Constable: In Columbus' wake, another Italian proves statue-worthy

  • In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued this stamp honoring Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born political philosopher and friend of Thomas Jefferson who is credited with inspiring the line "All Men are Created Equal" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

    In 1980, the U.S. Postal Service issued this stamp honoring Philip Mazzei, an Italian-born political philosopher and friend of Thomas Jefferson who is credited with inspiring the line "All Men are Created Equal" in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Courtesy of U.S. Postal Service

  • People toppled this Christopher Columbus statue at the Minnesota state Capitol in St. Paul earlier this month. Once credited with "discovering America," the Italian explorer has fallen out of favor amid accusations of tyranny and brutality.

    People toppled this Christopher Columbus statue at the Minnesota state Capitol in St. Paul earlier this month. Once credited with "discovering America," the Italian explorer has fallen out of favor amid accusations of tyranny and brutality. Associated Press

  • This portrait of patriot Philip Mazzei was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1790.

    This portrait of patriot Philip Mazzei was painted by Jacques-Louis David in 1790. Courtesy of National Archives

 
 
Updated 6/30/2020 4:42 AM

The removal of public monuments honoring flawed people of our past, from Robert E. Lee to Christopher Columbus, is long overdue.

"The Confederate soldiers? A no-brainer. They were traitors to our nation and defended slavery," says Bill Dal Cerro, a teacher at Fenton High School in Bensenville and senior analyst of the Italic Institute of America. "Columbus? It's a bit more complex."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Dal Cerro notes that Time magazine hailed the voyages of Christopher Columbus that opened the Americas to Europeans as the second-most important event of the millennium behind the invention of the printing press. But he concedes that, as a spokesman for Italian heritage, his desire to recognize Columbus' achievements, and not his 15th Century sensibilities and behavior, is a ship that has already sailed.

In that wake, he offers up an Italian hero who played a much more important role in the actual formulation of our nation -- Philip Mazzei.

"Mazzei is a guy people should know about," says Dal Cerro, who applauds the recent movement of giving credit to the role minorities played in our nation's history. "He would be an ideal candidate for a statue."

Born in Tuscany in 1730, Mazzei studied in Florence and became a physician, a merchant importer and an influential political philosopher. An intellectual who spoke several languages and knew art, architecture and literature, Mazzei became friends with Benjamin Franklin and John Adams in England, and they convinced the Italian to move to the colonies, where Mazzei bought part of Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate to cultivate wine, olives and silk worms.

Forming a close friendship (and a joint wine business) with his neighbor Jefferson, who spoke Italian, Mazzei shared his political leanings in writings at Jefferson's urging. In 1774, Mazzei wrote an essay in the Virginia Gazette that suggested, "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."

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Jefferson liked Mazzei's way of thinking.

"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," wrote John F. Kennedy in his book, "A Nation of Immigrants."

That alone should earn Mazzei some statuary. The U.S. Postal Service did put his likeness on a 40-cent airmail stamp in 1980 as a "Patriot Remembered."

But Mazzei did more than come up with one immortal line. As a naturalized citizen of the Virginia colony, Mazzei was about to negotiate arms deals for the revolution when the British arrested him and shipped him to a prison in Ireland. He escaped, purchased supplies and arms for the American Revolution and supplied intelligence to Jefferson until the war's end. He played a similar role during revolutions in Poland and France.

When he returned to Virginia, Mazzei formed the Constitutional Society to help guide the newly independent nation and later wrote a four-volume history of the colonies. His wife was buried in the Jefferson family graveyard, according to an article at Monticello.org. Nearby Charlottesville, Virginia, is a sister city to Poggio-a-Caiano, the birthplace of Mazzei, Del Cerro says.

Mazzei returned to Italy, where he died in Pisa in 1816. Unlike many of our Founding Fathers, Mazzei never owned enslaved people or supported the institution of slavery. When some of Jefferson's slaves helped Mazzei with his vineyard, Mazzei insisted they be paid and allowed to keep the money. A Joint Resolution of Congress in 1993 recognized Mazzei's contribution to our Declaration of Independence.

"He's kind of an honorary Founding Father," Del Cerro says, noting Mazzei's "All Men are Created Equal" philosophy is essential to our nation's history. "It's not his fault the Founding Fathers didn't follow up on that."

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