Declaration of (Italian) American Independence

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“They all laughed at Christopher Columbus/When he said the world was round…” So begins the lyrics of Ira Gershwin for brother George’s 1937 composition “They All Laughed.” The Gershwins wrote the song for the movie Shall We Dance, starring Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire. Frank Sinatra famously included the tune in his masterpiece Trilogy album, where he sings the closing lyrics “Who’s got the last laugh now?” with a knowing wink.

From Christopher Columbus to Frank Sinatra, it’s clear that Italians and Italian-Americans have had a tremendous impact on America. Over the next three weeks, we’ll focus on those names history books seem to have neglected.

Did you know Italian-Americans played a prominent role in the founding of America? For example, three of the first five American warships were named after Italians. These were the explorers Christopher Columbus and John Cabot (the English version of his real name Giovanni Caboto) and 16th century navy admiral Andrea Doria. Doria inspired Americans for his tenacity in fighting the pirates of the Barbary coast.

While roughly 1,500 Italians fought on behalf of American independence, there are two individuals who deserve particular attention.

The first is Giuseppe Maria Francesco Vigo, whom some say was the first Italian to become an American citizen. He was born in Mondovi, Italy on December 13, 1747. Though he began as a Spanish mercenary stationed in New Orleans, he soon became a merchant, and a very good one at that. He established a fur trading business in what was at that time a small frontier town in 1772. Today we know that town as St. Louis.

When war broke out, he sided with the American cause. He became a spy and financier. George Rogers Clark (older brother of William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition) ask him to scout the British positions at St. Vincent, about half-way between St. Louis and Detroit.

As a fur trader, Vigo had the perfect cover. Unfortunately, the British were on to him. Captured by the Crown’s Indian allies, Vigo soon found himself imprisoned by the Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton. It wasn’t until local French citizens pled for his release that Hamilton allowed Vigo, then technically a Spanish citizen and non-combatant, to return to St. Louis.

Vigo, though, faithfully reported his findings to Clark. He also fronted Clark the necessary funds of $8,100 to launch the successful attack to retake St. Vincent (now called Vincennes, Indiana). Clark’s military success severely reduced the British war efforts in the northwestern frontier of the burgeoning nation. Because of this, Clark has been called the “Conqueror of the Old Northwest” and the “Hannibal of the West.”

When the British ceded its Northwest Territories to America following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the new country nearly doubled in size. Historians credit the Battle of Vincennes for this and, in turn, cite Vigo’s intelligence as the key to Clark’s victory there.

The United States never repaid Vigo during his lifetime. Indiana, however, established the County of Vigo in 1818 to honor him. When Vigo visited the county seat of Terre Haute on July 4, 1834, he promised to provide money to buy a bell for a courthouse should the federal government ever repay him for his efforts in financing the Revolutionary War.

Francis Vigo died on March 22, 1836 in Vincennes. It wasn’t until 1875 that the U.S. Government finally repaid Vigo’s loan, including the interest which added another $41,000 to the tab. Since Vigo had no heirs, however, the only money that was actually returned was enough to cover the purchase of the Terre Haute Courthouse bell.

If Vigo’s efforts led to the immediately expansion of American, Filippo Mazzei may have given our country it’s most heralded belief.

Filippo Mazzei was born on December 25, 1730 in the town of Poggio a Caiano in Tuscany, Italy. Well-travelled at a young age, he practiced medicine in Italy and the Middle East after studying in Florence. His life turned to one of commerce when he relocated to London, England in 1755. While working as an importer, he also taught Italian. It was in London that he first met Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Adams.

One day, he shared an idea with these two Americans. He fancied himself importing wine and olives to the new world. In 1773, Mazzei set sail for Virginia. There, he met George Washington and Patrick Henry. He also became fast friends with Thomas Jefferson, and the two men established the colony’s first commercial vineyard.

When war broke out, Mazzei quickly joined the American cause. By 1779, it was clear to Jefferson and others that, rather than fighting on the ground, Mazzei might better help the cause in Europe. He sought financing and used it to purchase and ship arms to American until the end of the Revolutionary war.

Although Mazzei never settled in America, his family did after he died in 1816.

Mazzei’s American legacy, however, doesn’t include his efforts aiding and assisting the colonist’s military efforts. His lasting impact is nothing less than what defines our country.

Mazzei had an affinity with Jefferson in more than agricultural industry. They both espoused similar political beliefs. In particular, they both saw the fundamental truth of liberty. In 1774, Patrick Henry suggested Mazzei might wish to share his views by contributing to The Virginia Gazette. Like other pamphleteers of his age, Mazzei used a pseudonym. In his case, he chose “Furioso.”

Mazzei wrote most naturally in Italian, so that’s how he penned his articles. Of course, the colonists read English, so someone had to translate those articles. Fortunately, Mazzei’s neighbor was more than willing to do so. That neighbor was Thomas Jefferson.

One such article contained the following passage (in Mazzei’s original script):

Tutti gli uomini sono per natura egualmente liberi e indipendenti. Quest’ eguaglianza è necessaria per costituire un governo libero. Bisogna che ognuno sia uguale all’altro nel diritto naturale.”

Translated, it was published 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.”

While not word for word what Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, the similarity is more than clear. Jefferson began the document with the phrase “We hold these Truths to be self evident. That all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”

No less than John F. Kennedy acknowledges Mazzei’s contribution to the American ethic. He writes in his book, A Nation of Immigrants:

“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.”

That’s why the Declaration of American Independence owes much to an Italian-American.

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