Today I want to remember an historic figure to who I look up to as a champion of democracy and humanism, another ‘democratic Florentine’ who emigrated, like me, from Florence to Virginia at his middle age, in order to reflect on the state of democracy in the US and the Western world nowadays.
Filippo Mazzei born near Florence the 25 of December 1730 and died in Pisa the 19 of March 1816, but he didn’t spend all his life in Tuscany. He was an Enlightenment thinker and a philanthropist who after many years abroad, as a physician in the Middle East and a businessman in the UK, at the age of 43 moved to Virginia and became a close friend of Tomas Jefferson. He bought an estate near Monticello and named it Colle, “Hill”, as it remembered him his dear hills of Tuscany. There he cultivated oil, wine and other Tuscan products but he also started to ‘cultivate his spirit’, influencing the spirit of Jefferson too and at the same time the spirit of his old fellow citizens in Florence and his new fellow citizens in Charlottesville. He started to write for a Florentine and a Virginian Gazette about the new values of freedom and democracy that were generating in the British Colonies, with him as an active contributor to that ‘new humanism’.
It is known that Mazzei influenced the future President Thomas Jefferson in the draft of the Declaration of Independence and in shaping some principles of the new Constitution. As some letters to Jefferson conserved in the Archives of Monticello show and also President JFK remembered (Kennedy, John F. A Nation of Immigrants, pp. 15-16) he played a role in shaping the American democratic values with his knowledge of tolerance, freedom and respect of diversity. Besides this fundamental contribution he also spread and publicized the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution in Europe (with translations and presentations) becoming one of the most famous Italo-american patriot. In 1779 he went to Florence and Paris, where for some years he worked as a secret diplomatic agent to purchase arms for the state of Virginia and in 1785 he left Virginia for good, going to France, where he participated to the fervors of the French Revolution and also to Poland, where he became a privy councilor at the court of King Stanislaus II. He wrote a political history of the American Revolution, the “Recherches historiques et politiques sur les Etats-Unis de l’Amerique septentrionale”, and at the end of the century he returned to his country, where he went back to cultivate the land in Tuscany, this time in a small vegetable garden, and write his memories.
Mazzei is remembered as an Italo-American patriot and a fighter for democracy and tolerance wherever he went. This ‘cultural mediator’ had the lucky and the leadership talent to become an active participant to the main political events of the end of XVIII century that would have shape the future of democracy and of the western world as we know it today. But in his memory, and in the memory of all who participated to the building of those ideals it worth to ask today how is the health of those high human democratic principles, both in the US and in general in the Western world: do we currently follow and put in practice those canons of civil life and citizen empowerment today? Or it is needed to go back to those values that shaped American and French constitutions in this period of our history as the Renaissance did with the Roman classics times in order to come out from Middle Age? I think that to help our ‘mature democracies’ to overcome current critical moments we really need to return to the core of the values of democracy, freedom and tolerance, more than two centuries after the draft of those enlightened texts and see how to improve their application. Some scholars in the US, from both left and right political spectrum, are actually calling since some years for a Second Constitutional Convention towards a substantive effort to reform politics in this country. I don’t know if this is what the US need to do right now but for sure the US and the West in general have to reflect on the challenges that its democracies are living today.
Democratic transitions are never fast. The American democracy for example took almost 100 years before the values of the American Constitution would start to be applied to everyone with the abolition of slavery and political equality for African-Americans took another hundred years (with the Civil Rights Act). And a real economic equality still has to happen in our countries, actually today we are experiencing a trend of reduction of it with an increasing gap between rich and poor in the US as well as in other Western democracies. So democracies can also draw back and regress, as the challenges of our ‘mature democracies’ today demonstrates. The rights of freedom, equality and justice are threatened nowadays in the US (from the NSA surveillance to the Guantanamo prison to the block to immigration reforms by the polarized political parties) as well as in Europe (look for example at the citizens exclusion from the decision making on austerity politics that are destroying the economies and the social fabric of countries like Italy, Spain or Greece). So democracy today need to reflect on a more direct participation of the citizens in the Res-publica, the “public thing”, and even if participatory democracy seems a ‘natural law’ of the politics in the future, the path to go towards more grassroots and individual participation without falling in populism or inefficiency seems still long and full of obstacles. We know that democracy is a never ending process, and even if political parties corruption, crony capitalism or economic inequality are often blocking the path of world communities towards better life and more just societies, we also see improvements in the transparency of information and the empowerment of civil society actions.
So from the Virginian motto Sic semper tyrannis come to us today a call, a call for a step forward on the path of democracy, not only to fight against the tyrants but to fight in favor of the citizens, toward a tipping point in which empowered citizens can participate in the construction of better political and social systems in their country, from the West to the East, from the North to the South. Remembering how Filippo Mazzei did, with his Florentine spirit of Enlightenment and his planetary attitude of Humanism.
For an interesting analysis on current democracies around the world: http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21596796-democracy-was-most-successful-political-idea-20th-century-why-has-it-run-trouble-and-what-can-be-do