Guest Viewpoints

Begun in Greece and Culminated in our American Civil War: Abolitionism and the Greek Revolution

March 27, 2021
By Maureen Connors Santelli

Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, abolitionist and friend of Samuel Gridley Howe, offered an important reflection on the legacy of the Greek Revolution in the United States. Sanborn was a schoolteacher in Concord, Massachusetts in 1857 when he joined a radical abolitionist group devoted to raising funds in support of John Brown and other antislavery residents of Kansas. The radical group of abolitionists was small and included his friend Howe. Later renamed ‘The Secret Six,’ Sanborn and the other members of the group began to provide assistance in February 1858 for Brown’s next great effort to end slavery in the United States. Brown’s plan was to incite an armed slave insurrection, which would begin at Harpers Ferry, Virginia the following year. Though Brown’s slave insurrection was suppressed almost immediately, the event further exacerbated sectional tensions between the North and South. Sanborn was forever associated with this climactic event, which ultimately paved the way toward civil war.[i]

Decades later, Sanborn wrote the preface and notes for the collected letters and journals of his dear friend, Samuel Gridley Howe, a philanthropist and philhellene who had served in the Greek army. Sanborn praised his friend for his role in the emancipation of Greece and his support for the abolition of slavery within the United States. Howe was “a born philanthropist,” observed Sanborn, “and well aware that the service of mankind often requires political revolutions.” Sanborn went on to state that Howe’s devotion to the antislavery cause in the nineteenth century had “begun in Greece” and culminated “in our American Civil War.”[ii]

Reflecting on the legacy of the Greek Revolution and the aftermath of the Civil War from the vantage point of the early twentieth century, Sanborn viewed the progress toward abolition in the United States from a global perspective. To Sanborn at least, the abolition of slavery in the United States could not have been accomplished without the influence of the Greek Revolution

The Greek Revolution drew the attention of most early Americans beginning in 1821. At first inspired by a transatlantic phenomenon known as the philhellenic movement, many Americans supported the prospect of a Greek nation. A dislike and mistrust for the Muslim world was already extant within the United States by the end of the eighteenth century but intensified through the Barbary Wars. Early Americans imagined themselves to be politically and ideologically connected with ancient Greece and wished to release the modern Greeks from the Ottoman Empire.

Philhellenes joined efforts with benevolence and missionary groups and together they promoted humanitarianism, education reform, and evangelism. The redemption of the Greeks by various pro-Greek organizations assumed a “secularized missionary spirit,” which endeavored to spread an American understanding of freedom, liberty, and Christianity to all parts of the world. Greek relief efforts were led by the classical scholar and philanthropist Edward Everett and was supported by countless community groups throughout the country. Long after the Greek Revolution concluded, the ideas and tactics of the philhellenic movement contributed to the growing momentum of the American abolitionist movement.[iii]

Before abolitionism became a popular movement in the United States, many early Americans viewed slavery as it existed in the Muslim world to be abhorrent. African American publications referenced the Greek cause with frustration and appealed to their readers to recognize the similarities between the life of a Greek under Ottoman rule and the life of an African slave under a southern master’s rule. Several articles were published noting the similarity in the first African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, at the height of the Greek cause’s popularity. With reference to the Greek cause, one author pointed out “it would be instructive to take any of the addresses, speeches, or resolutions made on that occasion, and to see how many of the most odious features of Turkish slavery may be fairly matched in this free and enlightened country.” The authors continued with their own comparison between slavery in Greece and America and concluded that given the amount of support the Greeks had recently enjoyed, “what generous mind would not rather be the Greek than the black?”[iv]

Still another example of an African American abolitionist using the Greek cause as a rhetorical tool was David Walker. Printed in 1829, Walker’s radical pamphlet, Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, rallied both free and enslaved African Americans to stand up to the institution of slavery. Walker observed that while reading a South Carolina newspaper he came across an article stating, “the Turks are the most barbarous people in the world – they treat the Greeks more like brutes than human beings.” Alongside this article was an advertisement that said, “Eight well-built Virginia and Maryland Negro fellows and four wenches will positively be sold this day to the highest bidder!” For Walker, the disconnect between condemning a foreign institution of slavery while supporting a domestic one was unpalatable. Walker concluded by directing his arguments toward white Americans and warned that they could not hide their hypocrisy from God even though “you can hide it from the rest of the world, by sending out missionaries, and by your charitable deeds to the Greeks.”[v]

Contrasting popular interest in Greece with the lack of interest in the issue of American slavery proved to make for a powerful argument. If the Turks were indeed barbaric for holding slaves, what made American slaveholders different? For Walker and others, racial differences did not provide sufficient justification. If Americans could see the similarity between the Greeks and African slaves, then it would be clear that the institution itself was the problem, not the racial characteristics of the slaves.[vi]

