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The Many Parallels Between US, Greek Wars of Independence

War of Independence
“The British Surrender at Yorktown,” by John Trumbull, 1817. The forces of British Major General Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis (1738–1805) surrendered to French and American forces after the Siege of Yorktown (September 28 – October 19, 1781) during the American War of Independence. The central figures depicted are Generals Charles O’Hara and Benjamin Lincoln. Public Domain.

Greece and the US share many historical similarities. Those who fought the American War of Independence against the British Empire and founded the new nation of the United States were clearly inspired by Greek ideals.

After suffering under an unresponsive monarchy that refused to allow them to be represented in Parliament, they intended to recreate the Ancient Greek precepts of democracy on American shores.

The ideas and practices that led to the development of the American democratic republic after 1776 owe an enormous debt to the ancient civilization of Greece.

All of America’s founding fathers had studied the ancient Greek philosophers, drawing inspiration on morals, ethics and the sense of self-determination — all fundamental principles of a democratic society.

Plato (c. 427-328 BC) was an important influence, as he wrote about the importance of mixed government, an idea that is fundamental to both the development of the separation of powers and the Constitution.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) also wrote about the separation of powers as a crucial element in a republic.

War of Independence
Credit: A. Makris/Greek Reporter

Man as “the measure of all things”

As author Tom Jewett pointed out: “Thomas Jefferson admired many aspects of the ancient Greeks; he could read and speak the language. He agreed with many of their precepts, such as the Greek idea that man is the measure of all things.

“This was the groundwork for his belief in humanism, which recognized no barriers to the use of the mind, and which sought to make all knowledge useful to man. Jefferson particularly admired the Greeks’ idea with respect to man’s relationship to himself.

“Jefferson was also influenced by the Greek philosophies of Epicures and the Stoics. He believed as Epicures that happiness was humanity’s main goal and it could be attained through moral and noble actions.

“From the Stoics, Jefferson took the idea of reining in emotion. He felt these ideas about self-control, moderation and rational behavior in the face of misfortune were paragons on how one should comport oneself.”

King George rebuffs efforts at colonial representation

The colonists’ demands for representation in Parliament had been rudely rebuffed by King George III, who refused to accept the “Olive Branch Petition” of 1775, saying that the Second Continental Congress had no legal right to create such a document.

Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry and John Hancock — all giants of the American Revolution — were some of the authors of the petition.

American revolutionaries realized that the only way they would ever have any control whatsoever over their daily lives would be to create their own nation, by force if necessary.

But were the Greek revolutionary leaders of 1821 inspired by the successful American Revolution which began in 1775, just 45 years earlier? It seems clear that they must have been, if we look at the many uncanny parallels between the two wars of liberation.

Thirteen states much like Greece’s “polis” or city-state system

In founding a democracy within a republic from the thirteen original British colonies, the Americans were well aware that they were hearkening back to the days of Ancient Greece, with men being able to debate in their own legislature and vote on the laws which governed them.

After winning their independence, the thirteen colonies were formed into thirteen states, which were much like the Ancient Greek city-state, or “polis.”

And like a polis, the new states were composed of an urban center and the agricultural land and smaller communities surrounding it.

Although both republics, Ancient Greece and the new American nation were naturally far from perfect democratic ideals — women and those who did not own property were of course allowed no say in the matters of government — the Greek concept of democracy was reborn in the world after American revolutionaries won their fight to rid themselves of the monarchy that had oppressed them.

Greek revolution
Map of “Roumelia” or Ottoman-occupied Greece, from “The Ottoman Empire, 1801-1913” by William Miller. Published by Cambridge University Press, 1913. Public Domain.

Wars of Independence against two mighty empires

The Ottoman Empire at that time was vast, covering territory from as far as the Danube River in the north to Syria in the East.

And the British Empire was likewise at its height at the time of the American Revolution in 1776 — and the sun literally never did set on the Empire’s lands in those days. It was by far the world’s greatest superpower; the British were the unchallenged masters of the oceans with a massive fleet.

Going up against superpowers such as the British or the Ottoman Empire took something beyond bravery — it took an unshakable belief in the moral imperative of the mission — and a widespread, nearly universal, willingness to die for these ideals.

Historian and professor Carl J. Richard notes that from Herodotus and Plutarch, the founders learned the story of the Persian War, the near miraculous victory of the tiny Greek republics over the seemingly invincible Persian empire.

“From this tale, the founders learned that it was possible for a collection of small republics to defeat a centralized monarchical empire in a war for survival. This was a crucial lesson because the founders faced just such a power in the Revolutionary War,” he adds.

Samuel Gridley Howe, the Greek Lafayette
American Philhellene Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, known as “The Greek Lafayette.” Credit: Public Domain

Help from abroad helped ensure victory for Greece and the US

Like the rebellious Greeks 45 years later, American colonists also ultimately needed help from abroad to defeat their enemy militarily. Most historians believe that America never would have won its freedom without the enormous assistance of France, with the Marquis de Lafayette himself in the vanguard.

Giving of his own vast wealth to the American cause, he donated ships and fought alongside General George Washington, who he viewed as a father figure.

