V. The Frigate Affair: On Values and Interest
A. Some Press Reports and a Comment by President James Madison
The New York Enquirer, October 12, 1826: The Greek Cause
The expose relative to the building of the two frigates for the Greeks is the subject of much controversation [sic]. We shall not meddle with the question at present, but merely refer to some recent remarks in the Evening Post.
The editor expresses an opinion in favor of our government openly espousing the cause of the Greeks in preference to this secret aid, and thinks it would be more manly, independent and fearless. There is probably no severer duty we can impose upon ourselves as a nation, than to take care of ourselves; that is, to guard ourselves against an impetuosity of feeling - against a hectic desire to mingle in every contest having freedom for its object. This feeling is a natural - is honorable; but its loose gratificatis [sic] is dangerous. “Charity begins at home” is a good proverb. It may be carried too far individually, but not in a national point of view. Our feelings, our interests, our anxieties, our desires were all with South America in her contest with Spain, yet we were prudent and correct in maintaining our neutral position, which probably saved us from an European war. How can we, in justice to South America, and in accordance with the settled principles of our government, come out openly in favor of the Greeks and form an alliance with that crude government?
But there may be something done for the Greeks without compromitting [sic] this neutrality; and here let it be understood, that we have no fears from Turkey, or from any other European power, should we take sides with the Greeks. We have to fear the effect of surrendering a principle intimately connected with our own safety and welfare: still we can do something beneficial to the cause, and yet not compromit [sic] the government. A sum of money was sent to the United States to build two frigates for the Greeks. Owing to the mismanagement of the agents, one of the ships was sold to the United States government (in other words pledged) to enable the other frigate to sail. Now, it is proposed in the Post to give the other frigate to the Greeks. To this proposition there is no objection, excepting that the act is manifestly a violation of our neutrality. But there is another, and it strikes us, a better mode of reaching the point. Let the frigate be fitted for sea, and sent to the Greek government, taking the obligation of the government to repay to the United States the amount of her cost when in funds. This would be a credit sale; an act of justice, rendered somewhat necessary by the bad faith of our citizens entrusted with the Greek funds. The ship may be eminently useful to the Greeks, and, in time, we may receive the amount of her cost and outfits. There is an additional inducement to take this step, as the ship is useless for our navy - her timber is green - she will do well in the smooth Mediterranean, but will rot and go to pieces at our navy yard long before we can have any use for her.
An authority, therefore to sell her to the Greeks, leaving the payment at convenience, will cover the proposed object, and meet the assent of the people.
The New York Statesman, October 16, 1826
“A vindication of the conduct and character of Henry D. Sedgwick, against certain charges made by the Hon. Jonas Platt; together with some statements and inquiries intended to elicit the reasons of the award i n the case of the Greek frigates. New York, printed by J. Seymour, John - street."
A pamphlet of 24 pages, under the above title, was put into our hands this morning, and we find the same in the Boston Daily Advertiser of Saturday. As it might appear somewhat singular that it should have found its way into a Boston paper, before it was published in any of the papers of this city, we state upon direct authority, that such was not the intention of the author. A pledge to give an expose of the whole transaction, after the frigate Hope had sailed, was published some weeks since. A copy was forwarded to his friend, the editor of the Boston Daily Advertiser, with permission to use it when the Hope had left the waters of New York. To the premature notice of her departure, inserted in one of the evening papers, is to be attributed its appearance at an earlier day than was expected or intended. We shall publish it entire in tomorrow's Statesman.
The New-York Statesman, October 17, 1826: Vindication of Henry D. Sedgwick, with some Inquiries respecting the award in the case of the Greek Frigates
From the Boston Daily Advertiser of Saturday October 14.
(Last paragraph of the article]
The reckless expenditure, the wild waste of these sacred funds, devoted to the cause of liberty and religion, I fear will be deemed a blot on the fair fame of this free and Christian country. Reproaches from abroad, if such be made will be unjust. The fault in no degree attaches to our natural character or sentiment. It has been one consolation which has cheered me in performing the unpleasant task to which I am compelled, that I should give an opportunity for such an expression of public sentiment as will vindicate the honor of the country.
For the present I take my leave of this subject, calling again on Judge Platt for the long promised reasons for his award ...
New York, September 21, 1826
New-York Statesman, October 19, 1826: The Greek Controversy
We owe an apology to our readers for having admitted into our columns such portions of statements of either party in the controversy relating to the building and equipping of the two frigates intended for the Greeks, as are exclusively of a personal character, which have no bearing on the real merits of the case, and which prove nothing on either side. A statement has been promised, and was expected by the public, but they have no interest in any unhappy occurances [sic] growing out of momentary excitement. If we had used our usual precaution, we should have excluded every thing of that character. As it is, we can only express a hope, that, whatever may thereafter appear, will be exclusively confined to the merits of the case. But, having unfortunately published from both sides, what should have been omitted [sic], we can now only stop at the point of equal justice and there we will stop, confident that our readers take as little interest in such matters as we do, and that they will judge from the facts of the case and from nothing else.
[Also in the same issue) (Communication)
Messrs. Editors - I shall make no reply to the scurrilous letter published in your paper yesterday. Circumstances have rendered it my duty to expose the conduct of Judge Platt to public reprobation. I have, besides, another and a higher object. The matter should not rest wholly in words, but something should be done to repair the wrongs which have been done to Greece, and to efface the stain upon the reputation of our own country. The Liberator has been fully paid for, and should be sent to Greece. I shall not suffer my own attention, or that of the public, to be diverted from these objects by any collateral quarrels. Most assuredly I shall not enter into no controversies with young Mr. Platt, whose christian name is Zephaniah. The following letter from Mr. Robinson will convince the public that his veracity is quite on a par with his delicacy and good manners. So much, and no more, for Mr. Zephaniah Platt.
The American Quarterly Review, March/June 1827
Philadelphia, March 1827
... We have now arrived at the end of an examination which we felt it our duty to undertake, not with a view of ministering to passions which appear to have been strongly excited, but for the higher object of endeavoring to relieve our national character from imputations which in other countries might be cast on it. We believe we hazard nothing in asserting, that the general sentiment of our country is that of dissapprobation [sic] and regret. No American journal has uttered a word in extenuation of the obliquity; many of our public writers have stigmatized it; not a voice has pronounced a favorable sentence, but from the circle of the parties. The only instance in which we could render to the Greeks any substantial service, has manifestly been perverted by private cupidity to unwarantable [sic] emolument; a profit of 80,000 dollars made out of their distresses by their mercantile correspondents ...
James Madison letter to Lafayette, November, 1826
(Madison, Writings, p. 264)
... It appears [that] the ample fund for two Frigates at an early day has procured but one which has but recently sailed. The indignation of the public is highly excited; and a regular investigation of the lamentable abuse is going on. In the meantime, Greece is bleeding in consequence of it, as is every heart that sympathises [sic] with her noble cause.
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).