Italian-Americans of the American Revolution
BY TOM FRASCELLA JULY 2011
Italian Americans love festivals and none were celebrated more enthusiastically in the Chambersburg section of Trenton in my youth than the birth date of our great country the Fourth of July. The celebration was not just about hot dogs, ice cream and fireworks. Within the community there was a real sense that this was a People’s Day. The promise of Freedom, Liberty and Opportunity that had brought our ancestors to these shores was the great Contract that bound us as a diverse but united nation under God. It was the strength of the promise made in that Contract that made the sacrifices of the Great Depression and World War II simply building blocks toward a better tomorrow for our parents and grandparents.
In school we learned that Freedom and Liberty always came with a cost. We studied about the American Revolution, the winters at Morristown and Valley Forge, the Battles of Trenton, Princeton and Monmouth and the sacrifices of so many. Sadly however, when I looked at the profiles of the great figures in that conflict the Italian American was nowhere to be found. That is an oversight that we should be careful not to continue. While it is true that prior to the massive surge of immigration of millions of Italians to the US from 1890-1930 there were not large numbers of Italians or Italian-Americans here, yet in the tens of thousands they were present.
One of the problems that historians note is that many Italians or descendants of Italian immigrants changed their names making it difficult to identify them by ethnic background. But I would like to take the opportunity of this Fourth of July to at least point out a few notable individuals and some of their accomplishments and contributions to the birth of our Nation.
William Paca (1740-1799)
William Paca was born in Abingdon Maryland entered Philadelphia College at age 15 and graduated with a Masters Degree at 18. He studied Law privately in Annapolis and went on to advance studies in the profession in England. Upon his return to the Maryland Colony he was elected to the Maryland Colonial Legislature in 1771. He was appointed delegate to the Continental Congress in 1774 where he served until 1779. As a delegate to the Congress from Maryland he was an original Signor of the Declaration of Independence.
In 1779 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Maryland Supreme Court. In 1782 he was elected Governor of the State of Maryland. He continued his career in Law with an appointment to the federal District Court in 1789 a position he held until his death in 1799. William Paca was a descendant of Italian immigrants. The original family name was spelled Pacca.
Pascal joined the New York State militia at the outbreak of hostilities in 1776 at the age of 13. He served with distinction in the Continental Army for the entire Revolutionary War 1776-1783.
Lt. James Bracco
Lt. Bracco an American Continental Army Officer 7th Maryland Regiment was killed at the Battle of White Plains in 1776.
Colonel Richard Tagliaferro
Colonel Tagliaferro of the 2nd Virginia Regiment was killed at the Battle of Guilford Hall in North Carolina in 1781
Among those who also served of rank:
Col. Cosmo De Medici N. Carolina
Col. Lewis Nicola
Capt. Ferdinando Finizzi
Capt. B. Tagliaferro 2nd Virginia subaltern to Gen G. Washington
Capt. Francesco Vigo New York
2nd Lt. Nicola Talliaferro 2nd Virginia
The muster rolls of many Colonial regiments contain the names of hundreds of Italian American Patriots, officers and enlisted men, who fought and died in bringing about this country’s Independence. However, to my way of thinking no Italian American has made a greater contribution to America and what it stands for than Filippo Mazzei. Since he has been so often overlooked I am going to take the opportunity here to do a short profile on his remarkable life and accomplishments.
Philip Mazzei (1730-1816)
Philip Mazzei was born in Tuscany Italy to a well to do merchant family. At an early age he entered the University of Florence where he studied medicine. After graduating as a physician he practiced in Pisa before attending advanced studies in Istanbul. The multi- lingual Mazzei eventually turned his attention to his family’s traditional mercantile interests and moved to London in 1755 founding an import business. In the early 1770’s Mazzei received a letter from the Grand Duke of Tuscany, a personal friend, who had learned that an American colonist and inventor Benjamin Franklin had recently arrived in London. The Grand Duke requested Mazzei contact Franklin in order to order two Franklin stoves on the Duke’s behalf. This initial business contact was to introduce Mazzei to both Franklin and his fellow companion John Adams who were both in England attempting to repeal certain taxes on imported English goods.
