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

A2. References to the Greek Question in the Letters of President James Madison

(Madison, III pp. 339-41) To President Monroe, October 30, 1823

Dear Sir,
I have just received from Mr. Jefferson your letter to him, with correspondence between Mr. Canning and Mr. Rush, sent for his and my perusal, and our opinions on the subject of it.

From the disclosures of Mr. Canning it appears, as was otherwise to be inferred, that the success of France against Spain would be followed by an attempt of the Holy allies to reduce the revolutionized colonies of the latter to their former dependence.

The professions we have made to these neighbours [sic], our sympathies with their liberties and independence, the deep interest we have in the most friendly relations with them, and the consequences threatened by a command of their resources by the Great Powers, confederated against the rights and reforms of which we have given so conspicuous and persuasive an example, all unite in calling for our efforts to defeat the mediated crusade. It is particularly fortunate that the policy of Great Britain, though guided by calculation different from ours, has presented a co-operation for an object the same with ours. With that co-operation we have nothing to fear from the rest of Europe, and with it the best assurance of success to our laudable views. There ought not, therefore, to be any backwardness, I think, in meeting her in the way she has proposed; keeping in view, of course, the spirit and forms of the Constitution in every step taken in the road to war, which must be the last step if those short of war should be without avail.

It cannot be doubted that Mr. Canning's proposal, though made with the air of consultation as well as concert, was founded on a predetermination to take the course marked out, whatever might be the reception given here to his invitation. But this consideration ought not to divert us from what is just and proper in itself. Our co-operation is due to ourselves and to the world; and whilst it must ensure success in the event of an appeal to force, it doubles the chance of success without that appeal. It is not improbable that Great Britain would like best to have the merit of being the sole champion of her new friends, not withstanding the greater difficulty to be encountered, but for the dilemma in which she would be placed. She must, in that case, either leave us, as neutrals, to extend our commerce and navigation at the expense of hers, or make us enemies, by renewing her paper blockades and other arbitrary proceedings on the Ocean. It may be hoped that such a dilemma will not be without a permanent tendency to check her proneness to unnecessary wars.

Why the British Cabinet should have scrupled to arrest the calamity it now apprehends, by applying to the threats of France against Spain the small effort which it scruples not to employ in behalf of Spanish America, is best known to itself. It is difficult to find any other explanation than that interest in the one case has more weight in its casuistry than principle had in the other.

Will it not be honorable to our Country, and possibly not altogether in vain, to invite the British Government to extend the “avowed disapprobation" of the project against the Spanish Colonies to the enterprise of France against Spain herself, and even to join in some declaratory act in behalf of the Greeks? On the supposition that no form could be given to the act clearing it of a pledge to follow it up by war, we ought to compare the good to be done with the little injury to be apprehended to the U. S., shielded as their interests would be by the power and the fleets of Great Britain united with their own. These are questions, however, which may require more information than I possess, and more reflection than I can now give them.

What is the extent of Mr. Canning's disclaimer as to “the remaining possessions of Spain in America?” Does it exclude future views of acquiring Porto Rico, &c., as well as Cuba? It leaves Great Britain free, as I understand it, in relation to other quarters of the Globe.

I return the correspondence of Mr. Rush and Mr. Canning, with assurances, &c.

J. M.

(Madison III, p. 341) To Thomas Jefferson, Montpellier, November 1, 1823

Dear Sir,

I return the letter of the President. The correspondence from abroad has gone back to him, as you desired. I have expressed to him my concurrence in the policy of meeting the advances of the British Government, having an eye to the forms of our Constitution in every step in the road to war. With the British power and navy combined with our own, we have nothing to fear from the rest of the world; and in the great struggle of the epoch between liberty and despotism, we owe it to ourselves to sustain the former, in this hemisphere at least. I have even suggested an invitation to the British Government to join in applying the “small effort for so much good” to the French invasion of Spain, and to make Greece an object of some such favorable attention. Why Mr. Canning and his colleagues did not sooner interpose against the calamity, which could not have escaped foresight, cannot be otherwise explained but by the different aspect of the question when it related to liberty in Spain, and to the extension of British commerce to her former Colonies.

(Madison III, pp. 344-48) To Richard Rush, Montpellier, November 13, 1823


But whatever may be the motives or the management of the British Government, I can. not pause on the question whether we ought to join her in defeating the efforts of the Holy Alliance to restore our Independent neighbours [sic] to the condition of Spanish Provinces. Our principles and our sympathies; the stand we have taken in their behalf; the deep interest we have in friendly relations with them; and even our security against the Great Powers, who, having conspired against national rights and reforms, must point their most envenomed wrath against the United States, who have given the most formidable example of them; all concur in enjoining on us a prompt acceptance of the invitation to a communion of counsels, and, if necessary, of arms, in so righteous and glorious a cause. Instead of holding back, I should be disposed rather to invite, in turn, the British Government to apply, at least, “the small effort” of Mr. Canning to the case of the French invasion of Spain, and even to extend it to that of the Greeks. The good that would result to the world from such an invitation, if accepted, and the honor to our Country, even if declined, outweigh the sacrifices that would be required, or the risks that would be incurred. With the British fleets and fiscal resources associated with our own, we should be safe against the rest of the world, and at liberty to pursue whatever course might be prescribed by a just estimate of our moral and political obligations ...

(Madison III, p. 619) To General La Fayette, Montpellier, February 20, 1828

... We learn with much gratification that the Greeks are rescued from the actual atrocities suffered, and the horrible doom threatened from the successes of their savage enemy. The disposition to be made of them by the mediating Powers is a problem full of anxiety. We hope for the best, after their escape from the worst ...

(Madison IV, p. 39) To General La Fayette, June IS, 1829

My Dear Friend,
Your letter of January 28 came duly to hand. The answer to it has been procrastinated to this late day, by circumstances which you will gather from it.

I am glad to learn that the regenerating spirit continues to work well in your public councils, as well as in the popular mind; and elsewhere as well as in France. It is equally strange and shameful that England, with her boasted freedom, instead of taking the lead in the glorious cause, should frown on it as she has done, and should aim as she now does to baffle the more generous policy of France in behalf of the Greeks. The contrast will increase the lustre [sic] reflected on her rival...

(Hatzidimitriou 196-199)

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).