We The Italians | IT and US: The US-Italy Consular Relations at the 230-Year Mark: Uncovering the Connections Between Two Kindred Nations

IT and US: The US-Italy Consular Relations at the 230-Year Mark: Uncovering the Connections Between Two Kindred Nations

IT and US: The US-Italy Consular Relations at the 230-Year Mark: Uncovering the Connections Between Two Kindred Nations

  • WTI Magazine #172 Feb 10, 2024
  • 850

The establishment of the first U.S. Consulate General in Leghorn in 1794, closely followed by another in Naples in 1796, marks the beginning of consular relations between the USA and pre-unitary Italy. Yet, the roots of this connection delve deeper into the rich soil of intellectual and scientific exchange that predated that institutional connection. 

Central to this narrative is the exchange between Neapolitan Enlightenment philosopher Gaetano Filangieri and U.S. founding father Benjamin Franklin. Their correspondence began in 1782 when Franklin was in Paris negotiating the peace treaty with the British Empire. Along with his final letter to Filangieri, Franklin sent a copy of the recently approved U.S. Constitution of 1787 as a token of gratitude for the Neapolitan philosopher’s “invaluable work on legislation”, thus acknowledging Filangieri’s role in the American constitutional discourse. 

This transatlantic dialogue also extended to the field of science, as demonstrated by the connection between Neapolitan naturalist Domenico Cirillo and Philadelphian physician John Morgan. In 1768, Morgan nominated Cirillo as a corresponding member of the American Philosophical Society, the oldest learned society in the Thirteen Colonies, prompting Cirillo to pledge his commitment to advancing the Society's goals by introducing in America several useful plant species from the Kingdom of Naples. 

To fully appreciate the significance of this transatlantic connection, the contributions of the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli must not be overlooked. Educated by Antonio Genovesi in Naples, Paoli held the belief that Corsicans, sharing the Italian language, customs, and traditions, merited equal treatment with other Italians. Motivated by this conviction, he spearheaded an uprising that led to Corsica's independence from the Republic of Genoa in 1755. Additionally, he enacted Corsica's constitution, aimed at promoting the "happiness of the nation." 

The Sons of Liberty, a clandestine organization instrumental in the burgeoning American struggle for independence from British rule, drew inspiration from Paoli's ideals and achievements. Paoli's commitment to the "happiness of the nation" found echoes in American writings and declarations of the time, such as James Otis's pamphlet on the Rights of the British Colonies of 1764, the Virginia Declaration of Rights on June 12, 1776, and most notably, the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. This seminal document famously declared the "pursuit of happiness" as one of the unalienable rights of all people. 

The relationship between Philip Mazzei and Thomas Jefferson emerges as an even more striking illustration of Italian contributions to American history. In 1774, Mazzei composed an article in Italian for the Virginia Gazette, which Jefferson translated into English. This piece boldly proclaimed that "all men are by nature equally free and independent," a statement that, just two years later, would be incorporated verbatim in the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Historians suggest that Mazzei’s statement may have also inspired Jefferson's iconic passage in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.” This theory was endorsed by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in his 1962 book "A Nation of Immigrants," and by the U.S. Congress in its Joint Resolution no. 175 of August 5, 1994, underscoring the lasting impact of Italian thought on American ideals of freedom and equality. 

As the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026 draws near, it becomes evident that this historic document not only constitutes the birth certificate of a nation but is also a testament to a convergence of ideas, in which Italians played an important part. As we look towards the future, celebrating this legacy becomes a way to reaffirm the shared values that continue to underpin the Italy-USA relations, reminding us of the enduring power of ideas to bridge divides and to forge lasting bonds between nations. 

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This article is based on the presentation delivered by the author at the Centro Studi Americani on February 7, 2024.