Mazzei was a man of diverse intellectual interests and accomplishments. In addition to being a physician and merchant importer he was well versed in art, architecture, botany, horticulture, literature and political philosophy. In Franklin and Adams he found a kindred spirit which lead to a natural friendship among the three. It was Franklin and Adams who suggested that Mazzei consider coming to America and starting a business venture in the colonies. From his conversations with Franklin and Adams, Mazzei decided that the Virginia colony would offer the best conditions for the business start ups he was considering. His business plan centered on purchasing land in Virginia and cultivating and producing wine, olives for producing olive oil and raising silkworms for the production of silk.. These are traditional Tuscan pursuits and the Mazzei family had, for example, been producing fine Tuscan wines since 1435.
In 1773 Philip Mazzei set sail for
Virginia. This was no small affair. He chartered an entire ship to transport
him, his entourage, their belongings, equipment and seed stock to Virginia.
Among his entourage were several Italian grape growers, vintners, silkworm
growers, his tailor the widow Mary Martin and her daughter and his close friend
Carlo Bellini. Upon his arrival in Virginia, he was met by his friends Franklin
and Adams. A number of dinners were hosted in his honor and he was introduced to
the elite of Virginia society including George Washington, George Mason and
Thomas Jefferson. Franklin and Adams personally undertook showing him around
Virginia to help him select a suitable location for his enterprise. Ultimately
it was his introduction to Jefferson that lead to him purchasing 400 acres from
Jefferson’s Monticello estate and the two men became neighbors. Mazzei named his
estate Colle Hill. Jefferson quickly recognized in Mazzei a man of similar
intellectual spirit and a political ally in the goal of Colonial independence.
The two men became close friends, forming a friendship that would last their
entire lives. Jefferson became a partner in the wine producing enterprise which
was forming from the 193 acres that Mazzei placed under cultivation. Together
the two men started the first commercial wine producing venture in the Virginia
1774 brought a further collaboration of efforts by Mazzei and Jefferson. Upon Jefferson’s recommendation Mazzei’s friend and companion Carlo Bellini became a professor of modern languages at the College of William and Mary. Mazzei married his “tailor” the widow Mary Martin who had come with him to America. The ceremony was attended by Jefferson. Bur most importantly Jefferson began to encourage his friend to publish his political thoughts in the English tradition of writing political essays under a pseudonym.
Mazzei took Jefferson up on the suggestion. The pseudonym that Mazzei choose for himself was “ Furioso”. Mazzei confided in Jefferson that he felt he formed and expressed his political thoughts better in Italian than English. Jefferson, who was fluent in Italian volunteered to translate Mazzei’s writings from Italian into English. It is from this collaboration that an article appeared in 1774 in the Virginia Gazette authored by Furioso which said;
“Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti.Quest’ eguaglianza e’ neccessaria per costituire un governo libero. Bisogna che ognuno sia uguale all’oltro nel diritto naturale”…etc
Beneath which in the Gazette appeared Jefferson’s translation which read;
“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.”
No one should dispute that Mazzei’s words arising from his discourses with Jefferson on the subject of the goals and ideals of a Republic represent the first utterances on the American political scene linking equality as a prerequisite of a free government. John F. Kennedy in his book “A Nation of Immigrants” stated:
“The great doctrine “All men are created equal” incorporated into the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, was paraphrased from the writing of Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born patriot and pamphleteer, who was a close friend of Jefferson. A few alleged scholars try to discredit Mazzei as the creator of this statement and idea, saying that “there is no mention of it anywhere until after the declaration was published”. This phrase appears in Italian in Mazzei’s own hand, written in Italian, several years prior to the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Mazzei and Jefferson often exchanged ideas about true liberty and freedom. No one man can take complete credit for the ideals of American democracy.”
To follow the impact of the words written by Mazzei on the American political scene we need only realize that just two years after Mazzei’s essay appeared in the Virginia Gazette in the Spring of 1776 the Virginia colony called for a Constitutional Convention. In May, 1776 Mazzei’s good friend George Mason authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights which recites in Article One, in part,
“That all Men are created equally free and independent, and have certain inherent natural Rights, of which they cannot by any compact, deprive or divest their Posterity…”.
