MARCH 25 1821: Freedom or Death
On March 25, 1821, Greece rose up against its oppressor, the Ottoman Empire, after almost 400 years of brutal occupation. While the rest of Europe had flourished, this time in Greece is often referred to as the second Dark Ages. The plight of Greece and the desire to support a country globally recognized as the foundation of Western Civilization spanned throughout Europe, across the ocean and over the United States.
In 1824, Daniel Webster presented a resolution in the US House of Representatives that would recognize the Independence of Greece. A few days later, Representative Henry Clay offered an impassioned speech in support of the Resolution.
EXCERPT FROM THE SPEECH OF HENRY CLAY:
ON THE GREEK REVOLUTION PRESENTEED IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, January 20, 1824.
In rising, let me state distinctly the substance of the original proposition of the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Webster), with that of the amendment of the gentleman from South Carolina (Mr. Poinsett). The resolution proposes a provision of the means to defray the expense of deputing a commissioner or agent to Greece, whenever the President, who knows, or ought to know, the disposition of all the European powers, Turkish or Christian, shall deem it proper. The amendment goes to withhold any appropriation to that object, but to make a public declaration of our sympathy with the Greeks, and of our good wishes for the success of their cause. And how has this simple, unpretending, unambitious, this harmless proposition, been treated in debate? It has been argued as if it offered aid to the Greeks; as if it proposed the recognition of the independence of their government; as a measure of unjustifiable interference in the internal affairs of a foreign state, and finally, as war. And they who thus argue the question, whilst they absolutely surrender themselves to the illusions of their own fervid imaginations, and depict, in glowing terms, the monstrous and alarming consequences which are to spring out of a proposition so simple, impute to us, who are its humble advocates, quixotism, quixotism! Whilst they are taking the most extravagant and boundless range, and arguing anything and everything but the question before the Committee, they accuse us of enthusiasm, of giving the reins to excited feeling, of being transported by our imaginations. No, sir, the resolution is no proposition for aid, nor for recognition, nor for interference, nor for war.
I know that there are some who object to the resolution on account of the source from which it has sprung—who except to its mover, as if its value or importance were to be estimated by personal considerations. I have long had the pleasure of knowing the honorable gentleman from Massachusetts, and sometimes that of acting with him and I have much satisfaction in expressing my high admiration of his great talents. But I would appeal to my republican friends, those faithful sentinels of civil liberty with whom I have ever acted, shall we reject a proposition, consonant to our principles, favoring the good and great cause, on account of the political character of its mover? Shall we not rather look to the intrinsic merits of the measure, and seek every fit occasion to strengthen and perpetuate liberal principles and noble sentiments? If it were possible for republicans to cease to be the champions of human freedom, and if federalists become its only supporters, I would cease to be a republican; I would become a federalist. The preservation of the public confidence can only be secured, or merited, by a faithful adherence to the principles by which it has been acquired.
Mr. Chairman, is it not extraordinary that for these two successive years the President of the United States should have been freely indulged, not only without censure, but with universal applause, to express the feelings which both the resolution and the amendment proclaim, and yet, if this House venture to unite with him, the most awful consequences are to ensue? From Maine to Georgia, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, the sentiment of approbation has blazed with the rapidity of electricity. Everywhere the interest in the Grecian cause is felt with the deepest intensity, expressed in every form, and increases with every new day and passing hour. And are the representatives of the people alone to be insulated from the common moral atmosphere of the whole land? Shall we shut ourselves up in apathy, and separate ourselves from our country, from our constituents, from our chief magistrate, from our principles?
The measure has been most unreasonably magnified. Gentlemen speak of the watchful jealousy of the Turk, and seem to think the slightest movement of this body will be matter of serious speculation at Constantinople. I believe that neither the Sublime Porte, nor the European allies, attaches any such exaggerated importance to the acts and deliberations of this body. The Turk will, in all probability, never hear of the names of the gentlemen who either espouse or oppose the resolution. It certainly is not without a value; but that value is altogether moral; it throws our little tribute into the vast stream of public opinion, which sooner or later must regulate the physical action upon the great interests of the civilized world. But, rely upon it, the Ottoman is not about to declare war against us because this unoffending proposition has been offered by my honorable friend from Massachusetts, whose name, however distinguished and eminent he may be in our own country, has probably never reached the ears of the Sublime Porte. The allied powers are not going to be thrown into a state of consternation, because we appropriate some two or three thousand dollars to send an agent to Greece.
