Jefferson and Korais: The Deep Roots of Greco-American Friendship
July 4, 2022
By Dr. Leonidas Petrakis
Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale, 1800. Photo: Public domain
Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and the author of the Declaration of Independence, was intimately familiar with classical Greek ideals and culture, which played an important role along with the ideals of the Enlightenment in formulating the principles upon which the American Republic was founded.
In fact, Thomas Jefferson was fluent in Classical Greek and prided himself on being able to read the Classics in their original language. In 1800, Jefferson wrote the following to famous chemist, Dr. Joseph Priestley: “I enjoy Homer in his own language infinitely beyond [Alexander] Pope’s translation and I thank on my knees him who directed my early education for having put into my possession this rich source of delight.”
Prior to being elected president, Jefferson served as U.S. Ambassador to France for five years (1785-89), a tumultuous time for France, and indeed for the world. Although the Americans were determined to stay out of the European wars, they did not remain aloof and unengaged in the Old Continent’s intellectual and political developments.
On the contrary, Jefferson’s diplomatic residence in Chaillot was a beehive of activity and a central meeting place for leading European intellectuals. It was there that Adamantios Korais was often a dinner guest of the future president.
Korais was a towering intellectual figure who, along with Rigas Feraios and other patriots of the Greek Diaspora, played a key role in preparing the enslaved Greek nation to gain its independence from the Ottoman Turks.
Korais, whose parents were from Chios, was trained as a physician, but he moved to Paris in 1788, where he established himself as a world renowned classical scholar, editing and publishing many classical Greek texts. His commentaries on the classics (i.e., Prolegomena) are still highly valued. In Paris, Korais also became deeply involved in the Enlightenment movement and closely observed the French Revolution.
Like Jefferson, Korais believed that people enlightened by education could best govern themselves, and that democracy was better than monarchy or any other system.
He devoted his energies to helping his countrymen gain their independence and democracy, advocating the establishment of schools, libraries and, in every way possible, elevating their educational level. Like Jefferson, he admired the achievements of the ancients, but he wanted their noble ideals of freedom and democracy adapted to the realities and needs of modern states.
When the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Korais was too old to return and fight. Instead, he aggressively tried to gain support abroad for the Greek Cause. He wrote countless letters seeking moral, political, and material support for the Greeks. Korais mistrusted the European powers, especially England, but he had great admiration for the establishment of the American Republic, and considered it to be the best modern actualization of the democratic ideals first developed by the Greeks. He advocated the adoption of a constitution in Greece which would be in line with the American Constitution.
Furthermore, Korais pointed to George Washington, Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin as role models for politicians of the Modern Greek state when it was starting on its path to independence and nationhood.
Korais wrote his first letter (in French) to Thomas Jefferson in Monticello in the summer of 1823. He reminded Jefferson of their meetings in Paris, and also sent along his newly edited volumes of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics and The Politics, for which Jefferson expressed appreciation. In his letter, Korais, highly vexed by the bickering among the Greeks which was clearly having an adverse effect on the Greek War of Independence, wrote the following to Jefferson:
“Modern Greece has produced many a Leonidas and Miltiades, but since it came out of a long period of slavery, it was not possible to produce lawgivers like those that had appeared among Greece’s ancient citizens, or like those that we have seen in our own times in your country.”
Korais proceeded to seek advice and political support from the illustrious and respected ex-president, and also suggested concrete steps which the American Government could take on behalf of the struggling Greek nation.
Jefferson responded in the fall of 1823 with a long letter of his own: “I pray that you accept my thanks (for the books). I had seen only your Lives of Plutarch. These I had read, and profited much by your valuable Scholia. And the aid of a few words from a Modern Greek Dictionary would, I believe, have enabled me to read your patriotic addresses to your countrymen.”
It is interesting that Jefferson the scholar clearly recognized the continuity of the Greek language.
In the same letter, Jefferson also referred to the central role of the classical ideals of Greek democracy and their influence on the founding of the American republic: “Nothing is more likely to forward this objective (self-government in the newly liberated Greece) than a study of the fine models of science left them by their ancestors, to whom we also are all indebted for the lights which originally led ourselves out of Gothic darkness.”
After discussing the central ideas for the founding of the United States (i.e., separation of powers; inherent rights of all people; factors such as geography which make it necessary to adapt, rather than just adopt, the ideas of the ancients), Jefferson proceeded to focus on education, emphasizing what was critical in American primary schools (i.e., public education for every infant of the state, male and female, while in the intermediate schools, the elements of natural philosophy and, as a preparation for university studies, the Greek and Latin languages).
Jefferson then clearly demonstrated his Phil-Hellenic sentiments: no people sympathize more feelingly than ours with the sufferings of your countrymen; none more sincere and ardent prayers to Heaven for their success. And nothing indeed but the fundamental principle of our government, never to entangle us with the broils of Europe, could restrain our generous youth from taking some part in this holy cause. Possessing ourselves the combined blessings of liberty and order, we wish the same to other countries, and to none more than yours which, the first of civilized nations, presented examples of what man should be.
And Jefferson concluded his letter in very moving terms: “I have thus, dear sir, according to your request, given you some thoughts on the subject of national government. They are the result of the observations and reflections of an octogenarian who has passed 50 years of trial and trouble in the various grades of his country’s service.
“They are yet but outlines, which you will better fill up and accommodate to the habits and circumstances of your countrymen. Should they furnish a single idea which may be useful to them, I shall fancy it a tribute rendered to the manes of your Homer, your Demosthenes, and the splendid constellation of sages and heroes, whose blood is still flowing in your veins, and whose merits are still resting, as a heavy debt, on the shoulders of the living and the future races of men.
“While we offer to Heaven the warmest supplications for the restoration of your countrymen to the freedom and science of their ancestors, permit me to assure yourself of the cordial esteem and high respect which I bear and cherish towards yourself personally – T. Jefferson.”
In subsequent letters, Korais sought concrete steps in support of the Greek cause, not as charity, but because it was both morally right, and also beneficial to the American state. What a difference, we may point out, with some of America’s present close friends, who simply put out their hand only to receive.
Jefferson did not grant Korais’ requests for public political support and the beginning of commercial relations by sending American trade representatives to Greece. By this time, Jefferson was an ex-President, and although still influential, his power was limited. Yet Jefferson’s support was important, and the Greek Cause was actively aided by great Phil-Hellenes, including Edward Everett, Samuel Gridley Howe, Daniel Webster, and many others. Even President James Monroe, the fifth U.S. President, expressed great sympathy for the Greeks, although he had to contend with his Secretary of State John Quincy Adams’ realpolitic and also with his own Monroe Doctrine, which delimited American involvement in Europe.
Dr. Leonidas Petrakis was Senior Scientist and Department Chairman at Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, and now resides in Oakland, CA.
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