In America, the Fourth of July is our day of independence. It was the day our founding fathers told the British they were through and created their own country. It is a day celebrating the country’s fight for freedom.
On that day, most people remember the contributions of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington to the war. However, it is doubtful people will remember Filippo Mazzei, an Italian immigrant credited with inspiring the phrase, ’All men are created equal’.
Mazzei was born in Tuscany in 1730. His father was a merchant, but Mazzei chose a path in medicine and studied at the University of Florence. From there, he moved to Istanbul to advance his studies before he returned to the family business. He moved to London in 1755, where he worked as a wine merchant.
His first encounters with America’s future founding fathers came about at the request of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. He wanted Mazzei to purchase two stoves from Benjamin Franklin, who happened to be traveling with John Adams at the time. The three men connected immediately, and they persuaded Mazzei to come to America to expand his trade.
In 1773, Mazzei arrived in Virginia and purchased a 400-acre farm from Thomas Jefferson. The two men formed a partnership and established the first wine-producing business in the Virginia colony. Jefferson also encouraged Mazzei’s political writings and acted as a translator before the essays were published.
Mazzei wrote under the name Furioso and famously wrote, “All men are by nature equally free and independent. This equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural rights.”
These words clearly inspired Jefferson, as paraphrased versions appear in both the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence.
Mazzei not only contributed his words to the revolutionary cause; he also enlisted as a private in 1775. Three years later, Mazzei was sent to Europe to help raise money for the American war effort. Along the way, he was captured by the British and sent to prison in Ireland. Luckily, he managed to destroy his written orders from the Colonial government before his capture and later escaped from Ireland.
Hoping to avoid further imprisonment, Mazzei headed home to Tuscany, where he secured loans from the Duke of Tuscany. Throughout the war, this devoted patriot sent money, weapons, and supplies to the colonies. He translated some of Thomas Jefferson’s writings, hoping to endear Italians to America’s cause. Mazzei also passed along any political intelligence he could gather.
When the war ended in 1783, he returned to America and formed the Constitutional Society to help guide the states in the formation of a national constitution. Eventually, financial matters forced him to return to Europe.
Mazzei maintained contact with Jefferson and John Adams throughout the rest of his life. He even traveled to Rome to hire sculptors to work on the Capitol building. After he died in 1816, Mazzei’s second wife and daughter moved to the United States, where his daughter eventually married John Adams’ nephew.
Many other Italian immigrants also contributed to the revolutionary cause. William Paca was an original signer of the Declaration of Independence. Pascal DeAngelis, James Bracco, and Richard Tagliaferro all served in the Army during the war efforts. The latter two lost their lives.
America has always been a land built by immigrants. Who knows where the nation would be without the contribution of Mazzei and his fellow Italian immigrants.
- Philip Mazzei [Monticello.org]
- Italians of the Revolution [Sanfelesesocietynj.org]
- Feature Picture [Wikimedia]