Perhaps the most famous white abolitionist of the antebellum era almost made his humanitarian debut as an American philhellenic soldier. William Lloyd Garrison was just twenty years old when the Greek cause in America was at its height of popularity. Caught up in the midst of the pro-Greek fervor, Garrison, like many other youths of the time, aspired to defend the Greeks by joining the Greek army. Although the budding abolitionist ultimately decided not to join the Greek forces, philhellenic rhetoric, however, stayed with Garrison throughout his life.[vii]

For example, in 1831, Garrison openly accused his countrymen of being hypocrites for supporting the Greeks while forsaking African slaves. In a piece titled The Insurrection, which was printed in Garrison’s publication The Liberator, Garrison reprimanded his contemporaries who feared slave insurrection and flatly stated that African slaves did not need to be pushed into insurrection by abolitionist influence. Instead they could find incentive “in their stripes – in their emaciated bodies – in their ceaseless toil.” Garrison continued his accusation of hypocrisy by pointing out that most Americans had applauded the Greek insurrection and observed that African slaves “deserve no more censure than the Greeks.”[viii] Garrison’s writing, especially his ‘Insurrection’ article, created controversy wherever it was reprinted, in both the North and South. One Portsmouth, Maine newspaper reported that North Carolinians were especially up in arms, demanding in 1831 that anyone who circulated The Liberator “ought to be barbecued.” The Portsmouth Journal made a similar historical connection as Garrison had with the Greek Revolution, pointing out that if The Liberator would incite insurrection in the South, then the North Carolina Free Press should also stop publishing pieces about liberty and equality and “rejoicing at the success of the Greeks.”[ix]

Something had changed. When the Greek Revolution first began in 1821, Americans had seldom connected the abolition of Greek slavery with the condition of slavery in the United States. Citizens of the American South rejected any link between the plight of the Greeks and that of their own slaves. The spreading desire for freedom would eventually come to the American South, predicted abolitionist newspapers, and African slaves would, like their Greek counterparts, revolt. The national consensus behind supporting the Greek cause was becoming a distant memory by the 1830s and was instead joining with the divisive political rhetoric of the antebellum era.

Throughout the antebellum era, to recall the tyranny of the Turks was to summon the ultimate definition of despotism in the contemporary world. The Greek cause became a part of a reformist legacy linking the progression of these antebellum reform movements to a global story rather than just a domestic one.

This legacy is evident in Senator Charles Sumner’s White Slavery in the Barbary States, published in 1853. While the title indicates the work was intended to be a history of slavery in the Barbary States, the antislavery sympathizer repeatedly used Turkish slavery as a comparison to slavery in the American South. By referring to the South as the Barbary States of America, Sumner offered a multitude of points of comparison to the Barbary States including that “Virginia, Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas should be the American complement to Morocco, Algiers, Tripoli, and Tunis.” With the slaves’ “long catalogue of humiliation and woes” not yet complete, Sumner’s history of the Barbary States illustrated that the system of slavery philhellenes had so reviled decades earlier was really not dissimilar to the system they themselves allowed to continue within their own borders.[x]

Some refugees from Greece made the case themselves that Greek and African-American enslavement was the same issue, giving the American abolitionist movement an expanded international perspective. At least three active members of the abolitionist movement, Photius Fisk, John Zachos, and Joseph Stephanini were Greek youths rescued by American philhellenes and brought to the United States. Joseph Stephanini believed he had a unique perspective on slavery given that he had experienced Ottoman slavery firsthand. Ottoman soldiers captured Stephanini while his village was under attack early on in the war. For several years he lived as a captive, not knowing whether he would ever see his family again. Through a series of fortunate events, Stephanini managed to escape his captors and gained passage on an American ship bound for New York. Arriving in New York, Stephanini was taken under the wing of the New York Greek Committee. Stephanini remained for several years, visiting supporters of the Greek cause in Charleston, South Carolina. Newspapers reported on Stephanini’s travels. The Vermont Gazette printed that while unwilling to accept charity, Stephanini intended to publish a memoir that would help to raise ransom money to free his mother and sisters. The whole effort would be done in Charleston with the assistance of admirers and supporters including Thomas S. Grimké, a noted abolitionist. At the age of twenty-six, Stephanini’s memoir condemned American slavery and encouraged Americans to see the similarity between their institution of slavery and the conflict that persisted within the Ottoman Empire.[xi]

Other Greek refugees who arrived in the United States permanently claimed it as their new home. These Greek refugees were mere children when they came to the United States to receive an education sponsored by local Greek Committees. Though they became American citizens, Photius Fisk and John Zachos carried their experiences from the Greek Revolution into adulthood.

