IV. The “Greek Question” As An Issue of U.S. Foreign Policy

B2. Joel R. Poinsett's Response to Daniel Webster

(Robinson, pp. 88–93)

To view this question calmly and dispassionately as a Statesman ought to do, requires us to exercise the utmost control over our feelings.

It is impossible to contemplate the contest between the Greeks and the Turks, so eloquently described by the gentleman from Massachusetts, without feeling the strongest indignation at the barbarous atrocities committed by the infidel oppressor, and the deepest interest in the cause of a brave people struggling alone, against fearful odds, to shake off the yoke of despotism.

Our sympathies are always with the oppressed-our feelings are always engaged in the cause of liberty. In favor of Greece, they are still more strongly excited by recollections, which the scholar cherishes with delight, and which are associated in our minds with every pure and exalted sentiment.

The descendants of that illustrious people, to whom we owe our arts, our science, and, except our religion, everything which gives a charm to life, must command our warmest interest: but the Greeks have other claims on our sympathies. They are not only heirs of the immortal fame of their ancestors-they are the rivals of their virtues. In their heroic struggle for freedom, they have exhibited a persevering courage, a spirit of enterprise, and a contempt of danger and of suffering worthy the best days of ancient Greece. The enthusiasm and liberality manifested in their cause, by our fellow citizens throughout the Union, are, in the highest degree, honorable to their feelings. As men, we must applaud their generosity, and may imitate their example. But the duty of a statesman is a stern duty. As representatives of the people, we have no right to indulge our sympathies, however noble, or to give way to our feelings, however generous. We are to regard only the policy of a measure submitted to our consideration. Our first, and most important duty, is to maintain peace, whenever that can be done consistently with the honor and safety of the nation; and we ought to be slow to adopt any measure which might involve us in a war, except where those great interests are concerned. The gentleman disclaims any such intention. He does not believe that we run the slightest risk, by adopting the resolution of your table. He considers it as a pacific measure, and relies entirely upon the discretion of the President, to accept or reject our recommendation, as the interests of the country may require. The object of passing such a resolution, can only be to give an impulse to the Executive, and to instruct him, by an expression of the opinion of this House, to send a commission to Greece. I have as great a reliance upon the discretion of the Executive as the gentleman from Massachusetts. I believe that he would resist the suggestion of this House in favor of any measure if he thought the pub-lic interest required him to do so. But, unless we wish and expect him to act upon our recommendation, we ought not throw upon him, alone, the responsibility of resisting the strong public feeling, which has been excited on this subject. The question for us to consider appears to me to be, whether, if the power rested with us we would exercise it to this extent. I think we could not do so, without incurring some risk of involving the country in a war foreign to its interests. Let us suppose that these commissioners were to fall into the hands of the Turks; an event by no means impossible, in the present state of Greece-what would be their fate? The Porte has been remarkable for its strict observance of the laws of nations in its intercourse with the powers of Europe; and it is not probable, that such a court would be very scrupulous in its conduct towards a nation whose flag it has never acknowledged. Or, let us imagine, what is much more probable, that on the rumour [sic] of our having taken any measure in favor of Greece, the barbarous and infuriated Janissaries of Smyrna were to assassinate our Consul and fellow citizens residing there; might not a war grow out of such acts? The gentleman from Massachusetts said, yesterday, that we had already taken steps, which would offend the Ottoman Porte as much as the one he proposed. Money has been freely and publicly contributed in aid of the Greeks. What we have done in that respect is common to all Christian Europe. Large sums have been contributed for that purpose in England, in Germany, and even in Russia. He said too, that the Executive, in the Secretary's letter, to the agent of the Greek government, and subsequently in his message to Congress, has used expressions calculated to irritate that court as much as if we were to send a commission to Greece. These expressions of ardent wishes for the success of the Greeks are honor, able to the Executive, and will be echoed back by the nation. They may be so by the House with safety, and that expression of our interest in their welfare and success would have all the cheering influence the gentleman anticipates from the measure he proposes.

It appears to me, that in the consideration of this question, we have been misled by com-paring this revolution with that of Spanish America. And I have heard it argued, that, as we sent commissioners to Buenos Ayres, without rousing the jealousy of any nation, and recognized the independence of those governments without exciting the hostility of Spain, we may do the same in relation to Greece, without offending any nation in Europe.

