American Publications and the Cause of Greek Independence
Dr. Jeremy Cox
Americans first learned of the Greek Revolution in 1821 from newspaper reports of Alexander Ipsilántis’ uprising in Moldavia and Wallachia. Prominent among the various stories issuing out of the Greek provinces was a missive penned by Ipsilántis that was widely reprinted through the United States. In it, he called on his fellow Greeks to recapture their glorious ancient past and rally to the cause of national independence. Though ostensibly aimed at his compatriots, his message was carefully crafted to appeal to the sympathies of an audience habituated into seeing classical allusions as symbols for liberal enlightenment. American readers responded with public outpourings of support for the revolutionaries that continued for the duration of the war.During this time, newspapers related countless reports, letters, eye-witness testimonies, and rumors that circulated back to American shores from the eastern Mediterranean by way of Atlantic trade routes. From these materials, “philhellene” editors and publishers such as Edward Everett, Hezekiah Niles, and Matthew Carey crafted a compellingly familiar narrative of Greek liberation against an oppressive imperial power for a reading public primed to see such events as a continuation of their own national experience. In the growing print economy of the 1820s, publications about the Greek Revolution emerged as a key site for negotiating America’s own political commitments abroad.
The print culture of the early nineteenth century provided fertile ground for romantic stories of heroic Greek patriots repelling a barbaric occupier from their ancient homeland. This process of idealization was made easier by the sheer fact of Greece’s remoteness from the United States. In the 1820s, for all but a few American travelers and sailors, Greece was a place that existed solely on the written page. The average American’s experience of the Greek Revolution was textually mediated by newspapers and magazines rather than directly experienced. Everything that the vast majority of Americans knew about the war came from its depiction by pro-Greek writers and editors in press outlets as wide ranging and varied as the North American Review, Niles Weekly Register, Connecticut Courant, The Boston Daily Advertiser, The New York Mirror and Ladies Literary Gazette, The Kentucky Gazette, and numerous other outlets for news and public opinion. (see Hatzidimitriou 2002). Writing a few short years after the war’s conclusion, Alexis De Tocqueville commented on the centrality of newspapers to Americans’ understanding of the world and their place in it, noting:
A newspaper is a counselor that one does not need to go seek, but that presents itself of its own accord and speaks to you briefly each day and of common affairs…A newspaper not only has the effect of suggesting the same design to many men; it furnishes them the means of executing in common the designs they themselves had already conceived.
It is therefore important to note that reporting on Greece typically favored of the revolutionaries, focusing readers’ attention on acts of Greek heroism and Turkish cruelty while downplaying the complex regional histories and politics that undergirded the conflict. Ideologically motivated editors and publishers presented the simplistic vision of a “war between the Crescent and the Cross” or nationalistic myths of America inspiring a Greek political revival. In short, there is a distinction between the war as experienced by the Greeks, and the war as it was written and spoken about in the United States. The latter owed as much (or more) to the increasing presence of the print economy in the everyday experiences of Americans as it did the actual events of the revolution. Because the Greek Revolution was filtered through an American lens—or, more appropriately, the American press—these publications often tell us more about the beliefs, values, and commitments of the readers than they do the actual events of the war.To today’s reader, American accounts of the Greek Revolution can seem one-sided and melodramatic, a far cry from the norms of objectivity we presume define our relationship to the news. What must be remembered is that the style of publications was shaped by the ingrained reading habits of nineteenth-century Americans whose literary preferences were overtly sentimental and whose politics were becoming increasingly nationalistic. As a result, American writers tended toward myopic treatments of the war’s complexities, preferring instead either heroic or lachrymose interpretations of key events and figures. The resulting rhetoric combined romantic nostalgia for Classical Greece, collective memories of the American Revolution, and a sentimental fixation on human suffering and redemption to warrant the citizenry’s emotional and financial investment in the cause of Greek independence. The combined efforts of these stories was the production of a popular narrative about the state of modern Greece. It was presented as a “fallen” nation whose people suffered under the cruel enslavement of barbaric masters. The sudden arrival of their revolution was heralded and inspired by the successful example of the United States. Most crucially, the suffering of the Greek people at the hands of a non-Christian “Other” necessitated their material support by sympathetic American readers. Within the context of this basic narrative structure, newspaper editors could transform a story of the latest massacre into a scene marking the redemptive struggle then under way, turning complex political events into morality tales for mass consumption.
One of the undeniable effects of American representations of the Greek Revolution was the elevation of the Greek people as figures worthy of attention and benevolence. American citizens responded with an outpouring of material support, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of capital and supplies to Greek committees in places like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. This aid was put to direct, humanitarian use by the Greek people, who had genuinely suffered horribly during their long and brutal war for independence. Even so, reading provided the most consistent engagement Americans had with the Greek revolution. While fundraising occurred in waves, print accounts remained a persistent feature of the pro-Greek movement and help account for the sustained attention the war received. In the United States, the Greek Revolution was a textually mediated experience in a culture that placed great value on such experiences. While American writers and editors were often highly biased, they nonetheless presented a great wealth of information about a little known part of the world, ushering a deeper awareness of, and connection to, the eastern Mediterranean onto the American scene.
Cox, Jeremy. “American Philhellenes and the Poetics of War.” Journal for the History of Rhetoric 23, no.3 (2020): 253-286
Hatzidimitriou, Constantine G., ed. “Founded on Freedom & Virtue: Documents Illustrating the Impact in the United States of the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1829. New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, 2002.
Kasson, Joy S. “Narratives of the Female Body: The Greek Slave.” In The Culture of Sentiment: Race Gender and Sentimentality in Nineteenth-Century America, edited by Shirley Samauels, 172-90. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Larrabee, Stephen A. Hellas Observed: The American Experience of Greece, 1775-1865. New York: New York University Press, 1957.
Pappas, Paul. “Lafayette’s Efforts to Send American Aid to Revolutionary Greece.” Journal of Modern Greek Studies 2, no. 1 (1984): 105-116.
—-. “The Question of Greek Independence in Kentucky, 1821-1828.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 72, no. 2 (1974): 143- 170.
—-.The United States and the Greek War for Independence, 1821-1828. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.
Repousis, Angelo. “‘The Cause of the Greeks’: Philadelphia and the Greek War for Independence, 1821-1828.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123, no. 4 (1999): 333-363.
—-. “‘The Trojan Women’: Emma Hart Willard and the Troy Society for the Advancement of Female Education in Greece.” Journal of the Early Republic 24, no. 3 (2004): 445-476.
Richard, Carl J. The Golden Age of Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.
Santelli, Maureen. “Depart from That Retired Circle”: Women’s Support of the Greek War for Independence and Antebellum Reform.” Early American Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 15, no.1 (2017): 194-223.
St. Clair, William. That Greece Might Still be Free: The Philhellenes in the War of Independence. New York: Oxford University Press, 1972.
Winterer, Caroline. The Culture of Classicism: Ancient Greece and Rome in American Intellectual Life 1780-1910. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.