The question has been argued as if the Greeks would be exposed to still more shocking enormities by its passage; as if the Turkish cimeter would be rendered still keener, and dyed deeper and yet deeper in Christian blood. Sir, if such is to be the effect of the declaration of our sympathy, the evil has been already produced. That declaration has been already publicly and solemnly made by the Chief Magistrate of the United States, in two distinct messages. It is this document which commands at home and abroad the most fixed and universal attention; which is translated into all the foreign journals; read by sovereigns and their ministers; and, possibly, in the divan itself. But our resolutions are domestic, for home consumption, and rarely, if ever, meet imperial or royal eyes. The President, in his messages, after a most touching representation of the feelings excited by the Greek insurrection, tells you that the dominion of the Turk is gone for ever; and that the most sanguine hope is entertained that Greece will achieve her independence. Well, sir, if this be the fact, if the allied powers themselves may, possibly, before we again assemble in this hall, acknowledge that independence, is it not fit and becoming in this House to make provision that our President shall be among the foremost, or at least not among the last, in that acknowledgment? So far from this resolution being likely to whet the vengeance of the Turk against his Grecian victims, I believe its tendency will be directly the reverse. Sir, with all his unlimited power, and in all the elevation of his despotic throne, he is at last but man, made as we are, of flesh, of muscle, of bone and sinew. He is susceptible of pain, and can feel, and has felt the uncalculating valor of American freemen in some of his dominions. And when he is made to understand that the executive of this government is sustained by the representatives of the people; that our entire political fabric, base, column, and entablature, rulers and people, with heart, soul, mind, and strength, are all on the side of the gallant people whom he would crush, he will be more likely to restrain than to increase his atrocities upon suffering and bleeding Greece.
The gentleman from New Hampshire (Mr. Bartlett) has made, on this occasion, a very ingenious, sensible, and ironical speech—an admirable debut for a new member, and such as I hope we shall often have repeated on this floor. But, permit me to advise my young friend to remember the maxim, “ that sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof;” and when the resolution on another subject, which I had the honor to submit, shall come up to be discussed, I hope he will not content himself with saying, as he has now done, that it is a very extraordinary one; but that he will then favor the House with an argumentative speech, proving that it is our duty quietly to see laid prostrate every fortress of human hope, and to behold, with indifference, the last outwork of liberty taken and destroyed.
It has been said, that the proposed measure will be a departure from our uniform policy with respect to foreign nations; that it will provoke the wrath of the holy alliance; and that it will, in effect, be a repetition of their own offence, by an unjustifiable interposition in the domestic concerns of other powers. No, sir, not even if it authorized, which it does not, an immediate recognition of Grecian independence. What has been the settled and steady policy and practice of this government, from the days of Washington to the present moment? In the case of France, the father of his country and his successors received Genet, Fouchet, and all the French ministers who followed them, whether sent from king, convention, anarchy, emperor, or king again. The rule we have ever followed has been this: to look at the state of the fact, and to recognize that government, be it what it might, which was in actual possession of sovereign power. When one government is overthrown, and another is established on its ruins, without embarrassing ourselves with any of the principles involved in the contest, we have ever acknowledged the new and actual government as soon as it had undisputed existence. Our simple inquiry has been, is there a government dc facto? We have had a recent and memorable example. When the allied ministers retired from Madrid, and refused to accompany Ferdinand to Cadiz, ours remained, and we sent out a new minister who sought at that port to present himself to the constitutional king. Why? Because it was the government of Spain, in fact. Did the allies declare war against us for the exercise of this incontestable attribute of sovereignty? Did they even transmit any diplomatic note, complaining of our conduct? The line of our European policy has been so plainly described, that it is impossible to mistake it. We are to abstain from all interference in their disputes, to take no part in their contests, to make no entangling alliances with any of them; but to assert and exercise our indisputable right of opening and maintaining diplomatic intercourse with any actual sovereignty.
