Discovering Gaetano Filangieri
By Francesco Isgro*
The name of Italian jurist and philosopher Gaetano Filangieri is not one that readily comes to mind when mentioning Italian contributors to the founding of the United States. Unlike Philip Mazzei, a dear friend of Thomas Jefferson, and Cesare Beccaria, whose contributions to American law are well known, Filangieri's relationship with Benjamin Franklin and his possible influence on legislation and laws that would eventually govern the early republic is barely known. Indeed, it appears that very little has been written about Filangieri in the United States, even though his published legislative treatise, La Scienza della legislazione, had found its way across the Atlantic.
Thus, against the backdrop of the celebration of the 150th anniversary of Italian unification, a symposium was recently held at the Library of Congress to explore Filangieri's relationship with Franklin and his potential influence in shaping the Founding Father's thinking about the governance of the nascent American Republic.
The symposium was the brainchild of Judge Giannicola Sinisi, Justice Attaché at the Italian Embassy in Washington, who said he had always been intrigued by Filangieri and his relationship with Franklin. Participants at the symposium included Marcello Pera, former President of the Senate of the Republic of Italy, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Italian Ambassador Giulio Terzi. Attending the event were Federal Judges Arthur Gajarsa and Francis Allegra, and members of the National Italian American Bar Association, among others.
Judge Sinisi, with the assistance of Monica D'Agostini, a Ph.D candidate in history, unearthed a number of fascinating facts. When Franklin was in Paris in 1781, for example, he specifically asked for copies of Filangieri's legislative treatises after he discovered those books in the library of Luigi Pio, Ambassador for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Back in America, Franklin mailed a numbered copy of the U.S. Constitution to Filangieri in Italy for his views. Franklin also asked Filangieri to send him nine copies of his legal treatise. "Who were those copies for?" asked Sinisi. "Were they for the other Founding Fathers?"
Much remains to be learned about Filangieri's potential influence. Notably, circumstantial evidence suggests that Filangieri might have influenced the penal code in Pennsylvania and the drafting of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Unfortunately, much of Filangieri's correspondence was lost when his library in Naples burned down. As Ms. D'Agostini said in her remarks, "We keep waiting for history to give us that missing piece of this puzzle to give us more light."
*Reprinted from Voce italiana, December 2010