American Philhellenes and the Greek War for Independence
By: GEORGE C. CHRYSSIS
Early period of the American philhellenic movement
The 1776 American Revolution was an inspiration to the then enslaved Greeks, not only during the actual days of the revolutionary war, but long after its successful completion and the eventual declaration of independence and the creation of the United States of America.
There are unconfirmed reports, that in the battle of Monmouth, New Jersey, which took place on June 28th, 1778, Greek volunteers fought under the leadership of a young man called Demetrios Ypsilanti, who allegedly later returned to Greece and might have fought or influenced the advent of the War for Independence.
Today, a town near Detroit, Michigan, bears the name Ypsilanti in honor of a Demetrios Ypsilanti. Historians point out that the town was named after the Greek Revolution hero Demetrios Ypsilanti, brother of "Philiki Eteria" leader Alexandros Ypsilanti, rather than the "Monmouth battle legend".
Irrespective of whom the town was named after, the fact remains that the heroism of a Greek freedom fighter inspired judge Augustus Woodward to name, in 1833, a town after a man "who in the beginning of the 19th Century, in charge of three hundred men, successfully battled an entire Turkish army, inflicting damage and eventually escaped without losing a single man".
When the bell of the Revolution rang in 1821 and the cry "Freedom or Death" resonated over the enslaved Greeks, a number of American philhellenes started a lobbying campaign in the United States for the support of the Greek War of Independence, a campaign that captured the imagination of many influential political and civil leaders in America.
The Greeks on the other hand, knew from the very beginning of their War of Independence that the American people would understand their struggle, having themselves fought for independence a few years back, and sought the support and influence of the new Republic to advance and promote the Greek cause.
Thus, on May 25th, 1821, Petros Mavromichalis, on behalf of the Messinian Congress send a letter to the then Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, which was published in the American newspapers, asking for moral support. "Your virtues, Americans, are close to ours, although a broad sea separates us", wrote among other Mavromichalis. "We feel you closer than our neighboring countries and we consider you as friends, co-patriots and brothers, because you are fair, philanthropic and brave… Do not deny to help us…"
Edward Everett, a Harvard professor and great philhellene, who was also the publisher of the North American Review, published every correspondence of letters or appeals that he was receiving from Greece and through articles and speeches he made strong public pronouncements for the recognition of the Revolution and for sending military aid to Greece.
On December 3rd, 1822, US president James Monroe in his annual address to Congress said: "A strong hope is entertained that the Greeks will recover their independence and assume their equal statue among the nations of the earth."
Unfortunately, on December 2nd, 1823, president Monroe announced the "Monroe Doctrine", which in essence excluded the United States from getting involved in European affairs and considered the then existing European governments as "de facto legitimate."
On December 8th, 1823, Congressman Daniel Webster from Massachusetts made a motion in Congress for the appropriation of money, to send an American envoy to Greece and for the support of the Greek struggle for independence.
On January 19th, 1824, Webster gave a powerful and resonating speech in defense of his proposal. "I have in mind the modern not the ancient, the alive and not the dead Greece… today's Greece, fighting against unprecedented difficulties… a Greece fighting for its existence and for the common privilege of human existence", said Webster.
Congressman Henry Clay, from Kentucky, supported Webster's motion and in a moving oratorical speech on January 20th, 1824, asked Congress to officially recognize the Greek War of Independence and to send an envoy to Greece to examine and report on the situation. He stressed the fact that the entire American nation was showing sympathy and support for Greece and urged Congress to suppress any fears and apprehensions and to help a Christian nation. In addition, General Sam Houston, a member of Congress, supported Daniel Webster's motion.
Unfortunately, due to strong opposition from members of Congress that adhered to the principles of the "Monroe Doctrine", the Webster motion was defeated.
However, the speeches of the great philhellenes, Webster and Clay, were widely publicized in America, Europe and South America and sparked the interest of many individuals, who decided to help the Greek revolution with various means. The influence and the positive contributions of the American philhellenes to the Greek War of Independence had just begun!
Thomas Jefferson and Adamantios Koraes
It is worth noting that Adamantios Koraes, a Greek physician, intellectual, scholar and an early "prophet" of the Revolution, who believed that independence of Greece could only be achieved by educational progress, wrote many times to Thomas Jefferson asking for his support to the struggle of Greece for independence.