Independently of the different attitude it becomes us to assume towards America, there is no similarity in the two cases. When we adopted the first measure, Buenos Ayres had been independent, de facto, for more than eight years, and Spain had not, during the whole of that period, made the slightest effort to recover possession of that country. When we recognized the independence of the American governments south of us, they were all free, from the Sabine to the La Plata. The tide could not be rolled back; but, in whatever light Spain may have regarded our conduct on those occasions, the situation of the internal concern of that country prevented any manifestation of its resentment. No, Sir! It is to Europe that we must look for a case parallel to that of Greece. Let us sup-pose, that the Italian states had made an attempt to shake off the iron yoke of Austria, would there be any doubt as to the course of policy this country ought to pursue in that case? Or, if Poland were again to make a desperate effort to recover its liberties, and to re-establish its political existence that gallant nation would have a claim to our sympathies. Yet I apprehend we should hesitate before we took any step which might offend the Emperor of Russia. Is there a country on earth in whose fate we feel a deeper interest than in that of Ireland: A braver or more generous nation does not exist. Her exiled patriots have taken refuge here, and are among our most useful and distinguished citizens. They are identified with us, and the land which gave them birth must always inspire us with the warmest interest. But, if the Irish were to make a general effort to separate themselves from England, we should pause before we adopted a measure which might be interpreted by Great Britain as an interference with her domestic policy. And yet the Turks are more regardless of the laws of nations, more violent in character, and more reckless of consequences, than any power in Europe. It has been said, that when we exercise an undoubted right, we ought not to regard consequences. This may be magnimonious language to hold, but would such conduct be prudent in this case? We may despise the power of Turkey, and Egypt, and Barbary, united, but can we be certain, in the event of a war, we should have only to contend with them? The conduct of Great Britain and the allies, in relation to the contest, which has been so fully dealt upon, and so ably exposed by the gentleman from Massachusetts, ought to convince us, that they would discourage any change in the present state of possession of the great European powers, among which Turkey holds a station which might strengthen one, or lessen the security of another: and that they would discountenance any act calculated to call forth a new order of things, the issue of which it would be impossible to predict. The reasons for these declarations are obvious. Every power in Europe balances between its terror of revolutionary principles, and its dread of the augmenting power of Russia. The independence of Greece alarms their fears in both these respects. The first revolutionary movement in chat country was supported by, if it did not emanate from, an association in Germany. The succours [sic] afforded by the Philhellenic Societies in Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, have contributed largely to the success of the Patriots. The revolution of Greece broke out simultaneously with that of Piedmont; and the agents of the Greek government have, most impudently, boasted of the effect which the liberties of Greece would be likely to produce on the neighbouring [sic] states. And there is no doubt that the establishment of free institutions in Greece would have a powerful influence on the minds of the enthusiastic Italians and Germans.

For these reasons, among others even more selfish, Austria has been hostile to this revolution from its commencement. France is opposed to any change in the present state of possession of the great European powers, which might grow out of the dismemberment of Turkey. Such an event could not augment her strength, and might lessen her security. For obvious reasons, that power, in common with all others on the continent of Europe, is averse to the establishment of any new Republic. Great Britain, throughout this con-test, has evinced a desire to preserve the integrity of the Turkish Empire. The Ionian Islands, which are under her dominion, have not only been prohibited from taking a part in the war, and the inhabitants disarmed, but the ports of those islands have been made places of deposit for grain and other supplies for the Turkish fleets. The only act of Great Britain which can be regarded as at all favorable to the Greeks, is the acknowledgment of their blockades; an act of justice which could not be refused to the relative position of the two parties. The prevailing opinion appears to be, that, united by the bond of one common religion, Greece, as the ally, or as the dependent of Russia, would, by means of her formidable marine, render irresistable [sic] that already colossal power. Great Britain appears to have regarded the dismemberment and partition of Turkey, as a necessary consequence of rupture between that power and Russia. To prevent this, all her influence has been exerted, and no reasonable doubt exists, that, if negotiation had failed to effect an accomodation [sic] between them, Great Britain would have appeared in arms as an ally of the Porte.

