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The Greek Vision of America during the Greek War of Independence

Dr. Konstantinos Diogos

When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, the term “America” had already been standing for as universal symbol of freedom and democracy, for nearly fifty years. This powerful symbol was incorporated into the Greek vision of liberty. The Greeks, in their effort to organise political institutions, expanded their search to the entire spectrum of available political and constitutional models. One of those models was the American democracy. Therefore, it was the political needs of the Greek Revolution that determined the Greek image of America.

The American Revolution and its “heroes” were quite known to the educated Greeks. Throughout the revolutionary period, the Greeks were searching for an equivalent “Greek Washington” who would take charge of the nation and lead it to freedom. The defenders of Messolonghi had named one of their ramparts after Benjamin Franklin, the “Socrates of America”, as one Greek scholal named him. Some Greeks even envisioned that the leadership of Filiki Eteria was based in America! The similarities between the American and the Greek Revolution made America an ideal point of reference in Greek public discourse. As the Americans proudly boasted, their democracy was inspired by the ancient Greeks. American political achievements were desirable to Greeks. That’s why the American democracy became a basic argument among those liberal Greeks who wanted to advocate in favour of an uncrowned republic, as the most suitable political system for Greece.

Building Bridges

On 25 May 1821, Petrobey Mavromichalis, president of the Messenian Senate, a political institution born out of the Revolution, sent an appeal, a “call for help” to the American people. This appeal built the first bridges of communication, creating a symbolic triangle between Ancient Greece-America-Modern Greeks. It recognised that the two peoples had common values that made them “friends and fellow citizens and brothers”. America was characterised as the place where “freedom chose to live” and the Americans as “just and charitable and brave”, who cherished freedom as much as the ancient Greeks. So it was natural for modern Greeks, as descendants of the ancients, to turn to the Americans for assistance.

On 1 January 1822, in a deeply emotional atmosphere, Greek representatives from the rebelling areas approved the “Constitution of Epidaurus”, the birth certificate of the Modern Greek nation. This first Revolutionary Constitution was drafted under the influence of the constitutions of the two major democratic revolutions of the 18th century: the American and the French. The American influence was present in the Preamble of the constitution. The “Greek Declaration of Independence” had many similarities to the American Declaration of Independence. The natural human rights, the principle of nationalities and the legitimacy of the right of rebellion against an oppressive power constituted the common ideological basis of the two Declarations. Six years later, in 1827, the Consitution of Troizina, one of the most liberal and democratic Constitutions of its era, used the American Constitution 1787 as a model.

Utopian Expectations

The Greek image of America was also influenced by the diplomatic position of the American government towards the Greek War of Independence. Within the framework of isolationism of the Monroe Doctrine, the Greeks tried to formulate their position towards the American factor. President Monroe, in three speeches, made positive references for the successful outcome of the Greek Revolution, but he did not alter the decision of his government to remain strictly neutral. Nevertheless, the Greeks never saw American neutrality in a negative light, as they did in the cases of other European Powers. On the contrary, Monroe was one of the most popular and beloved figures in Greece and the newspapers always translated and celebrated his speeches.

The Phanariot Alexandros Mavrokordatos (who was mostly in charge of foreign affairs) believed that relations with the US would be “truly beneficial for Greece”, as long as contacts were kept secret, so as not to upset Britain. On February 1823, Andreas Louriotis, the Greek envoy to London, sent a memo to John Adams on behalf of the Greek government, with an official request to initiate diplomatic relations between the two countries, offering the prospect of signing beneficial treaties. In the summer of that year, the Phanariot diplomat Panagiotis Kodrikas suggested to Mavrokordatos that a trade agreement must be signed with the US government, in order to apply pressure to the British to follow their example. As the economic needs of the Revolution grew, America was seen as a possible place to seek a loan. The Greek Delegation that was negotiating a loan in Britain established friendly relations with American ambassadors Rush and Gallatin in London and Paris, respectively. The Greek Provisional Government even discussed the idea of funding a military corps of American philhellenes. All these contacts and plans fostered an optimistic –though utopian belief– that the Americans could play an important role to the Greeks’ benefit. Every time an American ship of the Mediterranean squadron sailed into a Greek port, the Greeks believed that the Americans had come to rescue them. Wishful thinking, nevertheless it proved that in the Greek mind, USA was already being registered as a global superpower.

