OPINION

Sympathy and restraint: American views of the Greek Revolution

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How did Americans view the Greek Revolution of 1821? No people sympathise more feelingly than ours with the sufferings of your countrymen, none offer more sincere and ardent prayers to heaven for their success: and nothing indeed but the fundamental principle of our government, never to entangle us with the broils of Europe, could restrain our generous youth from taking some part in this holy cause.

In one long sentence, Thomas Jefferson summarized pro-democracy hopes and non-interference constraints. Jefferson was replying to a letter from Adamantios Koraes, the leading intellectual of Greek Independence, who sought American support in spring of 1823.  By the end of that year, President Monroe would echo Jefferson’s restrained sympathy for the Greek cause. The balance that they sought to establish is one that American presidents have tried to manage ever since.

Early Debates over Sympathy and Restraint

Don’t underestimate sympathy. It is worth remembering that Jefferson’s and Monroe’s public expressions of support for Greek independence were no small things. They helped establish a precedent that has become central to a democracy-led world order. They did so at a time when democracy was a relatively new revolutionary force, and the United States was just starting to feel like an established nation.

Jefferson was, at the time of the Greek revolution, the living but aging voice of democracy’s self-evident truths. The eighty-year-old author of the Declaration of Independence remained the visionary apostle of human freedom, the most eloquent spokesperson for the ideas that individual liberty and collective self-government were inherent human rights, and that republics deserved equal standing in world affairs. 

By 1823, Jefferson was the single most accomplished living democratic politician of the day. His Declaration was more than poetry; it had been a diplomatic thunderbolt, successfully electrifying “the opinions of mankind” as a new American nation began to “assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station.” Jefferson would go on to serve as Ambassador to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and then President. His successful run for the presidency established the Democratic-Republican party – the first opposition party to win a peaceful transfer of power … ever … in human history. He and his two successors, neighbors, and proteges – James Madison and James Monroe – formed a twenty-four year one-party political dynasty that is still the longest in American history.

Jefferson and Monroe were openly supporting both Greek independence from the Ottomans, and also Greek desires to be a self-governing republic. The latter was key and controversial. Jefferson and Monroe saw that as essential to US national interests. A new republic in Europe was as enthralling to Jefferson and Madison as it was potentially threatening to “the Allied Sovereigns of continental Europe” – the so-called “Holy Alliance” of Russia, Austria, Prussia and a restored French monarch. The Holy Alliance was seeking to extinguish all republics – fearing a return of the wars and anarchy let loose by the French Revolution just a few decades before.

As much as they hoped for Greek success, however, Jefferson and Monroe expressed restraint. Both believed that the United States could not afford being entangled in European power politics. Avoiding Europe’s wars was a widely embraced principle in American politics since Washington’s presidency — even if this was easier in theory than in practice for each successive president. Jefferson himself had seen the French Revolution. He knew firsthand that an uprising in the name of the people did not necessarily lead to a sustained democracy.

Likewise, Monroe had served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War during the War of 1812 and was not keen to begin a renewed conflict with European powers. American democracy had barely survived the domestic debates about that very unpopular war, in which the pro-British northern states considered seceding from the Union. At home, Monroe was struggling with America’s own western domains and the growing tensions around the expansion of slavery, including the reality of Jefferson and Monroe themselves being slaveholders. So their commitment to liberty clearly had its limits. And they were far from sure that they could really afford to get pulled back into European affairs. 

Liberating the old world or securing the new?

Greece was not the only or even most likely flashpoint for conflict with Europe’s monarchs. The Holy Alliance was actively trying to defeat an effort in Spain to establish a constitutional monarchy. The Spanish struggle had major implications for the new world. Restored absolutists in Spain might, in turn, try to overthrow the recently liberated republics in Latin America, which had won their freedom from Spain and Portugal just five years before. The Monroe Administration was cautious about even recognizing the independence of Latin American republics, lest that invite a Holy Alliance response.  

Still, President Monroe faced pressure from Kentucky Senator Henry Clay to recognize the western hemisphere republics. Clay had been arguing for an “American System” – an alliance among liberal republics in the Americas. In the words of Robert Zoellick (himself a former diplomat and later World Bank president), “Clay’s republicanism offered an international alternative to the monarchy, mysticism, and oppression of the Holy Alliance.”

