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Edward Everett: The Cicero of America and Greek Independence

Dr. Johanna Hanink

Edward Everett (born in Dorchester, Massachusetts in 1794; died in Boston in 1865) was one of the most ardent and active American supporters of the Greek War of Independence. His is one of four such figures depicted on the American Legion monument to American Philhellenes in Athens. Now he is most often remembered in the United States for his role as the ‘other’ speaker (besides Abraham Lincoln) at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. Yet Everett was one of the leading American public figures of the nineteenth century: he was professor at Harvard, held a number of political offices, and for his oratorical skill was often compared to Cicero—and more than once called the “Cicero of America.” His lifetime spanned the presidential administrations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and he bore personal witness to many significant moments in the Early Republic period of American history.

Though he began his career as a scholar of Greek antiquity, Everett was unusual in that he also took an early interest in “Modern” Greece. In 1813, at just eighteen years old, he published an essay titled “On the Literature and Language of Modern Greece ” in The General Repository and Review. There he acknowledged that, given his frustrated efforts to access actual books on the subject, his knowledge of the subject was drawn primarily from Lord Byron’s notes to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, whose first two cantos had been published in London the previous year. (Everett would later meet and correspond with Byron on various occasions.) Everett’s essay is nevertheless of significance in that it seems to mark the first published piece of American scholarship on Modern Greek literature. In 1813 Everett also delivered a (now-lost) address at Harvard University’s commencement exercises, at which he took his MA. That oration, “On the Restoration of Greece,” marked an early American public plea for Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Just two years later, Everett accepted an appointment to Harvard University’s newly-endowed professorship in Greek literature, the first such professorship in the country. He did so on the condition that he first be allowed time to travel abroad. That condition was accepted, and he spent the next four years on an extended Grand Tour. In 1817, he became the first American to take a PhD, which he earned at the University of Göttingen. He then traveled to Paris, where he first met a seventy-year-old Adamantios Koraïs. Koraïs, a leading intellectual of the Greek diaspora, would also have been well-known to Everett as a scholar of Ancient Greek. The meeting with Koraïs nevertheless seems to have given Everett an opportunity to show off his own newfound skills as a speaker of Modern Greek, which he had studied in Göttingen.

Eventually and at long last, Everett’s travels took him to Greece. His travel diaries about that leg of the trip—the one that he had most eagerly-anticipated—differ fairly little from the accounts of other travelers of the era. Yet there is one way in which his experience differed from that of the French and British travelers who had preceded him: Everett was an American, and so was himself an object of curiosity to those he encountered. When he journeyed to Ioannina for an audience with Ali Pasha—a visit facilitated by Lord Byron himself —Ali noted to Everett and his travel companion that “we were the first Americans he had ever seen.” Everett’s diary entry continues: “He asked however whether we were not of English descent.” Ali also observed that “America was becoming great fast.” This meeting thus provided an opportunity for Everett to reflect on how his own exotic Americanness appeared in the eyes of the Old World, and to affirm—both for the Pasha and for himself—that he was not in fact British, but American. Everett’s record of that meeting offers a glimpse of what would become an important aspect of American involvement in the coming Greek War of Independence, namely the opportunity the war offered Americans to explore and project their own new national identity. Were Americans “Franks,” like the rest of the western Europeans who came to aid the Greeks and fight the Turks? Or were they something other than Franks, something closer to Greeks for their independent spirit? American correspondence from the Greek front lines contains evidence of both perspectives.

In 1819, Everett returned from his long travels and took up his post at Harvard. Two years later, in 1821, the War of Independence finally broke out in Greece. When it did, Koraïs remembered his American acquaintance, and it was to Everett—primarily in his capacity as editor of the North American Review, a leading literary magazine—that he sent the announcement of the Greek revolutionaries’ declaration of independence. Koraïs began his letter: “I write to you as citizen of a free and liberal state, as a wise Hellenist and Philhellene, to ask that you publish the Hellenes’ declaration for your fellow citizens.” In 1823, Everett himself wrote a piece for the North American Review in support of Greek independence. That essay was, strictly speaking, a review of Koraïs’ new edition of Aristotle’s Nichomachaean Ethics, but Koraïs (under his gallicized name of Adamance Coray) had dedicated this, his latest tome—the fourteenth in his “Hellenic Library” series —to “the newly constituted government of all the Greeks.”

The subject of Greek independence also quickly become a frequent topic of correspondence and conversation between Edward Everett and Daniel Webster, at that time a Congressman for the state of Massachusetts. On December 8, 1823, Webster made a proposal in Congress that the United States send envoys to Greece in support of the war effort. This was only days after President James Monroe had introduced the “Monroe Doctrine” of mutual non-intervention between the nations of Europe and the “Western Hemisphere.” (That “Doctrine” was the reason that the United States maintained official neutrality throughout the Greek War of Independence.) Nevertheless, on January 19, 1824, Webster went on to deliver, from the floor of the House of Representatives, a much-publicized speech in favor of Greek independence and American aid to the cause.

Everett had made the arduous winter journey to Washington, D.C. to hear Webster speak, and it seems that this occasion greatly encouraged Everett’s own aspirations to run for political office. In 1825 he entered Congress as the newly-elective representative from Massachusetts’ Middlesex District, and in 1826 he gained a name—and notoriety—for himself when he delivered a three-hour long speech against a proposed amendment to the Constitution. There he spoke about the Three-Fifth Compromise and the institution of slavery, and credited the ancient Greeks with introducing “domestic slavery, which delivered the free citizens from all the cares of gaining a livelihood” and allowed the pursuit of the arts sciences. This speech cost Everett a great deal of support in Massachusetts and led to a rupture with Ralph Waldo Emerson , Everett’s former student. Like Daniel Webster, who would go on to endorse the Compromise of 1850 , Everett insisted that, while slavery was morally reprehensible, preservation of the Union must always take priority above all else. It should be remembered that, although in many quarters American support for the Greek War of Independence was interlinked with the American abolition movement , other high-profile Philhellenes hypocritically sought to protect the American institution of slavery even as they publicly campaigned for Greek liberation from the “Ottoman yoke.”

Throughout the course of the War of Independence Everett remained a committed supporter of the Greek cause. He lobbied, unsuccessfully, for a presidential appointment as special agent to Greece. He publicized dispatches from American who had gone to join the fighting at the front and continued his work for the Boston Committee for the Relief of the Greeks, of which he had been a founding member. Ultimately, Everett’s commitment to independence was rooted in far more than his personal politics, his dedication to Greek antiquity, and even his experience of travels in Greece and friendships with figures such as Byron and Koraïs. Everett had been five years old when George Washington died at Mount Vernon on December 14, 1799, and even as a child, he had been deeply enamored with Washington’s generation and the American revolutionary “Spirit of ’76.” He was always eager to surround himself with those who had shared in the struggle for American independence and he actively sought out their company. As a young man in Boston he came to know John Adams, and in the 1820s he also struck up a respectful and learned correspondence with Thomas Jefferson, on matters ranging from the issue of slavery to the publication of a new ancient Greek grammar. With the Greek War of Independence, Everett was given an opportunity to apply the flawed ideals of his own defining American patriotism to the struggle of an emerging nation which few Americans, if any, knew so well as he.


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