There is reason to apprehend that a tremendous storm is ready to burst upon our happy country—one which may call into action all our vigor, courage, and resources. Is it wise or prudent, in preparing to breast the storm, if it must come, to talk to this nation of its incompetency to repel European aggression, to lower its spirit, to weaken its moral energy, and to qualify it for easy conquest and base submission? If there be any reality in the dangers which are supposed to encompass us, should we not animate the people, and adjure them to believe, as I do, that our resources are ample; and that we can bring into the field a million of freemen, ready to exhaust their last drop of blood, and to spend the last cent in the defense of the country, its liberty, and its institutions? Sir, are these, if united, to be conquered by all Europe combined? All the perils to which we can possibly be exposed, are much less in reality than the imagination is disposed to paint them. And they are best averted by a habitual contemplation of them, by reducing them to their true dimensions. If combined Europe is to precipitate itself upon us, we cannot too soon begin to invigorate our strength, to teach our heads to think, our hearts to conceive, and our arms to execute, the high and noble deeds which belong to the character and glory of our country. The experience of the world instructs us, that conquests are already achieved, which are boldly and firmly resolved on; and that men only become slaves who have ceased to resolve to be free. If we wish to cover ourselves with the best of all armor, let us not discourage our people, let us stimulate their ardor, let us sustain their resolution, let us proclaim to them that we feel as they feel, and that, with them, we are determined to live or die like freemen. Surely, sir, we need no long or learned lectures about the nature of government, and the influence of property or ranks on society. We may content ourselves with studying the true character of our own people; and with knowing that the interests are confided to us of a nation capable of doing and suffering all things for its liberty. Such a nation, if its rulers be faithful, must be invincible. I well remember an observation made to me by the most illustrious female* of the age, if not of her sex. All history showed, she said, that a nation was never conquered. No, sir, no united nation that resolves to be free, can be conquered. And has it come to this? Are we so humbled, so low, so debased, that we dare not express our sympathy for suffering Greece, that we dare not articulate our detestation of the brutal excesses of which she has been the bleeding victim, lest we might offend some one or more of their imperial and royal majesties? If gentlemen are afraid to act rashly on such a subject, suppose, Mr. Chairman, that we unite in an humble petition, addressed to their majesties, beseeching them that of their gracious condescension, they would allow us to express our feelings and our sympathies How shall it run?” We, the representatives of the free people of the United States of America, humbly approach the thrones of your imperial and royal majesties, and supplicate that, of your imperial and royal clemency,”—I cannot go through the disgusting recital—my lips have not yet learned to pronounce the sycophantic language of a degraded slave! Are we so mean, so base, so despicable, that we may not attempt to express our horror, utter our indignation, at the most brutal and atrocious war that ever stained earth or shocked high heaven; at the ferocious deeds of a savage and infuriated soldiery, stimulated and urged on by the clergy of a fanatical and inimical religion, and rioting in all the excesses of blood and butchery, at the mere details of which the heart sickens and recoils!
If the great body of Christendom can look on calmly and coolly, whilst all this is perpetrated on a Christian people, in its own immediate vicinity, in its very presence, let us at least evince that one of its remote extremities is susceptible of sensibility to Christian wrongs, and capable of sympathy for Christian sufferings; that in this remote quarter of the world, there are hearts not yet closed against compassion for human woes, that can pour out their indignant feelings at the oppression of a people endeared to us by every ancient recollection, and every modern tie. Sir, the committee has been attempted to be alarmed by the dangers to our commerce in the Mediterranean; and a wretched invoice of figs and opium has been spread before us to repress our sensibilities and to eradicate our humanity. Ah! Sir, “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul,” or what shall it avail a nation to save the whole of a miserable trade, and lose its liberties?
