advocated for negotiating a navigational treaty with the Ottoman central ruling authority, the Sublime Porte. Though there were American merchants in the eastern Mediterranean, or the Levant as it was frequently called, they struggled against other European powers who already had treaties with the Sublime Porte. This strengthened a growing desire among American merchants and their supporters to conduct business on the basis of diplomacy, not through the paying of tributes.

President James Monroe found himself caught between the overwhelming popular support for the Greeks on one side of the debate and the pleas from American merchants to deny support on the other. Even though Monroe was indecisive, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams knew that a treaty could only be secured if the U.S. remained neutral on the Greek issue. Hoping to renew negotiation with the Sublime Porte in 1823, Adams sent a Harvard graduate and former U.S. Marine to represent American commercial interests. The secret agent was George Bethune English, or as he called himself upon his conversion to Islam, Mohammad Effendi.

English, a self-described philo-Turk, became notorious as a convert to Islam who had left the U.S. Marines to serve as an officer in the Egyptian army. English believed that the United States should cultivate an alliance with the Ottoman Empire in spite of the perceived despotism found within its borders. English also understood the complex geopolitical situation between Europe and the Ottoman Empire. Since the United States was not part of a Holy Alliance or a “Tutelary Congress of Sovereigns,” they could more readily engage in negotiation directly with the Ottoman government. In addition, while serving as an officer in the Egyptian army, English had become familiar with Koca Husrev Mehmed Pasha, the kapudan pasha, the sultan’s grand admiral of the Ottoman navy.

Upon arriving in the Mediterranean, English began to apply to the kapudan pasha for an audience. One way in which English was able to mingle with Ottoman society in Constantinople was by dressing as an “American Mussulman” traveling throughout the East as a tourist. For idle curiosity seekers wondering why the American was in Turkey, English replied that he was on holiday. Suspicious Europeans and Ottoman officials, however, speculated he was in fact “a Greek spy in disguise.” English believed himself to be in the midst of a situation “full of danger and disquietude” where one misstep could call unwanted attention to his motives for traveling to the Ottoman Empire.

This would not be the only problem English faced. James Monroe and other elected officials continued to consider sending an agent to Greece. In January 1824, Daniel Webster led the charge in Congress, advocating for Greek aid. Adams intervened, persuading Joel Poinsett of South Carolina to speak against the resolution in debate. Adams told Poinsett that an agent had been sent to the Sublime Porte on an errand that could be jeopardized by these congressional actions. When Poinsett stated that Webster would be satisfied with Everett’s appointment as agent, Adams again emphasized that to do this “would destroy all possibility of our doing anything at Constantinople, and Everett was already too much committed as a partisan.”

Instead of committing to one course of action over the other, the U.S. government instead tried to placate both the philhellenes and American merchants. The U.S. Mediterranean Squadron, which protected American merchants and commercial interests against foreign powers and marauding pirates, facilitated this contradictory message. For the duration of the Greek Revolution, the squadron transported agents to Greece who were funded by philhellenic and humanitarian groups as well as men such as George Bethune English to the Mediterranean. Directly involved in the negotiations for a treaty, the Squadron’s association with American philhellenes complicated their official government business. At last, however, American negotiators secured the first navigational treaty with the Ottomans in 1830.

Edward Everett and George Bethune English’s separate visions for American influence in the Levant were both essentially accomplished. National diplomacy had indeed secured a treaty, though popular intervention on the part of the philhellenes as well as European politics had prolonged the process. Negotiating a greater presence in the Levant also aided American philhellenes and missionaries in their efforts to exert greater influence within the region, where they would soon assist with the creation of schools for the Greeks. Early Americans were not in possession of the agency they wanted to wield in the region just yet, but they had achieved their immediate objectives because they were willing to insert themselves into a complicated political scene. Now able to sail under their own flag, Americans from each of these groups enjoyed access to the eastern Mediterranean.

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