Koraes, who at the time lived in Paris, met Jefferson there around 1785, when Jefferson served as the ambassador of the United States to France. Following Jefferson's return to America in 1789, the two men continued their friendship through correspondence.
Koraes' letters to Jefferson were passionate and full of patriotic zest, always promoting the case that it was to the best interest of America and the American people to help Greece attain its freedom. "Help us, fortunate Americans", wrote Koraes in a letter dated July 10th, 1823, "We are not asking you for a handout. Rather, we are providing you with an opportunity to augment your good fortune."
Koraes believed that appealing to powerful, respected and enlightened philhellenes to intervene and influence their respective governments for the recognition of the Greek cause, was a powerful and invaluable political tool. Himself an "enlightened revolutionary", he believed that the power of intellect and diplomacy was more effective than the might of soldiers and arms.
Through correspondence and personal contacts, Koraes convinced many foreign intellectuals that the continuing use of the Greek language since classical days, together with a continuous habitation of the same lands and of common religion, history and tradition, was conclusive evidence of the existence of a Greek national identity, thus establishing a strong argument for the recognition of an independent Greek state.
The American philhellenes
The first volunteer American to travel to Greece and join the Greek War of Independence was George Jarvis, a New Yorker, who went to Greece in 1822. He learned the Greek language, put on a "foustanella" (Greek kilted skirt) and upon joining the "kleftes" (Greek guerilla fighters) he became known as "Kapetan Zervos". Jarvis was brave, participated in many battles and was repeatedly wounded. He died of natural causes in Argos on August 11th, 1828, but his appeals back home for aid and contributions to the Greek cause paid off.
Jarvis became a role model for other American volunteers. In 1824, Captain Jonathan P. Miller, of Vermont, arrived in Greece. He too learned the Greek language, worn the foustanella and was fearless in battle. Miller was in Messolongi during its siege and in a letter to Edward Everett dated May 3rd, 1826, he described the heroic "exodus" and the subsequent fall of Messolongi and the massacre of its population by the Ottomans.
While in Greece, Miller adopted a four-year-old boy, whom he brought back to Vermont. This boy, Loukas Miltiades Miller, eventually graduated from Vermont University in 1845, and shortly thereafter he married and moved to the town of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where he engaged in business and civic activities. In 1853 he was elected a member of the State Legislature and in 1891 he was the first American of Greek origin to be elected to the Congress of the United States of America!
However, by far the best-known philhellene is Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Bostonian physician. Upon his arrival in Greece, he enlisted in the Greek Army and for six years he served as a soldier and a chief surgeon. In 1829 he established a medical center in Aegina and a school for the blind in Corinth. Long after the revolution, Howe continued to be active in Greek affairs, both in Greece and in the United States. In 1866, during the Cretan Revolution, he returned to Greece with his wife Julia Ward Howe, to organize support for the new uprising of the Cretans against Ottoman tyranny and enslavement.
Other American philhellenes who went to Greece to offer their services during the Revolution were George Wilson of Providence, Rhode Island, who excelled in bravery during the naval battle at Nafpaktos; James Williams, an African American from Baltimore who joined the Greek Navy forces; Estwick Evans from New Hampshire, who left behind his wife and children in order to fight the Greek War for Independence; captain John M. Allen; and William Townsend Washington, a distant relative of president George Washington, who despite his erratic personal behavior and colorful life-style he was fearless and brave and fell heroically fighting in the battle of Palamidi.
In the meantime, the Greek Revolution was gaining support among the American philhellene citizens and many were collecting money to help the Greek cause. Through the fundraising efforts of New York philhellenes, the amount of 6,600 sterling pounds was collected in 1824 and was forwarded to the Greek government via London, England.
During a fundraiser in New York City, Nicholas Biddle, a banker, offered the then largest personal donation of $300 to the "New York Greek Relief Committee", while US president John Adams in a letter to the same committee encouraged the fundraising efforts.
Leading the fundraising efforts in Baltimore was Charles Carroll, of Carrollton, a signatory of the Declaration of Independence, and in Philadelphia the leader was Mathew Carey.
In 1825, the French General Lafayette, a great philhellene and staunch supporter of the Greek Revolution, visited the United States and in every affair that he attended in his honor, proclaimed the importance and the moral responsibility of helping, in any way possible, the Greek struggle for independence.
However, by 1826 the initial enthusiasm of the American public begun to wane, partly due to conflicting reports about the success of the war and also because of disturbing news about infighting and rivalry among the Greek leaders.
