Dimitri Pallas Awarded Essay at the 25th Hermes Expo last April 5, 2016 at the Concordville Inn Awards Dinner
The Twin Significance of 1776 and 1821: How and why did Americans respond to the Greek War of Independence, and who were the Americans – including ‘freed’ slaves – who traveled to Greece and joined the Greek Freedom Fighters!
Note: The Award was received at the 25th Hermes Expo Dinner by his proud grandfather, Dr. Dimitri Pallas of Michigan
The American Philhellenes of 1821
The origins of American Philhellenism branch out earlier than 1821 when Greek fighters joined American forces against the British kingdom in the American Independence War of 1776 although not well documented. Philhellenism, or the love of Greek culture, powered many Americans who had gone through the struggles of the Revolutionary War to join the Greeks who enslaved by the Ottoman Empire fought for their land and civilization back.
With the dawn of the Greek revolution, word spread to America where many politicians and other legions of leaders heard of the war. Armed with the knowledge and strategy of having won their war against England’s empire which was even more menacing than the Ottoman’s at the time, the Americans rose to the call for action and aid to the Greeks. On May 25th, 1821 a Messinian Congressman wrote a letter directly to American Secretary of State John Quincy Adams asking the Americans to pledge their moral support. The letter was published widely throughout American newspapers and sparked a massive wave of support for the Greeks. While some historians believe this cry for help was answered out of pity, the general consensus stands that the American leaders had the utmost respect and appreciation for the Greek arts, civilization and culture in general from which they drew the foundation to lay the groundwork for American democracy. For the next year the Greek passions of democracy, liberty and justice ran through the blood of all Americans until the reality of politics halted the support.
On December 2, 1823 American President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine which was an executive order to keep the United States isolated from European affairs. This was partially due to a warning President Washington had issued in his Farewell Address where he stated that Americans had to avoid “foreign entanglements” to maintain their sovereignty. Regardless of the Doctrine, the American people and Congressmen were upset and only six days later Congressman Daniel Webster proposed Congress give money to send American supplies to the Greeks to help fight the Ottomans. Although the funding was shut down quickly, it became well known that there were many philhellenes who wanted America to answer to the multiple requests from Greeks sent by mail and also delivered in person to Thomas Jefferson who was serving in France as ambassador at the time. Educated Greeks who were familiar with the success of the American Revolution and with the American principles of liberty and justice such as Adamantios Korais, the man who contacted Jefferson, believed the American government would sympathize with the national and liberal aspirations of the Greek state.
The first American soldiers to actually land in Greece were not sent by order of Congress, however. George Jarvis was the son of an American diplomat living in Germany at the time when he heard of the Greek Revolution. In 1822, prior to the Monroe doctrine, he sailed to Greece where he taught himself to read and write Greek and famously wore the “fustanela” as he fought for two years before his death. Donned “Captain Zervos” by the Greeks, he was the figurehead of American philhellenism and was the first notable American to fight there by his free will. The passion to help Greece spread rapidly and soon people of all professions were sailing there to help in any way they could. Dr. Samuel Howe was a well known doctor in Boston who went and offered medical aid, James Williams a former African American slave who knew the struggle of freedom all too well enlisted in the Greek army and William Washington, a descendant of the first president, also picked up arms in the battle of Palamidi where he died a hero.
Many Americans who went to fight were either former slaves who were free or were white men who brought their slaves to fight with them. Symbolically these slaves understood what it felt like to lose their homelands and families and to live under the rule of another culture and often were the most passionate to join the efforts on the Greek side. While little evidence was documented, James Williams remains as one of the most influential African Americans to have fought in Greece. Arriving on an American ship with Stephen Decatur, he fought in many crucial battles including the liberation of Athens and later on alongside Lord George Byron in the Siege of Missolonghi. He seems to be the only well documented African American because he fought alongside so many notable philhellenists. Historians discovered him from the archives written by George Jarvis, and also coincidentally from when he died in a hospital donated by Dr. Howe.
Support continued throughout the early 1820s primary in the form of financial donations. Rallies in New York raised thousands of pounds and were sent to the Greek troops to buy weapons and supplies. By 1826 it seemed like a lost cause with news of Greece’s struggles emerging back in America. It was not until Greek leader Theodoros Kolokotronis sent a letter via George Jarvis to Edward Everett back in America empowering the Americans to continue support in the interest of spreading the human values of democracy and freedom throughout the world. The letter single handedly rekindled a new wave of support for the Greek efforts leading to merchant ships like Captain Jonathan Miller’s making multiple trips to bring donations to Greece. The supplies he carried aboard his ships has been estimated to have saved thousands of Greek lives just in feeding them and providing medical assistance. Besides bringing in supplies, when these ships left they would take home war orphans who studied at American schools and were welcomed with open arms.
The American support was fueled by the Second Great Awakening which was a religious revival movement taking place at the same time as the Greek war for independence. American media framed the war as a battle between Islam and Christianity and at the time all Christians in America dominated by the enthusiasm and emotion of the Second Great Awakening were especially eager to support the Greeks. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams who had encouraged President Monroe to move towards isolationism had no sympathy for the Greek cause and believed it was in America’s best interest to remain outside of the entanglement. The spirit of liberty and idealism for global democracy was shrouded by Adams’s realistic view that the Americans had to remain neutral if they were to ever undertake imperialistic conquests in Europe. Despite his distaste towards the Muslim Ottomans, Adams was single handedly one of the biggest influences as to why the American government as a whole could not send foreign aid to Greece and he dictated the political climate despite contributions from private individuals both in Congress and from ordinary people.
The Greeks at the time honored Americans for their courage, brotherhood and philanthropy in aiding them during this time of trouble. Their mutual love for the virtues of freedom, democracy and justice became two oppressed hearts beating as one in the strife to uphold these values. In verse 22 of his Hymn to Liberty, Greek national poet Dionysios Solomos immortalizes the American aid as they ”cordially rejoiced and Washington’s land. And remembered the irons in which she too was shackled.” Long after both countries proudly stand for the same principles and are some of the few in the world that adhere to them. Philhellenism spreads all across the world as people abroad idolize how advanced Greek philosophy and civilization has been. The connection between Greece and American goes far beyond politics, however. They are two sister countries which will uphold the essential human virtues they both stand for for centuries to come.
Word Count: 1279
Chryssis, George. “American Philhellenes and the Greek War for Independence.” American Philhellenes and the Greek War for Independence. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
Earle, Edward Mead. “American Interest in the Greek Cause, 1821-1827”. The American Historical Review 33.1 (1927): 44–63. Web…
Rosier, Collan. “Greek News.” Greek News. GreekNews, 19 Mar. 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.
Skarmintzos, Stefanos. “Remembering America’s Contribution to Greek Independence.” Remembering America’s Contribution to Greek Independence. N.p., 1 May 2012. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.