On the 4th of July, it’s important to remember that a key stone in the foundation of our country’s understanding of democracy was put in place by none other than an Italian by the name of Filippo Mazzei.
Born just outside of Florence in 1730, Mazzei practiced medicine in Italy and the Middle East for several years, before moving to London to take up a new career as a wine merchant. While in London, he befriended Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Adams, who would eventually persuade Mazzei to travel to the British colonies of the New World. Mazzei settled in the Virginia countryside, where he introduced the cultivation of vineyards, olive groves, and other Mediterranean fruits. He soon became close friends with Thomas Jefferson (who lived nearby) and the two would actually go on to open the first commercial vineyard in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
These two Renaissance men spoke often on the state of society and government. Jefferson was an educated man with a great deal of interest in Italy, Italian culture, and – as seen at Monticello – Italian architecture. He and Mazzei discussed the idea of democracy, and how one’s government should uphold it. Mazzei frimly believed that “Tutti gli uomini sono ugualmente liberi e indipendenti.” Jefferson admired his friend’s philosophical beliefs so much, that they would go on to be incorporated in the Declaration of Independence itself: “all men are created equal.”
In 1779, in the midst of the American Revolution, Mazzei returned to Italy as a secret diplomatic agent for the State of Virginia, working on behalf of the Revolution by purchasing arms and seeking to borrow money for Virginia from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, as well as gather any useful political or military information for the state. He also spread and publicized the Declaration of Independence and newly-founded Constitution throughout Europe via translations and public presentations. Later, Mazzei would write a full, political account of the American Revolutionary War, and he became widely known as one of the greatest Italian American patriots of his time. Later on in years, Mazzei returned to his beloved Tuscany, where he cultivated a farm and wrote until his death.
Today, Mazzei is remembered as a major influence on the Declaration of Independence, and American ideals of freedom and diversity. So today, on the 4th of July, be sure to also celebrate Filippo Mazzei – the Italian who helped build some of the United States’ most important beliefs!