The United States of America and Greece both fought a war of independence to free themselves from foreign imperial control. Yet, there is much more that connects these two revolutions than meets the eye.
On the 4th of July 1776, the Second Continental Congress of the 13 American colonies declared their independence from King George III’s Britain. By this time, they had already been at war for over a year, and it would be another seven years before the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. When it came time to establish their new, independent country, the founding fathers turned to their Classical education for inspiration. Drawing on the works of Aristotle, Epicures, and the Stoic philosophers, they fashioned a new democracy modelled in part on that of ancient Athens. In taking that ancient democracy to their bosom, Americans felt an affinity when, a generation later, Greece rose up against Ottoman rule. In the words of Edward Mead Earle, the Americans saw: “the lineal descendants of the ancient Hellenes, heirs to the traditions of Pericles, Plato, Demosthenes, and Homer”.
The Greek revolutionary movement, in turn, took inspiration from the success of the American Revolution, offering hope that it was possible to defeat a dominant power and throw off the shackles of oppression. When the revolutionary leaders met in Kalamata in the Peloponnese in May 1821, they agreed to seek American support. The Messenian Senate reached out to John Quincy Adams through Parisian connections. Meanwhile, prominent Greek scholar Adamantios Korais reached out to the U.S. via Edward Everett, Professor of Greek at Harvard, and one of few Americans who had travelled to Greece on the Grand Tour. Everett, influentially, published the Senate’s letter in the North American Review:
This impassioned plea underscored the connections between American democracy (especially the Classical education of the political elite), ancient Greece and their contemporary, revolutionary struggle, urging America to “repay the obligations of civilized nations” through material support of the Greek cause.
Outright U.S. support failed to materialise – President Monroe offered hopes for the success of the revolution in State of the Union addresses in 1822 and 1823, but with the initiation of the Monroe doctrine in the latter address, it was made clear that no direct state intervention would be forthcoming. Yet, the tone of his address – stating that Greek independence was “the object of our most ardent wishes”, and speeches by Congressman Daniel Webster and open expressions of support from founding father Thomas Jefferson, made clear American sympathies towards the revolutionary cause in Greece.
Despite the official stance of non-intervention, private citizens in America raised funds, and contributed weapons and humanitarian aid. Some Americans were drawn to become active combatants, travelling to Greece expressly to fight for Greek independence. George Jarvis, New York native, became the first American to join the Greek insurgent klephts in 1822. Dr Samuel Gridley Howe, traded life in Boston to become the chief surgeon of the Greek revolutionary army in 1824. More than a surgeon, he proved himself to be an able military commander and through his networks, he was able to raise the equivalent of approximately US$16 million in aid from private U.S. citizens.
These efforts served not only to aid the Greeks in achieving their independence, but also to cement connections between Greece and the United States that have endured. In 1837 the United States officially recognised Greece as an independent state.
In 1854 the Greek government responded to a call to contribute a memorial stone to the construction of the Washington Monument. A piece of marble measuring approximately 90cm x 135cm was sent to Washington, accompanied by a letter that read “As a proof of the gratitude of the nation towards the United States, we order, that this stone, with the advice of the Superintendent of the Antiquities, be taken from the ancient ruins of the Parthenon…”. The stone is carved with an inscription in Greek that, when translated, reads:
“George Washington, the hero, the citizen of the new and illustrious liberty: the land of Solon, Themistocles, and Pericles—the mother of ancient liberty—sends this ancient stone as a testimony of honour and admiration from the Parthenon.”
The stone is one of 193 commemorative stones embedded into the interior walls of the Washington Monument. The Washington monument was constructed in stages over the course of half a century. Consequently, the stone was not installed in the monument until 1885. At the same time, a stone dedicated by the Islands of Naxos and Paros was also installed. A third stone intended for the Washington Monument, from the Temple of Asklepios on the Island of Paros, was shipped to America in 1865. Somehow it found its way into the Smithsonian Institution, from which it has disappeared without a trace. While Greece is not the only foreign nation to contribute stones to the monument, the dedication of three stones underscores the depth of feeling between Greece and America’s revolutionary hero in the mid-19th Century.
The mutual ties were deepened in 1938 when U.S. Congress approved the presentation and dedication of a monument to the Heroes of the Greek Revolution. The 3m high marble stele known as the Sons of Pericles monument, commemorating American Philhellenes who died fighting in the Greek War for Independence was unveiled in the Garden of Heroes on Missolonghi on the 25th of June 1939, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two.
International relations between Greece and the United States since World War Two have repeatedly drawn on the interplay between their claims to ancient Greece in the construction of their contemporary democracies, and the shared birth of their modern states through revolutionary wars. President Obama delivered addresses commemorating Greek Independence Day and President Trump’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Greece in September 2020 to reaffirm the strength of the relationship between Greece and the United States. President Joe Biden delivered an address in March of this year, to mark the bicentenary of Greek Independence, making reference to Aristotle in his opening comments marking “200 years of friendship between our nations”, yet again reinforcing the entanglement between antiquity and modern U.S.-Greek relations in the popular and political imaginations of Greeks and Americans alike.
Dr Yvonne Inall is a Project Officer at the AAIA. She holds an MPhil in Classical Archaeology (University of Sydney) and a PhD in History (University of Hull). Her research focusses on Iron Age weapons and warfare, violence and the construction of martial identities in the Mediterranean, Northwest Europe and Britain. She also conducts research into memorialisation practices and was a postdoctoral fellow on the Remember Me Project at the University of Hull from 2015-2018.