Filippo Mazzei and the Declaration of Independence

October 12, 2009

This Columbus Day it seems appropriate to mention Filippo Mazzei, an Italian doctor and writer who befriended Thomas Jefferson. He is now believed to be the source of the phrase “all men are created equal” used by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Mazzei came to Virginia along with a group of his countrymen to cultivate olives, vineyards, and Mediterranean fruit. He and Jefferson became lifelong friends, sharing political philosophies and values. Later Mazzei wrote a history of the American Revolution. There has been some controversy over the years as to Mazzei’s true influence over Jefferson. John F. Kennedy, in his book A Nation of Immigrants, wrote the following:

” 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.”

Although he returned to Europe later in life, Mazzei continued to support his young adopted nation. At Jefferson’s urging, his family returned to the U.S. after his death, and his daughter wound up marrying a nephew of John Adams.

In 1980, the United States Postal Service, in conjunction with its Italian counterpart, issued stamps commemorating the 280th anniversary of Mazzei’s birth.

On September 12, 1984, Congressman Mario Biaggi entered an appreciation of Mazzei into the Congressional Record. The essay was written by Sister Margherita Marchione, a history professor at Farleigh Dickinson University.

An Italian American Genealogical Society is named Il Circolo Filippo Mazzei in his honor. Their web site contains a wealth of information on Mazzei, including an obituary published by the Richmond Argus shortly after his death in 1816.

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