This year on July 4th, Independence Day, the Italian Tribune honors Italian Americans that made great contributions during the Revolutionary period and the infancy of America. They all campaigned for freedom, lived a life of patriotism and inspired the Founding Fathers. America would not be the nation it is today without these outstanding Italians.
A Revolutionary Thinker
A famous thinker that contributed ideas to Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Filippo Mazzei was a true Renaissance man. He worked as a surgeon in Florence, Constantinople and Smyrna. He was also a merchant and language teacher in London, a writer and diplomat in Paris and a royal chamberlain and a privy councilor in Warsaw. But perhaps most importantly, Mazzei was an advocate of democracy, most strikingly during his time as an agriculturalist and zealous member of the Whig party in Virginia during America’s revolutionary years. A close friend and mentor of Thomas Jefferson, Mazzei was an outstanding figure of the Enlightenment, to whom America owes thanks for our ideals of liberty and independence. Mazzei outlined the doctrines of democracy and provided the framework for the policies which Jefferson would promote.
Born in Poggio a Caiano, near Florence, Italy on Christmas Day in 1730, Mazzei grew up to become a self-made man. He lived in London for 17 years before immigrating to Virginia in 1773 with a group of Italian peasants. He settled near Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, where he sought to introduce the cultivation of vineyards and olive groves. Soon he befriended and joined forces with Virginia’s leaders in their struggle for independence.
Mazzei quickly became an outstanding American patriot, writing in Italian and American gazettes, proposing political designs for his new home state. In addition, his ideas on the theory and form of government were incorporated into the major political writings of the period. Not satisfied to simply place his ideas in writing, Mazzei put his ideas into practice by organizing the Constitutional Society which was made up of many of the Virginia patriots of the time, including Jefferson and representatives from other states. Mazzei believed in having one Constitution for all of the American colonies.
The ideas and leadership of Mazzei in the Constitutional Society became a precursor to the United States Constitution. Jefferson used the words and beliefs of Mazzei to outline the ideals of the new freedom in the colonies – in fact, Jefferson’s words “All men are created equal” arguably the best known phrase of any American political document, is a reworking of the Mazzei’s statement “All men by nature are equally free and independent.” Knowledgeable historians record that while Jefferson provided the sounding board, it was Mazzei who provided the substance.
A doctor, a teacher, a politician… Filippo Mazzei was many things, but his greatest contribution was to the independence of the United States. His Constitutional Society provided a framework for the United States Constitution and he was an inspiration to the fervent and prominent patriots of the early United States of America. This dynamic man who left such a great imprint on the ideals of America, retired to Pisa, Italy and died there in 1816. The memory of his accomplishments and contributions live on to this day as we move through our daily lives in the free nation of liberty that is our home.
Patriot, Politician and Jurist
Born outside of Abington, Maryland in 1740, William Paca was of Italian ancestry. His name was originally spelled ‘Pacci’.” A child prodigy, after being tutored in the classics by his parents, John and Elizabeth Paca, William was admitted to the College of Philadelphia at the age of 15 and earned his Master’s degree at the age of 19.
In pre-Revolutionary War years, Paca was a strong opponent of British oppression. As a Delegate of the Continental Congress, he was instrumental in convincing conservative politicians in Maryland to support the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, he signed the document to the immediate right of John Hancock’s signature. Two years later he helped to create and voted to adopt the Constitution of the United States.
He served as a Maryland Delegate to the Continental Congress from 1774 to 1779 and was also a Maryland State Senator from 1777 to 1779. Following his term as Senator, Paca served as Governor of Maryland from 1782 to 1785. In 1789, President George Washington appointed Paca as a Federal District judge, a position he held until his death in 1799.
One of the most influential lawyers and politicians of his time, William Paca was a true patriot whose ideas and actions contributed to the freedom that our country now enjoys. With Paca’s help, the United States became free from British rule and the contemporary Italian community can take pride in knowing that our people are represented by his name on the document that promises our freedom. Today, history buffs can visit the William Paca House & Garden in Annapolis, Maryland, one of the city’s most elegant landmarks and the former home of this highly influential patriot, lawyer and politician.
A Ride for Freedom
Caesar Rodney was a determined freedom fighter who was born in 1728 on his family’s farm near Dover, Delaware. He was the son of Caesar and Mary Crawford Rodney and the grandson of William Rodney, who came to America in the 1680s. The Rodney family were descendants of the prominent Adelmare family of Treviso, Italy.
In 1755, Rodney was elected Sheriff of Kent County, Delaware and subsequently served in a series of county positions. During the French and Indian War, he was commissioned as Captain of the Dover Hundred Company in the Delaware militia and from 1769 to 1777, served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the Lower Counties of Delaware.
Rodney joined the American Revolution in 1765 as a Delegate to the Stamp Act Congress. On June 15, 1775, he helped to lead Delaware’s Assembly of the Lower Counties in a vote to separate all ties between the colony and the British government. A year later, Delaware was set to vote with the rest of the colonies on a resolution that would officially sever the colonies’ ties with Great Britain. On July 1, Rodney received word that Delaware’s two delegates were deadlocked on the vote for America’s independence. Rodney traveled 80 miles on horseback during a thunderstorm to arrive in Philadelphia on July 2, enabling his home colony to vote in favor of Thomas Jefferson’s resolution and signing the original Declaration of Independence.
In 1778, Rodney was elected “President” (Governor) of Delaware, but his body was wracked by asthma and skin cancer, causing him to resign three years later. Rodney’s illnesses also prevented him from serving a full term as a Delaware Assemblyman when elected in 1783, although the Legislature respectfully held sessions in his home until his passing in 1784.
The Italian Born Patriot
The mid-western states of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin might not be part of the United States today if it had not been for the Italian-born patriot Colonel Francesco Vigo. Born in Mondovi in the Kingdom of Sardinia in 1747, he came to America as a soldier and found his fortune as a fur trader. Though involved with pre-Revolutionary activities for many years, Vigo performed his greatest act of patriotism during the Revolutionary War in 1778, when he aided Colonel George Rogers Clark in taking the mid-west territory from the British.
Upon his arrival in Vincennes, Indiana, Vigo was captured by American Indians and turned over to British faction led by Governor Henry Hamilton. He was able to convince the British troops that he was just a fur trader from St. Louis, though it is said that Vigo held a note intended for Colonel Clark that he chewed and swallowed in order to prevent the British from learning the patriot’s military secrets.
While a prisoner of the British, Vigo studied the strength of Indiana’s Fort Sackville. After being released, the patriot paddled 500 miles through the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to reach Colonel Clark and share the information he gathered. Based on his observations, Vigo knew that the British were not expecting an attack at Vincennes. He recommended a surprise attack as the best course of action.
In 1779, Colonel Clark took Vigo’s advice and his American forces, along with help from French forces recruited by Vigo, surprised the British troops and forced them out of Vincennes without losing a single American soldier. Based on the success of this attack, the United States gained the territory that now comprises a significant portion of the mid-west.