After the Revolution and the forming of our Federal Government by ratification of the Constitution George Mason is credited with drafting the first Amendments to the original US Constitution. Those Amendments are collectively known as the “Bill of Rights” and are modeled on Mason’s earlier Virginia Declaraton of Rights. It should also be noted that Jefferson argued and supplied copies of another Mazzei’s article to the delegates of the convention titled “Instructions of the Freeholders of Albemarle County to their Delegates in Convention”.
Two months after the Virginia Declaration of Rights Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence which again paraphrases Mazzei’s original thoughts. So these basic ideals so fundamental to who we are as a nation were first offered up on American soil by an Italian American, in Italian. Often the question arises as to how Jefferson and Mason both slave owners could author the phrase “all men are created equal”. The simply answer is they did not but were instead paraphrasing Mazzei. It should be noted that Mazzei at no time owned or supported the institution of slavery. Further records indicate that on those occasions when his agriculture needs required additional labor he obtained it from his friend, neighbor and partner Jefferson but insisted that the slave workers receive cash payment for their labor which they could keep.
If Philip Mazzei had done nothing more in the cause of our becoming a nation he should rightly stand among the greatest of our founding patriot fathers. However, his contributions in the furtherance of the cause of liberty did not end there.
In 1774 Philip Mazzei became a naturalized citizen of the Virginia colony. Hostilities broke out with England in 1776. Mazzei enlisted as a private in the “Independent Company” of Albemarle County and participated in actions against British Forces in Virginia. In the early years of the Revolution the colonies found themselves short of funds, weapons and supplies. In 1778 Jefferson, Patrick Henry and George Mason asked Mazzei to travel to Europe and through his contacts try to raise loans for the colony to purchase supplies and weapons. However, before he could leave on his foreign mission, he and his family were arrested by the British. Just able to destroy his written orders from the Virginia Colonial government before his capture he and his family were nevertheless place on a British ship and sent to prison in Ireland.
Remarkably once in Ireland he and his family were able to escape. He travelled secretly through Britain, France and back to Tuscany. In Tuscany he was able to obtain substantial loans for the American cause from the Grand Duke. He remained in Europe purchasing supplies and arms for the Patriot cause and supplying intelligence to Jefferson through to the wars end.
When the war concluded in 1783 he returned to America and formed the Constitutional Society to help foster and guide the newly independent States toward a federal republic and national Constitution. In 1785, having neglected his personal business interests too long, he found himself in financial distress and was forced to return to Europe to raise capital. His wife remained behind in Virginia at Colle Hall. While he was in Europe he remained an avid voice for the American Republic and the Republican form of Government providing the first translations of the US Constitution in Italian. In 1788 he also completed his four volume history of the colonies titled, “ Recherches historique et politiques sur les Etats Unis de Amerique septentrional”. In 1788 his wife died in Virginia and she was buried in the Jefferson family cemetery at Monticello.
After his wife’s death Mazzei drifted around Europe for a while becoming involved in Republican causes in France and Poland. In 1792 he returned to Tuscany, settling in Pisa where he met and married Antonia Tonini in 1796. In 1798 his daughter Elizabetta was born. He maintained an active correspondence with Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Monroe for the rest of his life. At the behest of Jefferson he obtained portraits of Vespucci, Columbus, Magellan and Cortez from the Grand Duke’s collection. The last official act that he preformed for the US government was to travel to Rome in 1802 to hire two sculptors to work in the National Capital. The artists were Giovanni Andrei and Guiseppe Franzoni. For the rest of his life he contented himself with agricultural pursuits. Philip Mazzei died peacefully in Pisa on March 19, 1816.
Following word of his death both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams urged Mazzei’s widow and daughter to immigrate to the US. They did so in 1816 choosing to settle in Massachusetts. Mazzei’s daughter met and married the nephew of John Adams.
In the 103rd United States Congress which sat from Jan. 3, 1993 to Jan. 3, 1995 Philip Mazzei’s contribution to the founding of our Nation was finally officially recognized. By Joint Resolution of Congress the Congress noted that Jefferson borrowed the expression “All Men are Created Equal” from his friend and neighbor Philip Mazzei.
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