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Charilaos Trikoupis: The Reformer

September 3, 2021

Charilaos Trikoupis is one of the greatest political figures of modern Greek history. He served seven times as prime minister (1875, 1878, 1880, 1882-85, 1886-90, 1892-93, and 1893-1895) and other times held the Interior and Finance portfolios. He was a political reformer imbued with western liberal ideas who strived to modernize the Greek economy.

Trikoupis was born in Nafplion on July 11, 1832, to parents Spiridon Trikoupis and Ekatirini Mavrodartou, the sister of statesman Alexandros Mavrokordatos. He attended high school in Athens and studied law at the University of Athens, with further studies in Paris.

From 1856-64, he served in the diplomatic corps with a first appointment in the Greek embassy serving as secretary to his father, who was ambassador in London. During his time in London, he learned how the British political system functioned, which he found very useful. In 1864, Trikoupis headed the Greek delegation which negotiated with the protecting powers (Britain, France, and Russia) the transfer of the Ionian islands to Greece.

In 1865, he was elected to parliament representing Mesologhi. When Alexandros Koumoundouros became premier on December 18, 1866, he appointed Trikoupis as foreign minister. The young foreign minister negotiated an alliance with Serbia in 1867 which aimed to liberate all the Christians of the Balkans. Negotiations for an alliance with Romania failed as the Romanians doubted the Cretans’ ability of prolonged resistance and Greece’s ability to provide sufficient troops for battle. The Koumoundouros government didn’t last too long over the insurrection in Crete. Neither Greece or Romania was in a position to wage war against the Ottoman Empire.

In 1872, Trikoupis established his own group, naming it the new party. Then as now, Greek politics revolved around political personalities. After he failed in the 1874 elections, Trikoupis published his famous piece ‘Who is to blame?’ in the newspaper Kairoi in June 1874. Trikoupis accused King George I of exercising his power by bypassing parliament when he appointed the premier from the minority party. He proposed to the King that the appointment of premier should be the leader of the majority party who would command the support of the parliament. It wasn’t achieved until 1882, when he secured a parliamentary majority.

In May 1875, Trikoupis became premier for the first time and obtained a small number of seats. The majority of the seats were held by the old political classes which made it difficult for him to form a government. He resigned as premier in October basing his decision on the King’s speech of August 23, 1875, in which he had written down the principle of ‘dedilomeni – declaration’ in 1874.

Trikoupis dominated the political scene for the next twenty years representing the emerging middle class. His major opponents were Alexandros Koumoundouros and Theodoros Deliyannis who represented the old political order. The latter was a demagogue who opposed every measure of Trikoupis. The latter was interested in developing the domestic economy whereas Deliyannis focused on an irredentist foreign policy. This rivalry between Trikoupis and Deliyannis established the basis of a two-party system.

During his time as premier, he implemented a broad reform program that included infrastructure projects such as the Corinth Canal which commenced in 1882 and completed in 1893, and the draining of Lake Copais in Thessaly in 1880, He provided judges security of tenure, tried to stop political patronage, stamped out banditry, and also sought to make the civil service appointments based on merit rather than on patronage. Deliyannis later abolished Trikoupis’s civil service reforms and filled positions with his cronies.

During the 1880s, Trikoupis always endeavored to maintain good relations with his Slav neighbors but was suspicious of pan-Slavism which could hurt Greece.

When the Russians supported Bulgarian pretensions in Macedonia, Trikoupis saw this as an opportunity to establish better relations with Ottoman Turkey. He dissolved various nationalist organizations which attempted to foment Greek movements in Crete, Epirus, and Macedonia – but that didn't go down too well in Greece.

His investment in railways was seen as very costly with railway lines constructed in Peloponessos, Lavrion, Thessaly, and Pyrgos, and he kept the railways under state control. Expansion of the road network was intended to boost the internal market.  Trikoupis invited a French military mission to reorganize the Greek army in 1884-87. It didn't achieve much due to a shortage of funds, but the focus was more on the navy. Three ships: Spetzes, Idra, and Psara were ordered from French shipyards in Cherbourg with the first one delivered in 1890.

The primitive Greek economy couldn’t keep pace with Trikoupis’ ambitious program and he caused great dissatisfaction among the people due to his tax policy. Trikoupis increased taxation on state monopolies, imposed higher customs duties, and raised consumption taxes and a tax on farm animals. Deliyannis, one the other hand, abolished the unpopular monopolies in matches and cigarette papers and reduced consumption taxes on wine and tobacco.

Greece continued to raise international loans during the period 1879-90, most funds of which was spent overseas paying interest and purchasing armaments.

Unfortunately, there were insufficient funds in the Greek budget for the infrastructure programs. Eventually, Greece could not repay her foreign debts and in 1893, Greece declared bankruptcy due to the collapse of the market for Greek currants and the government’s inability to raise a new loan. It should be noted that the depressing economic conditions in Greece started the huge Greek migration across the Atlantic to the United States.  

His party suffered defeat in the elections of April 1895 where he lost his seat in Parliament. Trikoupis left politics full of bitterness and went on a trip to Europe. His friends nominated him as a candidate for a by-election of the province of Valtos without his knowledge. He was elected on March 17, 1896, but five days later Athens learned he was seriously ill.

Trikoupis died at the French resort of Cannes on March 30, 1896, at a time when Athens was hosting the first Olympic Games. His body arrived in Piraeus on April 9 and his coffin was publicly displayed at the church of Zoodochos Pigi. He was buried without formalities, as he had requested, in the family tomb of the Trikoupides in the first cemetery of Athens.

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