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A Meeting of Minds: The Correspondence between Jefferson and Korais

Dr. Stamatia Dova

While the Greek Revolution was in its third year, Adamantios Korais (1748-1833), a leading figure of the Greek Enlightenment and fervent proponent of liberty for his native Hellas, wrote to Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) to request advice on state-building, also suggesting that the U.S. send trade representatives to Greece. Jefferson responded kindly to the former, but remained silent about the latter. For his advice to Korais, Jefferson was drawing from (and looking back at) his own experience on state-building, which coincided with the first half-century of American independence. Consisting of four letters exchanged over the span of one and-a-half years (July 1823-January 1825), their correspondence reveals their shared faith in elective government as well as in the power of education to produce enlightened citizens and, by extension, well-governed states.

The two men had met in Paris approximately thirty-five years earlier, when Jefferson was serving as U.S. minister to France (1785-89), while Korais was pursuing a distinguished career as an intellectual. Born in Smyrna in 1748 of Chiote descent and trained in the Classics and medicine in Smyrna, Amsterdam, and Montpellier, Korais had devoted his life to educating his fellow-Greeks as well as promoting the cause of Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire. To this end, he produced a remarkable corpus of editions of ancient Greek authors, The Hellenic Library, comprised of select texts with preface (Prolegomena), modern Greek translation, and commentary, while simultaneously leading Philhellenic efforts in France. In his Prolegomena, Korais heralded the need for the people of Greece to be shaped as citizens by the wisdom of their ancestors through a process of transfer of knowledge (metakenosis). Made possible by state-sponsored education, this transfer would help produce a conscientious citizenry, thereby enabling political stability and securing an auspicious start for the nascent Greek state.

An eyewitness (and great admirer) of the French Revolution, Korais considered liberty as the ultimate civic good and tirelessly advocated for the character formation and citizen training that would allow his compatriots to not only attain but also safeguard it. His concern was that they, despite their incontestable bravery during the Revolutionary War, lacked experience in self-government and were unprepared to address the crises of early statehood, including interference by other European nations. In this spirit, he reached out to Thomas Jefferson (July 20, 1823), who replied with a seven-page thoughtfully composed summary of the American system of government. Although he declared his (and his country’s) unwavering moral support for the Greek Independence War, Jefferson made clear that U.S. foreign policy did not allow military involvement “with the broils of Europe” based on what would come to be known as the “Monroe Doctrine” (letter of October 31, 1823). Jefferson’s moral support for the Greek cause derived from his genuine admiration for a country “which, the first of civilised nations, presented examples of what man should be.” Nevertheless, he acknowledged that the political systems of ancient Athens and Sparta were no longer “practicable,” as they did not fulfill “the only legitimate objects of government” in the modern age, “the equal rights of man and the happiness of every individual.” As a means of ensuring these rights for the people of Greece, Jefferson recommended a “government by the people acting, not in person, but by representatives, chosen by themselves.”

Jefferson highlighted the crucial role of the people in all branches of government as they, “especially when moderately instructed, are the only safe, because the only honest, depositories of the public rights.” Before proposing a working model for the future Greek state, Jefferson recognized the necessity for a temporary government (and Constitution) until circumstances would allow for the time and deliberation required for the writing of Greece’s permanent Constitution. In view of the size difference between the U.S. and the estimated territory of the future Greek state, Jefferson recommended to Korais a single government as opposed to a federation of states. Moreover, he encouraged him to review State Constitutions from across the U.S. in order to identify elements that might be helpful in formulating Greece’s political system. Most importantly, Jefferson proceeded to offer his own observations “on those provisions particularly which have not fulfilled expectations, or which, being varied in different states, leave a choice to be made of that which is best.”

