The Italian who shaped America

Declaration of Independence, painting by John Trumbull, 1819.

Who was Filippo Mazzei?

Filippo Mazzei (1730-1816) was an eminent exponent of the Enlightenment in the 18th century and distinguished himself as an Italian physician, agronomist, philosopher and politician. He is mainly known for his involvement in the American Revolution and his close friendship and collaboration with Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States of America. Mazzei played a crucial role in spreading Enlightenment ideals among the new American citizens, earning him the title of one of the founding fathers of American democracy. He also served as ambassador of the State of Virginia to Paris, took an active part in the French Revolution and helped draft the Polish Declaration of Independence in Warsaw. 

Born in Poggio a Caiano, a town in Tuscany, on December 25, 1730, Mazzei studied medicine and practiced medicine for several years, initially in Florence and Livorno, and later in Smyrna, Turkey, in 1755. Later, he moved to London, where he engaged in commercial activities and was commissioned by Grand Duke Leopold of Tuscany to purchase stoves from a then unknown Benjamin Franklin. This experience brought him into contact with many American English colonists, who were to become key figures in the American Revolution. 

During his stay in England, Mazzei had the opportunity to study major Enlightenment texts (which were banned in Italy at the time but well received in the United Kingdom) and to frequent various London literary circles. This further strengthened his friendship with Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Thanks to the invitation of his American friends, in 1773 Mazzei moved to the United States, settling in Virginia, right near Thomas Jefferson’s residence

Portrait of Filippo Mazzei (by Jacques Louis David)
Filippo Mazzei

Mazzei & Jefferson

One of the most significant relationships in Philip Mazze’s life was with Thomas Jefferson, one of the main architects of the American Revolution.

The two became close friends, sharing not only philosophical debates but also a shared commitment to the independence of the colonies.

Mazzei’s influence manifested itself in the drafting of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, in which he coined the famous concept “all men are created equal”, a principle later adopted by Jefferson in the Declaration itself.

In later years, Mazzei accompanied Jefferson to Europe, where he served as ambassador of the state of Virginia to Paris. Initially a supporter of the French Revolution, he distanced himself from it during the Jacobin phase and went to Warsaw, where he became adviser to Poland’s King Stanislaus.

Extract from the Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776

A recognized American patriot

Mazzei’s legacy remained largely unknown until 1980, when the United States commemorated the 250th anniversary of his birth by dedicating a stamp to him with the inscription “Philip Mazzei Patriot Remembered”. This led to a joint philatelic celebration between Italy and the United States in honor of his memory.

It is important to note that his immortal formula “all men are created equal and independent” later included in the Declaration of Independence, was nonetheless very often echoed by distinguished political figures, starting with John F. Kennedy in his speech in Newport, Rhode Island, on September 12, 1960, as well as by many other presidents.

US commemorative stamp, joint Italy-US, 1980
Italian commemorative stamp, joint Italy-US, 1980

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