"The Greek Fire": The Greek War for Independence and the Emergence of American Reform Movements, 1780-1860

Maureen Santelli

Advisor: Rosemarie Zagarri, PhD, Department of History and Art History

Committee Members: Cynthia Kierner, Mack Holt

Research Hall, #161
June 09, 2014, 01:00 PM to 11:00 AM


This dissertation places early Americans in the midst of a global conflict that pit the Greeks against the Ottoman Turks. Although historians have focused a great deal of attention on American support for the French Revolution, few have examined a similar conflict, the Greek War for Independence. Fought from 1821 to 1832, this war generated nearly as much popular support and interest as had the French movement. Perceiving strong cultural and intellectual ties with Greece, American men and women identified the region as the seedbed of American democracy and a crucial source of American values. Contrasting their western classical tradition with the Muslim origins of the Ottoman Empire, Americans portrayed the struggle in Greece as a climactic battle between western freedom and Oriental despotism.

The sentimental bond with ancient Greece, along with contemporary distrust of the Ottoman Empire, produced an outpouring of popular enthusiasm. Joining in a transatlantic alliance that linked Britain and the United States, American authors produced numerous poems, plays, and political tracts to generate support for the Greek cause. At the same time, American men and women throughout the country organized the grassroots level to send men, money, and supplies to aid the Greeks. Pressure was placed on Congress to intervene on the Greeks’ behalf. These efforts, however, encountered serious resistance from U.S. officials who wished to maintain official neutrality and cultivate commercial ties with the Ottomans.

After the Greek war ended, American interest in Greek independence continued to exert an influence on American society and politics. Lurid portrayals of Ottoman slavery and their mistreatment of women had inadvertently highlighted American failures with regard to slavery and the status of women. Many men and women who had organized in support of Greek independence transitioned into supporting other forms of social and political reform. More than a transient political movement, support for the Greek war had created a practical school for politics that facilitated the emergence of abolitionist and women’s rights movements in antebellum America.