It was in that context that republican momentum for the Greek revolutionaries also grew in the United States in late 1821 and early 1822. Philhellenic societies began to multiply, inspired by a romantic sentiment many educated Americans felt thanks to extensive instruction of ancient Greek language, history, and democratic politics. “The Americans saw in them the descendants of the ancient Greeks, the heirs of the traditions of Pericles, Plato, Demosthenes and Homer.” Reports from Greece by learned American travelers, such as Edward Everett, lecturer at Harvard, confirmed the noble ambitions of the modern Greeks, and began to enlist support in their cause.

Of the people, by the people, for the people

By the summer and fall of 1822, American pro-Greek public momentum increased dramatically – fired in particular by a humanitarian crisis that awoke both American and European opinion. Though the early stages of the Greek revolution had been fought in the Peloponnese, the Ottomans massacred tens of thousands of innocent civilians on the eastern Aegean island of Chios in the spring of 1822. Word spread rapidly in Europe and the United States, with a Christian people being slaughtered by Muslim infidels. Major American newspapers began to call on Congress to raise funds and even to arm ships to intervene.

American civil society began to step forward to speak on behalf of Greek Independence. Over the ensuing year of 1823, local and state governments, private philhellenic societies, and major newspapers began issuing declarations in favor of Greek Independence. Leading colleges and universities held fundraising campaigns. Members of Congress began to call on the federal government to formally recognize the new republic.  

Still, some in the US government wanted to proceed cautiously. Even as European monarchies began to consider whether to intervene on behalf of a Christians slaughtered by Muslims, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams worried about being drawn into a European conflict. The former envoy to both the United Kingdom and the Russian Empire viewed rising British and Russian interest in Greece as little more than an effort to buffer Ottoman power.

In December of 1823, just over a month after Jefferson’s letter to Koraes, President Monroe chose to use his annual statement to Congress – now known as the State of the Union – to clearly articulate his policy toward both the Latin American republics and the Greek Independence movement.  

Monroe’s principal aim was to draw a line that would shield the liberal republics in Latin America from European treachery. His famous “Monroe Doctrine” – articulated in three distinct paragraphs of the State of the Union address – made clear four American policies: (a) that the US opposed any future European efforts to establish colonies in the America; (b) that European interventions in America would be viewed as hostile acts, (c) that the U.S. had no interest in interfering in European internal affairs; (d) that America acknowledged the independence of the Latin American republics and viewed their liberty from European interference as consistent with American interests and values.

So what did that mean for Greek Independence? The final paragraphs of Monroe’s statement also made clear American’s emotional support for Greece. “The mention of Greece fills the mind with the most exalted sentiments and arouses in our bosoms the best feelings of which our nature is susceptible.” After listing the historical, philosophical and artistic legacies of ancient Greece, he castigated modern Greece’s oppression at the hands of the Ottomans. “That such a country should have been overwhelmed and so long hidden, as it were, from the world under a gloomy despotism has been a cause of unceasing and deep regret to generous minds for ages past.”  

Monroe defended as “natural, therefore, that the reappearance of those people in their original character, contending in favor of their liberties, should produce that great excitement and sympathy in their favor which have been so signally displayed throughout the United States.”  He closed by expressing a “strong hope … that these people will recover their independence and resume their equal station among the nations of the earth.” 

President Monroe flirted with the idea of formally recognizing the Greek independence movement and sending a minister to Greece. John Quincy Adams counseled against it. “It was fine to mention … Greece sympathetically, Adams suggested, but not in a way that the Holy Alliance would read as hostile.” The President expressed a basic sentiment, essentially blessing the Greek cause but not promising anything further than moral support. Adams rightly knew that members of Congress and private citizens would not drop the matter.

Perhaps the most articulate philhellene in Congress was Daniel Webster.  Less than a week after Monroe sent his address to Congress, Webster stood in the well of the Senate to argue for a formal Congressional endorsement of the Greek independence movement. This would affirm to the world’s monarchs both that Americans stood behind republican governments, and that they would no longer condone Ottoman barbarism.