Lafayette’s role in the Revolution was not forgotten by the Greeks several decades later, when America in some way repaid a debt to Europe in the form of Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe, a Bostonian who became known as “The Greek Lafayette.”

Volunteering his services as a surgeon to the Greek side, the Harvard-educated Boston brahmin soon found himself fighting alongside his brothers in arms. He briefly returned to America to raise funds for the Greek War of Independence and for the suffering people of the nation, donating the equivalent of $16,000,000 in today’s money for the cause.

Secret societies in Greece and the American colonies fomented revolution

Revolutions, by necessity, must start underground, under the cover of secrecy. The secret society called “The Sons of Liberty,” headed by Boston patriot Samuel Adams, has much in common with Greece’s Filiki Eteria, or “Society of Friends.”

Formed by Nikolas Skoufas, Emmanuil Xanthos, Athanasios Tsakalov, and later joined by Theodoros Kolokotronis and other pillars of the Greek Revolution, such groups were the only way to communicate with like-minded men.

The Sons of Liberty started with the Harvard-educated Adams’ formation of the blandly-named “Committee of Correspondence” in 1772 to shore up resistance to the monarchy’s overreach and what he saw as Britain’s violations of its own constitution in its dealings with the colonies.

By 1773, the group of agitators from all thirteen colonies had morphed into the “Sons of Liberty” after the hated Tea Act was imposed, allowing for the British East India Company to sell Chinese tea in the colonies without paying taxes other than those imposed by the Townshend Acts.

Filiki Eteria broadside
A Filiki Eteria broadside and an engraving of its founders. Public domain.

The Sons of Liberty and Filiki Eteria sparked rebellion against empires

Its first major act of insurrection was the 1773 Boston Tea Party, when tons of the precious British commodity were thrown into the sea by the Sons, who had decked themselves out in Native American clothing to evade identification.

Other Boston-area men who were eventually named as Sons of Liberty were James Otis, Paul Revere, Benedict Arnold, and Dr. Benjamin Rush — all of whom went on to play prominent roles in the Revolution and in governing the nascent nation after they had won its freedom.

Tactics used by the Sons to “persuade” the British to concede included a boycott of all things British, backed up by vandalism and even violence.

Sons of Liberty enforced the boycott by sending boys to smash the windows of local shops whose owners refused to comply with the boycott. If that didn’t work, the proprietor could be siezed, and tarred and feathered.

And just like the Sons, members of the Filiki Eteria met as revolutionaries who were united in their mission to overthrow a hated Empire and who were committed to a violent revolution in order to achieve this.

Sons of Liberty broadsheet
A broadside printed and distributed by the Sons of Liberty secret revolutionary society. Massachusetts Historical Society. Public Domain

Broadsides — some with “fake news” — helped foment unrest, sparking revolution

The first printed Greek newspapers came about during the Revolution, Greek history expert Mark Mazower related, because a number of the revolutionary leaders brought printing presses to Greece at that time.

Such tools for the dissemination of ideas had been completely unknown in the country until that time.

Before the first printed newspapers were printed in Greece, the Filiki Eteria circulated handwritten broadsheets, just as the Sons of Liberty had distributed their own broadsheets during the American Revolution.

Some of them, Mazower admitted, did contain “fake news,” which was “designed to whip up sentiments in favor of the insurgency.”

Samuel Adams
American Son of Liberty and revolutionary Samuel Adams. The portrait is meant to show the importance of the rule of law as set down by the Massachusetts Charter, to which Adams is pointing. By John Singleton Copley, 1772. Public domain

The written word as the ultimate mode of governance

Part of what rankled the colonists was the fact that the British constitution by which the monarchy supposedly ruled had never been written down as a single entity. Various rulings, such as the act of habeas corpus, and other laws limiting the power of British monarchs, were understood to be part of a Constitution — but even to this day there is no one document as such in the UK.

The Americans — and the Greeks, several decades later — were extraordinarily careful to write decrees and other documents spelling out the exact powers that they now took on as representatives of the people.

The modern concept that there must be written rules — instead of monarchical dictates or decrees from the Sultan — governing the lives of citizens, was developed by the American revolutionaries and the creators of the American Constitution, and was echoed in the proclamations issued by the provisional government of Greece in Nafplio even as the Greek revolution was ongoing.

These first documents that came out of Greek revolution, according to historian Mark Mazower, were responsible for creating modern written Greek as we know it, since this marked the first time it had been used for official documents in their country.

Written rule of law ultimately triumphant

Samuel Adams, one of the Sons of Liberty who were to rise to prominence in the new United States, believed that the Massachusetts Charter was a constitution that protected the peoples’ rights and that document, along with other charters, helped make the Constitution a reality.

So it seems clear that in many ways, ancient Greek ideals influenced the American colonists and great political thinkers of the day, whose methods of revolution were echoed decades later in Greece, the home of democracy itself.

The ancient concepts of the separation of powers, as well as the moral and ethical structure of ancient Greece, were the touchstones of the nascent American republic.

The Greek ideals of democracy and the rule of law now provide both Americans and Greeks, as well as most other nations around the world with a means of protecting their human rights.

So American independence influenced the modern independence of the Greek people; indeed in the end, as the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote, “We are all Greeks.”

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