To rekindle the American philhellenic movement, the Greek revolutionary leader Theodoros Kolokotronis, through George Jarvis, sent a letter to Edward Everett dated July 5th, 1826, in which the great Greek leader explained the situation in Greece, pledged unity and appealed for further help and support. "Greece is forever grateful to the philanthropy of our Christian [American] brothers", wrote Kolokotronis, "who share her struggle and who also support with their funds her just war [for independence]… the Greeks, determined to live or die free, do not fear shedding their blood… or the killing of their old, their women and their children… and they are ready to accept death rather than slavery; and now, more than ever, enthusiastically and united they are moving forward against [the Turks]… The Greek nation is not ungrateful to its benefactors. It is grateful to those who proclaim its epic struggle and their names will be recorded with indelible letters in the annals of the reborn Greece, in timeless display, for the respect of upcoming generations… Do not stop sending us your contributions… thus [you are] benefiting humanity and fulfilling Christ's will. "
The letter was translated by Everett and parts of it, along with parts from Jarvis' accompanying letter, were published in newspapers in Boston, Philadelphia, New York and other cities, sparking a new initiative of aid and assistance for the Greek nation.
Material aid to Greece
Captain Jonathan P. Miller returned to the United States in 1826 and through the efforts of the Greek Philhellenic Committee of New York, he was able to collect $17,500 worth of various relief supplies, which he took back to Greece onboard the ship "Chancellor", on March 5th, 1827.
The same year two more ships, "Jane" and "Six Brothers", left New York harbor bound for Greece carrying various relief supplies of $25,000 in the aggregate.
At about the same time, two more shiploads of supplies totaling about $22,500 left the port of Philadelphia onboard the ships "Tontine" and "Levant", while from Boston the ship "Statesman" carried to Greece cargo worth over $11,500.
All these relief provisions that contained food items, clothing, medical supplies and other necessities, were distributed primarily to the suffering Greek civilian population, albeit soldiers and brigands usurped some supplies upon the arrival of the cargo to Greece.
On January 2nd, 1827, Congressman Edward Livingston from Louisiana introduced a motion in Congress for the appropriation of $50,000 to purchase supplies for the needy people of Greece. His motion was defeated, but through private initiatives and fundraising activities $80,000 was collected in a combination of cash, food items and other in-kind aid.
In 1927 and 1928 a total of eight shiploads of supplies and relief aid worth more than $150,000 (an extraordinary amount by today's standards) were dispatched to Greece and distributed by overseeing officials to needy members of the civilian population.
It was obvious that the publication of Kolokotronis' letter had a great impact in rekindling the humanitarian interest of the Americans toward the ongoing Greek struggle. Furthermore, the various printed articles about Greece and its War of Independence that Everett and Carey published through their publications, along with the letters and reports published in American newspapers from the great philhellenes and humanitarians Howe, Miller and Jarvis, kept the struggle and plight of the Greeks in the forefront of the American public opinion.
It is estimated that thousand of Greeks were saved from starvation, exposure to the elements and disease through the efforts of these philhellenes. It may be safe to say that without the moral, intellectual, political, monetary and in-kind assistance of these American men, the outcome of the Greek War for Independence might have been different.
And lastly, several these men arranged to transport a number of war orphans to the United States that were adopted by American families. Many of these orphans received College education, excelled in their professions and became productive and admired citizens of the United States, while others chose to go back to Greece to offer their expertise and advice to the newly created Greek state.
(About the author: George C. Chryssis is a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, civic activist, poet and author. He is a past supreme President of the Pancretan Association of America, a member of AHEPA, an Archon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a member of the Greek Archdiocese of America Leadership 100, former Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees at Hellenic College, and Trustee of Northeastern University and Wentworth Institute of Technology. He is a founder and a former publisher of "The Hellenic Voice", a national newspaper serving the Greek American community. George, has written and published several literary essays, technical articles, editorials and commentaries, as well as four poetry books (in both Greek and English), and an internationally acclaimed and highly recognized technical book in English (with a Chinese translation). For his contributions, activities and accomplishments, he has received numerous awards, citations and recognitions. He lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts.)
Theodoros Kolokotronis (1770-1843), the leading military hero of the 1821 Greek Revolution of Independence.
The great Bostonian philhellene, Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, in an 1859 photograph.
Greece expiring on the ruins of Messolongi, by Delacroix
Coraes and Regas helping a rising Greece