Webster began by distinguishing “between absolute and regulated governments.” “The main controversy is between absolute rule, which, while it promises to govern well, means nevertheless to govern without control.” Webster directly quoted a Holy Alliance manifesto from 1821, which stated that any effort by a people to establish their own rights “deviates from this line” and “necessarily leads to disorder, commotions and evil, far more insufferable than those which they pretend to remedy.”   

In contrast, constitutionalism shares the view that “society may claim, as a matter of right, some effective power in the establishment of the laws which are to regulate it.” Webster left no doubt on where the United States needed to stand: “Our place is on the side of free institutions.”

Webster argued that Americans needed to support Greece not simply out of emotional affection. Webster stressed US national interests of defending the republican form of government under international law, in a world dominated by monarchies. “It is our duty to oppose, from the earliest to the latest moment, any innovations upon that code, which shall bring into doubt or question our own equal and independent rights.” He warned that giving into threats from the Holy Alliance who aimed to “bring into disrepute the principles of our government, and indeed to be wholly incompatible with any degree of national independence.” 

As if national interest is not enough, Webster went on to appeal to humanitarian concerns. He described the massacre at Chios: “that indescribable enormity; that appalling monument of barbarian cruelty… a scene from which human nature shrinks shudderingly away; a scene having hardly a parallel in the history of fallen man.”

Greece ultimately gained independence in 1832, guided in large part by Ioannis Kapodistrias – minister of foreign affairs turned President. After Kapodistrias’ death in 1831, however, the European powers made Greece a monarchy, eating away at some of the newly gained democracy. It was during this period, in 1837, that the United States first officially recognized Greece, doing so by engaging the country in a commercial treaty. The heavy handed European approach was short-lived – in 1843, the Greek populace rose up in a demand for constitutional reform, affording the people of Greece with political say.

Sympathy and Restraint: An Enduring Legacy 

Two hundred years later, the issues debated remain equally relevant. Democracies around the world retain an interest in one another’s successes. They also retain an interest in extending at least moral support when a liberation movement is under attack. 

The practice of making public statements of moral support for fledgling democratic movements has become a staple of American foreign policy. That remains particularly important in a world where hostile absolute powers which defend their authoritarian ways by claiming that they, and they alone, know what is right for the governed.

Words of encouragement are still meaningful in world affairs. Authoritarian states have begun to flex their muscles in recent years. Russia’s efforts to undermine Ukrainian democracy in 2014, China’s 2020 crackdown on Hong Kong self-governance, and Burma’s 2021 military coup are only three examples of where modern absolutists have stamped out democratic movements. To quote Daniel Webster, for the absolutists, the people’s “whole privilege is to receive the favours which may be dispensed by the sovereign, and that all its duty is described in the single word: submission.” The United States government, Congress, and many citizens groups of all shapes and sizes spoke on behalf of the rights of the people in all those instances. 

Presidents Obama and Biden spoke more forcefully on behalf of democracy than President Trump was inclined to do. In the current moment, even our efforts to send moral support to other democratic nations must come with real humility, given our own deeply divided electorate, considerable debates about the efficacy of our own democratic institutions, and the aftermath of a violent insurrection promoted by a failed presidential campaign.

That said, in the post-WWII period, the US built the most extensive and successful alliance of democracies that the world has ever known. That has included going beyond mere sympathy for pro-democracy movements, and providing economic and military assistance. Especially since the end of World War II, the challenge for America has been to know when and where it can intervene to stand-up for democratic movements. It was perhaps fitting that one of the first test cases, in the aftermath of WWII, was in Greece’s struggle against communism, where President Truman successfully supported the democratic cause.  

Pro-democracy interventions have spanned the range of successes and failures – always involving a complex blend of factors including what the local capacity for self-government is and what ways external intervention can help or be harmful. And yet that same post-war period is marked by a series of failed interventions, where democratic movements either could not be sustained or were actually undermined by American involvement. Costly failed interventions have also sapped American faith in our own government, suggesting that restraint may often be the best course of action.

The American debates about the Greek revolution marked one of the most important early efforts to resolve that dilemma, a case study that still informs our diplomacy.


William Antholis is Director & CEO of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. The Greek Revolution Through American Eyes is a virtual exhibition that will be inaugurated via live stream on March 30th. For details click here.