On the subject of the other independent American States, hitherto it has not been necessary to depart from the rule of our foreign relations, observed in regard to Europe. Whether it will become us to do so or not, will be considered when we take up another resolution, lying on the table. But we may not only adopt this measure; we may go further; we may recognize the government in the Morea, if actually independent, and it will be neither war nor cause of war, nor any violation of our neutrality. Besides, sir, what is Greece to the allies? A part of the dominions of any of them? By no means Suppose the people in one of the Philippine isles, or any other spot still more insulated and remote, in Asia or Africa, were to resist their former rulers, and set up and establish a new government, are we not to recognize them in dread of the holy allies? If they are going to interfere, from the danger of the contagion of the example, here is the spot, our own favored land, where they must strike. This government, you, Mr. Chairman, and the body over which you preside, are the living and cutting reproach to allied despotism. If we are to offend them, it is not by passing this resolution. We are daily and hourly giving them cause of war. It is here, and in our free institutions, that they will assail us. They will attack us because you sit beneath that canopy, and we are freely debating and deliberating upon the great interests of freemen, and dispensing the blessings of free government. They will strike, because we pass one of those bills on your table. The passage of the least of them, by our free authority, is more galling to despotic powers, than would be the adoption of this so much dreaded resolution. Pass it, and what do you do? You exercise an indisputable attribute of sovereignty, for which you are responsible to none of them. You do the same when you perform any other legislative function; no less. If the allies object to this measure, let them forbid us to take a vote in this House; let them strip us of every attribute of independent government; let them disperse us.
Will gentlemen attempt to maintain that, on the principles of the law of nations, those allies would have cause of war? If there be any principle which has been settled for ages, any which is founded in the very nature of things, it is that every independent State has the clear right to judge of the fact of the existence of other sovereign powers. I admit that there may be a state of inchoate initiative sovereignty, in which a new government, just struggling into being, cannot be said yet perfectly to exist. But the premature recognition of such new government can give offence justly to no other than its ancient sovereign. The right of recognition comprehends the right to be informed; and the means of information must, of necessity, depend upon the sound discretion of the party seeking it. You may send out a commission of inquiry, and charge it with a provident attention to your own people and your own interests. Such will be the character of the proposed agency. It will not necessarily follow, that any public functionary will be appointed by the President. You merely grant the means by which the executive may act when he thinks proper. What does he tell you in his message that Greece is contending for her independence; that all sympathize with her; and that no power has declared against her. Pass this resolution, and what is the reply which it conveys to him?” You have sent us grateful intelligence; we feel warmly for Greece, and we grant you money, that, when you shall think it proper, when the interests of this nation shall not be jeopardized, you may depute a commissioner or public agent to Greece.” The whole responsibility is then left where the constitution puts it. A member in his place may make a speech or proposition, the House may even pass a vote, in respect to our foreign affairs, which the President, with the whole field lying full before him, would not deem it expedient to effectuate.
But, sir, it is not for Greece alone that I desire to see this measure adopted. It will give to her but little support, and that purely of a moral kind. It is principally for America, for the credit and character of our common country, for our own unsullied name, that I hope to see it pass. What, Mr. Chairman, appearance on the page of history would a record like this exhibit?” In the month of January, in the year of our Lord and Savior, 1824, while all European Christendom beheld, with cold and unfeeling indifference, the unexampled wrongs and inexpressible misery of Christian Greece, a proposition was made in the Congress of the United States, almost the sole, the last, the greatest depository of human hope and human freedom, the representatives of a gallant nation, containing a million of freemen ready to fly to arms, while the people of that nation were spontaneously expressing its deep-toned feeling, and the whole continent, by one simultaneous emotion, was rising, and solemnly and anxiously supplicating and invoking high Heaven to spare and succor Greece, and to invigorate her arms, in her glorious cause, while temples and senate houses were alike resounding with one burst of generous and holy sympathy;—in the year of our Lord and Savior, that Savior of Greece and of us—a proposition was offered in the American Congress to send a messenger to Greece, to inquire into her state and condition, with a kind expression of our good wishes and our sympathies—and it was rejected!” Go home, if you can, go home, if you dare, to your constituents, and tell them that you voted it down—meet, if you can, the appalling countenances of those who sent you here, and tell them that you shrank from the declaration of your own sentiments—that you cannot tell how, but that some unknown dread, some indescribable apprehension, some indefinable danger, drove you from your purpose—that the spectres of cimeters, and crowns, and crescents, gleamed before you and alarmed you; and that you suppressed all the noble feelings prompted by religion, by liberty, by national independence, and by humanity. I cannot bring myself to believe that such will be the feeling of a majority of the committee. But, for myself, though every friend of the cause should desert it, and I be left to stand alone with the gentleman from Massachusetts, I will give to his resolution the poor sanction of my unqualified approbation.