Profiles in Liberty: Philip Mazzei

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By Dave Smith, Senior Contributor, USADC.

“His esteem too in this country was very general; his early and zealous cooperation in the establishment of our independence having acquired for him here a great degree of favor.” – Thomas Jefferson, speaking of Philip Mazzei.

Whether considering the Declaration of Independence, the Federalist Papers, Common Sense, or the Constitution, so many of the literary works and founding documents of the United States feature soaring prose, lofty ideals, and memorable turns of phrase.  One of the most famous phrases and important ideals, however, was first conceived in Italian rather than English, by Tuscan-born Philip Mazzei.

Mazzei immigrated to Virginia in 1773 at the suggestion of Benjamin Franklin, whom he met while living in London.  Already accomplished in the field of medicine, Mazzei was intrigued by America and sought to initiate business and agricultural pursuits in wine, olives, and other Mediterranean crops.  He developed a friendship with Thomas Jefferson, who gave him a parcel of land adjacent to Monticello for his farming venture and agricultural experimentation.

Mazzei became a naturalized citizen and got involved in Virginia politics, signing a petition against “spiritual tyranny”, writing pamphlets, and visiting churches to advocate for religious freedom.  When the Revolutionary War broke out, Mazzei volunteered as a private in the Independent Company of Albemarle County.  As the war dragged on, he was sent back to Italy to attempt to acquire funding, arms, and intelligence that could be helpful in the war effort against the British.

It was prior to the war, however, Mazzei would make his most indelible mark on the history of America.  Writing to Jefferson in 1773 in Italian about individual liberty, his words were translated by Jefferson as follows: “All men are by nature equally free and independent. Such equality is necessary in order to create a free government. All men must be equal to each other in natural law. “

The words stuck with Jefferson, such that when Jefferson penned (in English, of course) his Declaration of Independence three years later, he sent Mazzei a “Rough Draught” of his work for Mazzei’s perusal.

Following the successful conclusion of the war and the establishment of the United States, Mazzei continued to promote the American promise.  He translated various works of Jefferson into Italian and wrote the first history of the American colonies in French; it was this four-volume work that first brought the American version of the Revolution to the French people, dispelling the myths propagated by royalists seeking to dampen the spirit of democratic revolution.

Philip Mazzei was honored for his contribution to America’s lexicon of liberty in 1980 with a “Patriot Remembered” stamp issued jointly by the United States Postal Service and the Italian Postal Service, and in 1993 in a Congressional Resolution alongside other historic Italians such as Amerigo Vespucci, Dante, and Enrico Fermi.  It was a fitting honor for a colorful and influential member of America’s history.

Born in the same county as Davy Crockett in East Tennessee, Dave found his way to Texas where he works in the petrochemical industry. He’s written and spoken about politics on various media outlets including Fox, ABC, and Townhall. He is a graduate of Tennessee Tech with a degree in chemical engineering. Dave writes a popular feature at USDR called “Dave Smith Said That”. Follow Dave on Twitter: @semperlibertas.

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