Photius Fisk came to the United States under the sponsorship of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions as well as philhellenic Americans. With a brother in the Greek army, Fisk from an early age learned to detest “every form of slavery.” Fisk later became an ordained minister and was named a chaplain in the U.S. Navy in 1841.[xii]

Throughout his life’s work for the abolition of slavery and other philanthropic causes, admirers of Photius Fisk recognized the connection between his devotion to the antislavery movement and his experiences with “the wrongs imposed upon the people of his country by the Turkish tyrants.” Fisk became well acquainted with William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Frederick Douglass, and many other members of the antislavery movement. Perhaps the most noteworthy member of the abolitionist movement with whom Fisk became associated was John Brown. Garrison introduced Fisk to John Brown in Boston in 1859 while Brown was making secret arrangements for his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Holding Brown to be a “true friend of the anti-slavery cause,” Fisk contributed one hundred dollars to Brown’s mission.[xiii]

John Zachos was another Greek-American abolitionist. Zachos was ten years old when he came to the United States under Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe’s care. American philhellenic patrons paid for the young boy’s education and living expenses until he graduated in 1840. He spent most of his life as an educator and school principal.[xiv]

During the American Civil War, Zachos worked with the Educational Commission of Boston and New York, traveling to South Carolina in 1862 as part of the Union presence in the region. Zachos assisted with providing education to the newly freed slaves, a venture not dissimilar from the efforts made by benevolence groups for Greek education in the years that followed the Greek Revolution. A news report printed in a New York newspaper related the arrival of the Union forces as well as the presence of “three to four thousand” freed slaves who had assembled to celebrate Emancipation Day.[xv] The “plentiful supply of abolition speeches” included an ode written by John Zachos declaring the African slaves finally free. 

Although the Greek cause initially aimed at helping the Greeks as an extension of philanthropic relief abroad, ironically, in the end, it transformed American society. Both the rhetoric of the Greek cause and participation in the movement influenced reformers and brought a global perspective to the abolitionist movement, inspiring early Americans to consider the domestic slave trade as no better than slavery within the hated Ottoman Empire. Though the consensus among philhellenic organizations of the early 1820s was short-lived, the memory of the Greek cause continued to play a pivotal role in American reform.

[i] This article is adapted from The Greek Fire: American-Ottoman Relations and Democratic Fervor in the Age of Revolutions, by Maureen Connors Santelli. Copyright (c) 2020 by Cornell University. Published by Cornell University Press. James W. Trent, The Manliest Man: Samuel G. Howe and the Contours of Nineteenth-Century American Reform (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 207–9.

[ii] Samuel Gridley Howe, Letters and Journals of Samuel Gridley Howe, ed. Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, vol. 1 (Boston: D. Estes & company, 1906), xi.

[iii] See James A. Field, America and the Mediterranean World, 1776-1882 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), vii.

[iv] People of Colour, Freedom’s Journal, April 6, 1827.

[v] David Walker, Appeal in Four Articles Together With A Preamble, to the Coloured Citizens of the World (Boston: David Walker, 1829), 15 and 45.

[vi] Timothy Marr, The Cultural Roots of American Islamicism, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 135.

[vii] Wendell Phillips Garrison and Francis Jackson Garrison, William Lloyd Garrison, 1805-1879 : The Story of His Life Told by His Children, vol. 1 (New York: Century Co, 1885), 57 and 63-64.

[viii] William Lloyd Garrison, The Insurrection,” The Liberator, September 3, 1831; Marr 148.

[ix] “Insurrection of Slaves, The Portsmouth Journal and Rockingham Gazette, September 24, 1831.

[x] Charles Sumner, White Slavery in the Barbary States, (Boston: John P. Jewett and Company, 1853), 12.

[xi] A Young Greek Called Joseph Stephanini, Vermont Gazette, April 7, 1829. Grimké, Weld-Grimké Family Papers 1740-1930 (n.d.), William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan; American Colonization Society, Annual Report of the American Colonization Society (The Society, 1845) Grimké is listed as an active member from South Carolina. Joseph Stephanini, The Personal Narrative of the Sufferings of J. Stephanini, (New York: Vanderpool & Cole, 1829), 4.

[xii] Lyman F. Hodge, Photius Fisk: A Biography, (Boston: 1891), 13, 56-57.

[xiii] Hodge, 13, 116–17.

[xiv] Thomas Burgess, Greeks in America: An Account of Their Coming, Progress, Customs, Living, and Aspirations, (Boston: Sherman, French and Co., 1913), 200.

[xv] News from South Carolina. Negro Jubilee at Hilton Head, The New York Herald, January 7, 1863.


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