A Reviewers Notebook: World Citizen

The world citizen was an eighteenth-century phenomenon. A child of the French Enlightenment, the World Citizen tended to put liberty ahead of country. Sometimes the World Citizen was bemused by those who rated equality ahead of liberty. This led many into Jacobin snares, with the guillotine as their reward if they strayed from the gospel proclaimed by Robespierre or some other tyrant of the moment. But the more canny among the World Citizens came to see with Edmund Burke that liberty, in the abstract, could be a delusion. Burke, an anti- ideologue, was satisfied with English liberties in the plural, as defined by the tradition going back to Magna Carta.

Philip Mazzei, an Italian from Tuscany, was a Burkean, even though Burke gets only a bare footnote mention in Mazzei’s autobiography, My Life and Wanderings, which is now published for the first time in its entirety. The feisty Mazzei, who was cheated out of part of his patrimony by a rascally brother, became a wanderer early in life. He was inevitably attracted to London by the fact that, in England, “the only absolute power the government may exercise is to expel in time of war a foreigner that is suspected of being a spy.” “Personal freedom,” Mazzei reflected, “is more important for an individual than public freedom.” The year in which he chose to settle in London was 1756, and the Glorious Revolution sponsored by John Locke had not yet surrendered to the “George be King” attitude of Hanoverians who held to the continental theory of Divine Right.

In addition to being a World Citizen, Mazzei was a born trader whose urge to truck and barter would have entirely satisfied his great contemporary Adam Smith. As a boy in Tuscany Mazzei had studied to be a surgeon. He took his profession with him to Smyrna in Asia Minor by way of Constantinople. But setting broken bones bored him. Sailing to London with an intrepid Captain Wilson, who kept a wary eye out for possible French interference, Mazzei set himself up as a teacher of Italian even though he himself had yet to learn English. His pure Tuscan pronunciation stood him in good stead as a teacher for an interim period, but he soon discovered better ways of making money. He became an importer of oils and wines, making trips back home to Italy to arrange for a supply of Florentine wines that Englishmen might prefer to port and madeira for the summer. Eventually he opened a London shop, but he put it under the name of Martini and Company in order to keep from being known to the Florentine aristocracy as “Philip the shopkeeper.”

Mazzei was a happy Londoner for some fifteen years. His first disillusionment with English liberties came when John Wilkes’ election to parliament was declared invalid. This seemed to Mazzei to constitute “a death blow to the solid and sacrosanct fundamental law of a free country, which is perfect freedom in the election of the representatives of the people.”

Mazzei Meets Franklin

Mazzei’s growing doubts about English liberties coincided with a first meeting with Benjamin Franklin, the London agent of the Pennsylvania colony. The Grand Duke Leopold back in Tuscany had asked for two Franklin stoves. Franklin didn’t like the alterations that English craftsmen had made on his stove. After some argument, Mazzei prevailed on a British stoveman to go back to Franklin’s own design. The Grand Duke Leopold got his stoves, and the improvements that went with the true Franklin model created a thriving new business in “many parts of the Kingdom.”

Franklin led Mazzei to Thomas Adams, a Virginian who was a great friend of Thomas Jefferson. Sympathizing with the transatlantic colonists who were insisting on their rights as Englishmen in refusing to honor the Stamp Act or to pay a mild tax on tea, Mazzei decided to go to Virginia. His plan was to take ten Tuscan peasants with him. Once settled in Virginia, he hoped to domesticate Mediterranean crops in a New World setting. He bought a farm adjacent to Thomas Jefferson’s own holdings at Monticello, and soon was raising wheat and Indian corn for shipment to Leghorn in Italy.

Jefferson, who had learned Italian for himself before he had ever heard a word of Italian spoken, became a great partisan of Mazzei, deeming him “of solid worth, honest, able, zealous in sound principles, moral and political, constant in friendship and punctual in all his undertakings.” When war came to the colonies, Mazzei could not remain a simple farmer and exporter. He became a soldier, and it wasn’t long before he had agreed to become Virginia’s agent in Paris, where he joined Ben Franklin as an eloquent pleader of the colonists’ cause at the French court.

After the war Mazzei lingered on in Paris, writing a four-volume work on the colonies. He had something to do with promoting Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, which was written to answer questions proposed by Mazzei’s friends, the Duke de La Rochefou cauld and the Marquis de Condorcet.

The French Revolution’s course, so different from that of the American Revolution, had Mazzei worried the moment the Jacobin Club presumed to dictate policies for the Third Estate. When the French began to issue paper assignats for money, Mazzei wrote a warning pamphlet to explain the workings of Gresham’s Law. His general preoccupation with the specifics involved in maintaining individual freedom recommended him to Stanislaus Augustus II, the elected king of the aristocratic republic of Poland. Jefferson approved of Stanislaus, so Mazzei took on the added job of becoming Poland’s agent in revolutionary Paris.

The Partitioning of Poland

The chapters devoted to the story of Mazzei’s service to Poland have a tremendous interest for the modern reader. As an agent Mazzei picked up some warning indications that the King of Prussia was about to con-hive with Russia and Austria in the final partitioning of a most unhappy Polish buffer state. Journeying to Warsaw, Mazzei tried to convey the urgency of the situation. But King Stanislaus’s military advisers could not believe in the King of Prussia’s intended duplicity. When they were finally convinced that Poland was about to be erased from the map of Europe as an independent nation, it was too late. There was nothing to do for Stanislaus but to resign.

Indecent as the partitioning of Poland was, there were still some courtesies connected with it. The Czar of Russia eventually assumed a part of the deposed King Stanislaus’s debts. Mazzei, in a terrifying posting trip to St. Petersburg undertaken in his seventy-third year, retrieved some of the money he had loaned to King Stanislaus.

This makes a grand finale to a story that is full of meaning for any student of freedom. []

Philip Mazzei: My Life and Wanderings.Translated by S. Eugene Scalia, edited by Margherita Marchione. (American Institute of Italian Studies, 455 Western Avenue, Morris-town, N.J. 07960), 472 pages, $14.95 cloth; $9.95 paperback.

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