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THE SPIRIT OF 1776 & 1821: THE LEGACY OF OUR GREEK AMERICAN HERITAGE

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THE SPIRIT OF 1776 & 1821:

THE LEGACY OF OUR GREEK AMERICAN HERITAGE

 

Dean C. Lomis, Ph.D.

 

For those born in Hellas, the land of our forefathers, March 25, 1821 has special significance. For those of us born of Hellenic ancestry in this great nation of ours, March 25, 1821 has special significance. For those not of Hellenic extraction but born in this Hellenistic-land-in- structure-and-in-spirit, March 25, 1821 has special significance. This common significance is the legacy of the birth of democracy and the development of the “age of reason” two thousand years ago, to the birth of a country of democracy and the development of the “empire of reason” just 200 years ago. Furthermore, the creation of this empire of reason was won through a war of independence, while the land of the birth of democracy won its rebirth similarly through a war of independence whose 192nd anniversary we celebrate solemnly this month. As then-President Ronald Reagan stated in 1987, signing into law March 25 as an American day of observance, it was to acknowledge “our country’s debt to Greece.”

Greek thought and ideas about the mind, the soul, beauty and liberty, had great impact upon the spirit of the Founding Fathers. The concept of liberty brought about the Declaration of Independence and freedom.

 

Who can ever forget Nathan Hale’s last words before his British executioners: “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country,” or Patrick Henry’s famous declaration: “Give me Liberty Or Give me Death?” Who can forget the last words of Ρήγας Φερραίος before his cruel execution by the hands of the barbarous Turks:

 

«Καλλίτερα μιά ώρα ελεύθερη ζωή, παρά σαράντα χρόνια

σκλαβιά καί φυλακή,» or those of Παλαιών Πατρών

Γερμανός in raising the banner of freedom on March 25,

1821: «Ελευθερία ή Θάνατος;»

 

Who can forget that the enslaved Greeks, who understood the American struggle to success, contributed in the only way they could? Thus, as Americans, we pay tribute to the Greek Revolutionary Senate Resolution which appealed to America to support Greece’s Declaration of Independence:

 

       “Having formed the resolution to live or die for

         freedom, we are drawn to you since it is in your

         land that liberty has fixed her abode and is

         respected by you as it was by our [fore]Fathers.

         Hence, in involving her name, we invoke yours,

         trusting that in emulating you, we shall emulate

         our ancestors and be worthy of them, if we

         succeed in resembling your achievement.

         Though separated from you by mighty oceans, we

         consider you closer to us than the nations of our

        frontiers, and regard you as friends, fellow citizens

         and brothers, because you are free, generous, liberal,

         and a Christian people. Your liberty does not rest

         on the slavery of other nations, nor your prosperity

         on their calamities and sufferings. On the contrary,

         free and prosperous yourselves, you are desirous

         that all men should have the same blessings; that all

         should enjoy these rights to which all by nature are

         equally entitled. It is you who [in our day] first

         proclaimed these rights, and it is by your example

         that Europe receives lessons of justice and learns to

         renounce her absurd and bloody customs. This glory,

         Americans, is yours alone and raises you above all

         nations which have gained a name for liberty and

         law.”

 

And who can forget the many Americans who reciprocated, abandoning the safety and comfort of their homeland and journeyed to distant Greece to offer their services for the noble cause of the Greek War of Independence? Such names as John Allen, Samuel Gridley Howe, George Jarvis, Jonathan Miller, John Ross, William Washington, James Williams – an African American from Baltimore who knew the price of slavery and understood the value of freedom among nearly 450 “foreigners,” the most famous being the poet Lord Byron, are carried in the annals of history. And in support of the Greeks’ struggle, it was Daniel Webster, the “Little Giant” as he was known, who stated in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1821:

 

       “The Turks came from the center of Asia, and now

         occupy the fairest portion of Christendom. And

         there they are: a huge, sullen heap of sterility,

         neither to be moved, nor to be cultivated.”

 

Who can forget the small and ragged Continental Army and the winter at Valley Forge, when no one gave the Americans a chance for success? Who can forget that a handful of barefoot patriots dared take on the entire empire of the Ottoman Turks and came out on top, gaining their independence, despite the adverse political climate of the time, created by Count Metternich – the Henry Kissinger of the 19th Century – and the complex plots of all the European royal courts?

 

Last, but certainly not least, who can forget that while the Greeks were struggling to rid themselves of the Turkish yoke, our country, the United States of America, was for a period at war with Turkey against its “pirates of the Barbary Coast” in the Mediterranean, and that it was the Greek sailors under the leadership of their leader, Captain Karamanlis, who assisted the American Marines defeat the Turkish Pasha “at the shores of Tripoli,” in Libya?

