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The Friendship Between Thomas Jefferson and Adamantios Korais

Thomas Jefferson
Greek philologist Adamantios Korais and the third US President, Thomas Jefferson. Original photos: Public domain; Illustration: Greek Reporter

Philologist Adamantios Korais and the third American President, Thomas Jefferson, exchanged important correspondence during the Greek War of Independence, sharing ideas on the concepts of democracy and liberty.

The little-known friendship and exchange of ideas between the two men can be found in the letters they wrote to each other, which are preserved in the Korais Library on the island of Chios.

The Greek scholar had a deep knowledge of his nation’s ancient culture and was one of the most important representatives of the modern Greek enlightenment. He was also a pioneer in the publication of ancient Greek philosophy and literature.

Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States of America, served two consecutive terms (1801-1809) and was the main author of the Declaration of Independence. He was also a proponent of the separation of church and state and founded the University of Virginia.

“Equality between people and individual well-being is now recognized as the only legitimate objective goals of a government,” Jefferson wrote to Korais in 1823.

Exchange of groundbreaking ideas between Jefferson and Korais

The two men met during Jefferson’s five-year stay in Paris (1784-1789). The American politician had the reputation of being a liberal and progressive man, sympathetic to those who fought for their freedom.

Jefferson was well-educated and had repeatedly expressed his great admiration for the ancient Greeks. He had met with Korais several times and they soon developed a friendly relationship.

Jefferson’s philhellenism convinced the Greek philologist that he was the right person to actually contribute to the cause of the struggling Greeks — even if he was living on the other side of the Atlantic.

A call for more active American support from Adamantion Korais

Korais sent a total of three letters to the American politician, who replied to only one. However, this letter is particularly important because it provides a wealth of advice for the formation of the new Greek state.

Korais felt honored that the veteran politician wrote such a long and significant letter, which was also tangible proof of Jefferson’s true feelings towards the Greeks.

There had been an inexplicably long period of silence on the part of the American politician before this.

Korais was eagerly anticipating a reply to his third and last letter. About one and a half years later, he used the publication of Plutarch’s “Politics” as the occasion on which he sent a copy to his American friend.

In the letter, Korais invited Jefferson to a more active role in favor of the Greek cause. The Revolution had begun to stagnate after two years of continuous success.

However, since the beginning of May, strong enemy forces had landed on the Peloponnesian peninsula, while at the end of the same year 10,000 Ottoman soldiers had arrived in the eastern part of the Greek mainland.

In the political field, the first rift between politicians and military had already occurred, during the work of the Second National Assembly in Astros of Kynouria.

The decisions made during the assembly undoubtedly affected the Peloponnesian chiefs, and war hero Theodoros Kolokotronis in particular. These decisions included the dissolution of the Peloponnesian Senate and the abolition of the title of General.

The leader of the whole effort was Alexandros Mavrokordatos, who was accused by his opponents of being an “Anglophile.”

Korais seemed to be of the same opinion and in the letter, he wrote to Jefferson he blamed the English for their policy, which could never become truly philhellenic because of the Ionian Islands, which were under the control of England.

Korais turned to the Americans, calling on assistance in the campaign of the Greek revolutionaries. The argument he made for America’s monetary gain, which would derive from the potential signing of trade agreements, was a remarkable move for the time.

If Washington did not want to speak openly in favor of the Greeks, Korais asked Jefferson to publish at least one letter to the local press because its impact alone would be great.

Along with the letter, as a token of respect and appreciation, the Greek philologist sent to his American friend a copy of Aristotle’s “Ethics” and “Politics,” which he had just published.

Finally, Korais asked Jefferson to notify him of the receipt of his gift, in order to ensure that a reply was sent. In the last lines, Korais noted that the Greeks (on whose behalf he wrote) did not ask for charity from the Americans.

Thomas Jefferson replies to Adamantios Korais

The American politician received Korais’ letter on October 2, 1823. A few weeks later, he wrote a lengthy reply, which he sent to his Greek friend through the American consul in Paris, who was Korais’ neighbor.

In the text, Jefferson clarified from the outset the official policy of his homeland, which was complete neutrality and non-involvement in European affairs.

He then made clear the belief that the ancient Greek model of government was inapplicable and explained the American model, which functioned through the use of delegates, which he hastened to contrast with the British Parliamentarian model.

Jefferson also made an extensive report on the separation of powers, constitutional texts and the method of election of judicial officials, even submitting specific proposals which could be implemented in the Greek state which was soon to be established.

The former American president also outlined the basic principles governing the American Constitution and briefly described the educational system in his homeland.

Most of the suggestions Jefferson made were not applicable to the birth of the new, liberated Greece. Yet the most important ideals of justice and equal rights were there.

Related: American Philhellenes and the Greek Revolution of 1821


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