Having served twice (1801-09) as U.S. President, Jefferson was in a position to elaborate on the efficiency of executive offices. He underscored the importance of a (preferably elected) single executive officer as head of State, reiterated his approval for the powers vested in the Office of the President, and drew attention to the need for balance between the two legislative bodies. By revisiting the regime of which he was a notable co-founder, Jefferson also renewed his support for what he considered to be its enduringly successful features, such as the structure of the executive branch, while sharing his concern about potential design flaws, such as the tenure of office in the Judiciary. Carefully articulated for the benefit of his fellow state-founder, Jefferson’s reexamination of the U.S. Constitution emphasized the five principles “in which all [states] agree and which all cherish as vitally essential to the protection of the life, liberty, property and safety of the citizen”: freedom of religion, freedom of person (Habeas Corpus), trial by jury, the exclusive right of legislation and taxation in the representatives of the people, and freedom of the press. Furthermore, Jefferson emphasized that the Constitution should “provide a mode of amendment, when experience or change of circumstances shall have manifested that any part of it is unadapted to the good of the nation.”

Korais’ appeal for guidance also provided Jefferson with an opportunity to touch upon notions they both cherished, the importance of public education and the significance of the Classics for College training. Their implicit (and heartfelt) agreement, as manifested independently in their writings, reverberates through this section of Jefferson’s letter. Jefferson had been following Korais’ publications since their encounter in Paris, and was most appreciative when, along his first letter, Korais sent him copies of his editions of Aristotle’s Ethics and Onesander’s Strategicus. An enthusiastic lifelong student of the Classics, Jefferson assiduously promoted Greek and Latin as part of the curriculum of the University of Virginia, which he founded in 1819. Korais, convinced that a meaningful classical revival would rapidly counteract the disastrous effects of 400 years of Ottoman occupation on the Hellenic psyche, constantly appealed for public schools with strong curricula in the humanities. Both men were invested in curricular design and wished to see Classical Studies enjoy the pride of place they deserved in secondary and tertiary education; their influence on the educational systems of their respective countries was enormous, as was the emphasis they placed on education as a prerequisite for self-government. Hoping to have been of help to the Greek people, Jefferson ended his letter by envisioning his advice as a tribute to the ancient Greek authors, philosophers, and heroes, to whom humanity was greatly indebted.

Grateful for “lessons from such a master,” Korais wrote back on December 28, 1824 to thank Jefferson, also sending him copies of his new publications, a modern Greek translation of a treatise on criminology and politics by Cesare Beccaria (1738-94), jurist and philosopher of the Italian Enlightenment, and two classical texts. In this letter, Korais restated his wish to see his home country enjoying the benefits of a Constitution just as Jefferson’s country had been. In rather melancholic tones, he expressed his anxiety about the future of Greece, which he described with the ancient Greek term τὸ ἄδηλον, “the unknown.” Quoting Euripides in the original (fr.49.4 Nauck), Korais graciously acknowledged Jefferson’s proficiency in ancient Greek and called for his continued interest “in the fate of Greece.”

Korais’ third and final letter, sent on January 30, 1825, concluded the correspondence between the two men. It was accompanied by a copy of his new edition of Plutarch’s Politics, the preface to which contained anonymous references to Jefferson’s prior advice. In his letter, Korais praised Jefferson for dealing a powerful blow to European oligarchy through his (and the American State’s) splendid reception of Marquis de Lafayette in 1824. Quoting Euripides in the original again (fr. 287.1-2 Nauck), Korais commended Jefferson for endorsing the liberal cause by actions and not words, and invited him to recognize the autonomy of Greece before England and other countries, “so that the free Greeks may one day receive in their country and treat like brethren the compatriots of Jefferson and Franklin.”

Korais’ wish came true in 1837, four years after his death and eleven years after Jefferson’s. Their correspondence, however, helped generate a discourse that had considerable influence on the 1827 Greek Constitution. Inspired by the Classics and fostered by Enlightenment, the ideological profiles of the two men found a brief, yet pivotal meeting point in the challenges of state-building, to which they both gave the best of their thoughts and feelings.


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