 

It is not at all peculiar that March 25 is a two-fold celebration. Throughout its history, our Holy Orthodox Church has played a vital role in resurrecting and keeping alive the hopes and ideals of the Greek people. This was especially true during the four centuries of Turkish occupation, and thereafter in the rebirth of the Greek nation. For this significant reason, therefore, our fathers and forefathers always held the Orthodox Church and the Greek nation to be indissolubly united. The notion that physical freedom and moral freedom for mankind are indivisible, produced the motto of the War of Greek Independence:

 

«Γιά τήν Αγία Πίστη Τού Χριστού καί

γιά τήν Εθνική Ελευθερία!»

 

Thus, our forefathers designated March 25 a day of double celebration: the Ευαγγελισμός and the Annunciation of the Freedom of Greece.

 

These proclamations of God and man become reality when man ceases to place all hopes for salvation on human effort alone. Into a world with no hope came the words of the Archangel Gabriel like a flash of lightning announcing to the Virgin Mary: “Do not be afraid…” It was in the same manner that the torch of independence shone brightly in 1821, at a time when there appeared to be no hope for salvation for enslaved Greece through help from without.

 

It was in this way that the two proclamations were heard by the entire world. Let them be heard again today in the same way.

 

In an era when lawlessness, inhumanity and rejection of high moral standards are the order of the day, and are even promulgated in high positions of national leadership, and at a time when blood brothers or high officials of powerful governments rise against one another in dangerous exercises of the game of politics, let us pay special attention to the two-fold proclamation of freedom from sin and from enslavement, as provided to us by the twin celebration of March 25.

 

We, who have the good fortune to enjoy our freedom, must never cease giving thanks for this blessing. Let us raise our voices in protest to remind those in positions of responsibility that they cannot sentence innocent victims to slavery, humiliation and destruction because of certain expediency policies which serve no useful purpose whatsoever, not even to this great nation of ours. Such policies are not of credit to America, the “empire of reason” that the Founding Fathers established upon the Hellenic democratic principles, a nation we and the entire free world have always loved and admired as the permanent champion and defender of freedom and justice.

 

Our nation’s leaders must heed the advice of former Congressman John Brademas of my native state of Indiana who, in 1976, in commemoration of Greek Independence Day, stated in the U.S. House of Representatives:

 

       “National might, political power, financial stability,

         economic strength, industrial superiority, diplomatic

         excellence, if devoid of morality and of elementary

         ethics avail nothing, not even self-defense. For it is

         faith, not expediency; it is honesty, not diplomacy;

        moral and intellectual integrity, not cleverness and

         craftiness; and, humility and self-respect, not

         arrogance… which should guide us as a nation!”

 

Thus, our people need to demand of our leaders to rededicate themselves to the spirit of 1776 and 1821, and show the world once again that this nation truly stands for “life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and justice for all!”

 

But, “How,” may one ask, “can each one of us help? What can I do? I am only one!” It is the responsibility of each and everyone of us, as dedicated American citizens, to become active in the political life of our nation, both in domestic and foreign affairs, and in the local affairs of our city and state. It is our responsibility to become active whether it is Cyprus, the environment, the streets, or our own community center.

 

Let us be reminded what some of the great men who now belong to the ages have said. “A citizen who is not interested in the politics of his land is useless,” wrote the ancient historian Thucydides. In his Funeral Oration considered one of the great speeches of all time – Pericles said, “For we are the only people who think him that does not participate in state affairs not only indolent, but good-for-nothing.” And, in contemporary times, our martyred President John F. Kennedy said,

 

       “In these times, to do nothing, to be silent,

         not to challenge, is to abdicate citizen

         responsibility. It is no excuse for an informed

         and literate citizen to claim that leaders

         have better or secret information and, thus,

         forego the right to different opinion. In

         most issues, all relevant information is

         public. In the second place, the issues today,

         really all issues of values, standards and ideals

         affect each and everyone directly.”

 

Since the age of Homer and on through today, Hellenes have offered much to the world in their turn. We, the Hellenes of America, have blended well with our fellow Americans in making “the American dream” come true. But, we have also preserved our Hellenic heritage, Orthodoxy, pride, respect for our country of origin, and love for our country of abode and for our equally Hellenic and American spirit of independence.

 

It is for all these reasons, therefore, and for many more, that we commemorate 1776 and 1821 with the same reverence and everlasting debt for all the good things we hold to be sacred!

 

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