America in the Political Vision of Adamantios Korais

The most zealous admirer of American democracy and its capacity to function as a political model for Greece was scholar Adamantios Korais. His knowledge of a broad bibliography on all American matters and his familiarity and correspondences with significant figures of American political life, such Thomas Jefferson and Everett, made Korais the best-informed and reliable voice for the American vision in Greek political thought. American democracy was a constant point of reference in Korais’ writings and was spread to Greek society by his extensive works and correspondence.

Korais’ turn of interest towards America took place almost at the same time as the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. His eagerness to offer his fellow Greeks a tangible example for their moral and political rebirth, helped him shape an idealised image of American society. He strongly believed that the American nation had based its political rebirth on ancient Greek values. Through Korais, the American political achievements could return, tested and improved, in the form of a “counter-loan”, to their land of origin. Korais’ Modern Greece should be a democratic, non-monarchical, state, built upon the theoretical principles of the Enlightenment and the practical example of the Anglo-Americans (as he called them). He also established contact with former American president Thomas Jefferson. This political dialogue enhanced his admiration for America. Korais was the first person of his era to bring America closer to the Greeks. His words provided an insightful glimpse into the future of trans-Atlantic relations, where the ocean was not a boundary but a point of contact. It is impossible not to admire the prophetic nature of his words which, in the early 19th century, could foresee what would become reality a century later: the rise of the US as a global, economic and military superpower.

Proponents and Opponents of American Democracy

The American vision of Korais was followed only by a few, but distinguished liberal voices. One of those voices was Anastasios Polyzoidis, a liberal intellectual who had studied history and law at the universities of Göttingen, Vienna and Berlin. In 1824 in Messolonghi, he translated in Greek and printed the American Constitution in a joint edition with the first Greek Constitution and British political texts. In comparing the two systems, the British and the American, Polyzoidis believed that “under our present circumstances, it is much more advantageous and appropriate to follow the Wise Americans”. Ioannis Kokkonis, a famous educator, claimed that only American democracy was capable of ensuring social equality and justice. Kokkonis believed that American communitarianism had a lot in common with the Greek communitarian system, a tradition which helped Greeks retain their ethnic identity during the Ottoman occupation.

Most Greek thinkers of that period did not have a positive view of the Greeks’ capability of adapting to the American model. They thought that American democracy, though excellent in theory and worthy of admiration, was not appropriate in Greece’s case, because of the political immaturity of the Greeks. A Greek newspaper wrote: “To apply the American regime in Greece, we must first transform Greeks into Americans”. Nevertheless, the vision of democratic America was registered in the collective conscience of the Greek people as an unfulfilled desire and re-emerged repeatedly over the following decades.

American Philhellenism: An Indelible Tribute

The Greek vision of America was also influenced by the American philhellenic movement. “Greek Fever”, as it was called, captured the hearts and minds of many Americans. Philhellenic sentiment was based to the classical education and humanitarianism of many prominent Americans. Of the Americans who came to Greece and offered their services to the Greek cause, the cases of George Jarvis, Jonathan Peckham Miller and Dr Samuel Gridley Howe stand out for their selfless character. The humanitarian aid sent by the American people was truly impressive in magnitude and left a strong mark in the hearts of the Greek people. Greeks never forgot it and expressed their gratitude in many ways. The word “philanthropists” accompanied the Americans throughout 19th century. This gratitude to the American people was also expressed poetically by Dionysios Solomos, the Greek national poet, in the 22nd stanza of the Hymn to Liberty. Referring to the news of the Greek Revolution reaching America, he wrote:

’Γκαρδιακά χαροποιήθη
Και του Βάσιγκτον η γη,
Και τα σίδερα ενθυμήθη
Που την έδεναν και αυτή.