The course of policy pursued by Russia, on this occasion, has been so fully developed by the gentleman from Massachusetts, that it is unnecessary for me to dwell upon it. The sacred obligations of that power to protect the Greeks, and even its long conceived pro-jects on aggrandizement, appear to have yielded to the dread of encouraging revolution. In whatever light we may regard a policy which sacrificies [sic] to its selfish views the rights of humanity and justice, and the claims of a suffering Christian people, in matters relating exclusively to Europe, we ought not to interfere. We cannot do so without departing from those principles of sound policy which have hitherto guided our councils, and directed our conduct. Any interference on our part, in favor of a cause which not even remotely affects our interests, could only be regarded in the light of a Crusade, and might injure the Greeks by alarming the fears of the Allied Powers. They already dread the moral influence of our republican institutions; let us not make it their interest, and give them a pretext, to attack us, by going forth to disturb the integrity of their possessions, or the security of their monarchical governments in Europe. The distinction drawn by the President in his last message, marks the true and only safe course of policy for this country to pursue. Mr. P. quoted here the Message:

A strong hope has been entertained, founded on the heroic struggle of the Greeks, that they would succeed in their contest, and resume their equal station among the nations of the earth. It is believed that the whole civilized world takes a deep interest in their welfare. Although no power has declared in their favor, yet none, according to our information, has taken part against them. Their cause and their name have protected them from dangers, which might, ere this, have overwhelmed any other people. The ordinary calculations of interest and of acquisition, with a view to aggrandizement, which mingle so much in the transactions of nations, seem to have had no effect in regard to them. From the facts which have come to our knowledge, there is good cause to believe that their enemy has lost for ever all dominion over them; that Greece will again become an independent nation. That she may obtain that rank, is the object of our most ardent wishes.”

[Mr. P. then referred to the Letter of the Secretary of State, communicated to Congress.]

The letter of the Secretary of State to the Agent of the Greek Government, corroborates this view of our policy, and, if taken together, clearly shews the views of the Executive in relation to our foreign policy.

In this hemisphere we have already taken the station which it becomes us to hold. We have been the first to recognize the free states of North and South America, and the honor and safety of this country require us to defend them from the attacks of the con-federated monarchs of Europe. We are called upon, by every consideration, to resist them should they attempt to extend their plans of conquest and legitimacy to America; for, if they succeed in that unhallowed enterprise, the independence of nations will be but a name.

That there are indications of such intentions, no one will deny. The King of Spain has proclaimed his determination to employ force to recover his American dominions. Even he is not weak enough to undertake an enterprise of such magnitude with the resources of Spain alone. The Envoy of the Emperor of Russia, sent to congratulate Ferdinand on his restoration to the fulness of his legitimate authority, or, in other words, to the right of tyrannizing over his subjects without control, expresses the wishes of his august master that the benefits now enjoyed by his subjects may be extended to his dominions in America. In reply to our call for information upon that subject, the President indirectly tells us, that some combined movement against America is to be apprehended. Indeed, we may see the storm gathering in all signs of the times.

And at this portentous crisis, when we may be compelled to take up arms to defend our rights and liberties on this side of the Atlantic, shall we extend our operations to the remotest corner of Europe? When, to preserve our political existence, we ought to concentrate our strength, shall we diffuse and weaken it by engaging in a distant war? Shall we, in short, so give way to feelings of mere charity and generosity, as to lose sight of the higher obligations of prudence and self-defence?

The gentleman from Massachusetts has painted in true colours [sic] the fearful combination of sovereigns against the liberties of mankind. But, if there is danger, and I agree with him that it is imminent and appalling, it is here that we ought to meet it. A very slight examination of our resources, of the nature and character of our government and institutions, will convince us, that, in a distant war, foreign to our interests, this nation is as weak as an infant. For purposes of defence [sic], in a war that would unite all our resources, and rouse the energies of the people, we are as strong as Hercules.

I repeat, that if there is danger to be apprehended from the avowed principles of the Holy Alliance, it is in America that we must resist them. Like the generous animal which is the emblem of this country, let us not go forth to seek enemies. If they threaten us, let us warning be heard over the waves, in the voices of millions of freemen, resolved to maintain their liberties. If they approach our shores with hostile intent, we may arise in the collected strength of a great nation, and hurl destruction on the foes of freedom and of America.

I think, Sir, that any resolutions we may pass on this subject ought to be expressive of our policy and of the position we occupy, in relation to Europe, and that which we are resolved to assume in relation to America; and, with that view, I propose the following resolution as a substitute for those offered by my friend from Massachusetts: “Resolved, that this House view with deep interest, the heroic struggle of the Greeks to elevate themselves to the rank of a free and independent nation; and unite with the Pres-ident in the sentiments he has expressed in their favor; in sympathy for their sufferings, in interest in their welfare, and in ardent wishes for their success.”

(Hatzidimitriou 235-241)

Source: Constantine G. Hatzidimitriou, Founded on Freedom and Virtue: Documents Illustrating the Impact in the United States of the Greek War of Independence, 1821-1829 (New Rochelle, New York: Aristide D. Caratzas, 2002).