Great Italians: Giuseppe Garibaldi

In the book “How to Be a Stoic”, Massimo Pigliucci discusses the highly inflated use of the word hero. Although many apply the term simply to someone they admire, the word hero means much more than that. As Joseph Campbell said, “a hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” I can think of no greater example of a hero than Giuseppe Garibaldi. 

It is ironic that Giuseppe Garibaldi was born on the fourth of July in 1807. Born in Nice, he was not an American nor ever became one, but he lived a life that celebrated and fought for the principles that are the heart of the United States. He embraced republican nationalism and a unified Italy. Unfortunately, his activities led him to be marked for execution. Fleeing Italy, Garibaldi fled to South America, where he fought with the rebels in Brazil to establish the Riograndense Republic and later in the Uruguayan Civil War. He is still recognized for his influence in establishing their constitution. Once he returned to Italy, he successfully fought for Italian unification. He was a man who combined the personal magnetism of George Washington, the convictions of Abraham Lincoln, and the swashbuckling joie de vivre of Errol Flynn. 

Washington was said to be the “indispensable man” and a “modern day Cincinnatus.” Many historians say that without Washington, there would have been no United States. His personal strength and ability to draw men to him to motivate them to fight for a seemingly unattainable goal made the American Revolution successful. Washington led an army of farmers and tradesmen against the professional army of what was the world’s greatest power at the time. 

Just as Washington defeated the British with amateurs, Garibaldi defeated more than 20,000 Neapolitan troops of the Bourbon King Francis II with ordinary men who were untrained in the art of war. He was able to forge, from the different social classes, a united Italian army, The Red Shirts. Just as Washington was able to draw the people to him, Garibaldi’s strength of character rallied Italians to the cause of a united Italy. As he and the Red Shirts marched through Sicily and Sothern Italy, men and women along the way joined them in their fight. 

Both Washington and Garibaldi were the Cincinnatus of their times. Like Cincinnatus – the Roman farmer who returned to his farm after serving Rome to repel an invasion – each willingly handed over power to others. Washington, who could have easily become president for life with the popular consent of the people, returned to his farm. Garibaldi, with the Handshake of Teano, for the sake of Italian unity, handed his victories in the south to Victor Emanuel II and returned to the Island of Caprera to live the life of an ordinary man. 

Like Lincoln, Garibaldi was committed to republican ideals. One of my favorite Garibaldi stories involves the civil war. In 1861, Garibaldi explored fighting in the American civil war on behalf of the Union. Secretary of State Willian Seward offered him a commission as a Major General. Garibaldi responded “that the only way in which he could render service, as he ardently desired to do, to the cause of the United States, was as Commander-in-Chief of its forces, that he would only go as such, and with the additional contingent power – to be governed by events – of declaring the abolition of slavery; there he would be of little use without the first, and without the second it would appear like a civil war in which the world at large could have little interest or sympathy. ” Garibaldi was ahead of Lincoln, who had not yet issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Of course, Lincoln, especially in 1861, was most concerned with preserving the Union. 

Beyond his ideals, Garibaldi was a heroic lionhearted adventurer. According to William Rosenfeld’s book, “Garibaldi”, John Griggs, a United States citizen, and comrade of Garibaldi, found that serving under someone as daring as Garibaldi was far from the romantic images one might find in the movies. Griggs wrote of Garibaldi, “… Admiral Garibaldi tends to play too loose with the Imperial patrol vessels. He seems as ready for a fight as he is for securing a prize cargo. I have had to remind him that we don’t really have crews in large enough number or inclination, nor the firepower to stand against the Imperials. But he’s like a mastiff on a long leash. Holding him close to common sense begins to tire me.”

Garibaldi is known as the Hero of the Two Worlds because of his efforts to establish republics in the Americas and Italy. If ever the term hero is to apply, it is to Garibaldi. He was willing to place himself in harm’s way, fighting for the rights of the everyday working man and woman. He saw a future that was better than his present, willing to give his life to make that future a reality: Giuseppe Garibaldi, a hero, and a genuinely great Italian.