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Giuseppe Garibaldi: Motivations for a Unified Italy
Giuseppe Garibaldi: Motivations for a Unified Italy
by Guy Nasuti

Giuseppe Garibaldi is as much a hero to Italians today as he was back when he attempted to unify the various Italian states into one nation. Garibaldi's motivations for organizing and fighting with his Risorgimento was to found a liberal system of government for Italy that was then sweeping most of Europe, to become a leader to men who shared his ideals, and ultimately the establishment of a unified Italy.

Giuseppe Garibaldi was a revolutionary from an early age. In 1834, in Marseilles, France, he met a man named Giuseppe Mazzini, who was the leading proponent of Italian unification at the time. Mazzini shared his vision of a liberal republic made possible through political and social reforms with the youthful Garibaldi, and the impression was made. Garibaldi joined the Young Italy movement and the Carbonari revolutionary association.[1]

Mazzini, the son of a well-to-do Genoese doctor, had studied to be a doctor also, but had then dropped out of the university program to join the Carbonari. When he came to find this group outmoded, he founded Young Italy. Mazzini, who exiled himself to first Marseille and then London, began to foment a plan in his mind. He was already aware of what he wanted: A united Italy brought about by revolution.[2]

Garibaldi and Mazzini came to disagree about certain points of their politics. Both liberals in the beginning, Garibaldi has been accused by contemporaries and historians of being too dictatorial. The two Italians had very different opinions concerning religion, as Garibaldi came to be an atheist while Mazzini still believed in God and the church. In his introduction to the third volume of Garibaldi's autobiography, A. William Salomone claims that:

"Without belief in God….no political enthusiasm could be created or sustained. Needless to say, such niceties had no appeal for Garibaldi, who was to remark that Mazzini was a man of theory, not of practice, who always spoke of the people, though he did not know who the people were."

Mazzini believed in subversion, that the revolutionaries could bring the Church down from within. Garibaldi was less restrained and more the warrior type who preferred direct conflict. In time, this would influence many to make the claim that Garibaldi's politics would change from being liberal, to outright tyrannical.[3]

In February 1834, Garibaldi participated in a failed republican uprising in Piedmont, which economically was the strongest of the Italian provinces, and was located north of Rome and surrounded by France and Austria. The middle class of Italy had wanted national unification, which was prevented from the ever-present Austrian army. Neither the elites nor the Catholic Church wished to see Italy unified, but because of the bourgeoisie, the Piedmont became an area with an intense desire for a liberal style government. This government, it was hoped, would unite the provinces into one country, but first had to confront their inability to beat the power of the Austrians or the Church.[4]

After a failed uprising in Piedmont, Garibaldi was sentenced to death in Genoa. He escaped to France later in the year and then traveled to Tunisia. A son from a family involved in the coastal trade, Garibaldi had grown up in Nice, which was in the kingdom of Piedmont Sardinia. Always comfortable with the sea, he had been made a merchant marine captain in 1832, two years before meeting Mazzini. In 1836, Garibaldi traveled across the sea to Brazil. He met a woman named Anna Maria Ribeiro da Silva, nicknamed "Anita," a herdsman's daughter, and they married in 1842. Garibaldi had many adventures in South America, even gaining the nickname, "Hero of the Two Worlds" for his many military adventures both in Europe and South America. In 1839, one of these adventures was joining the rebel cause in the War of Tatters, a revolt in southern Brazil that had broken out a few years before. The rebels were forced to surrender after six years of getting nowhere, but Garibaldi went on to command the Uruguayan navy against Juan Manuel de Rosas of Argentina who was attempting to reannex the country.[5]

One of the stories from this time shows Garibaldi's charisma and leadership abilities. In Peter de Polnay's Garibaldi: The Man and the Legend , de Polnay says that:

"When in 1845 an enemy squadron blocked Montevideo, in whose service Garibaldi then was, he became impatient with the Uruguayan Navy, which consisted of three cutters, lying idle and doing nothing to lift the blockade. So he went one evening to the tavern called San Jose where sailors and suchlike folk gathered, and asked for volunteers. "I need," he said, "twenty men, and if I find them tomorrow the blockade will be lifted and we'll give chase to the enemy." The whole tavern rose; all he had to do was select his volunteers."

It seems that in South America, Garibaldi came away with "the conviction that he was a better soldier than anybody else." Perhaps with some good reason however, as many came to regard him as a natural-born leader. An English observer of the Risorgimento noted that Garibaldi was "a man of courage and great physical energy, with the wonderful art of winning over….all whom he came into contact."[6]

The year 1848 saw great changes in European politics. The nationalistic ideals of the French Revolution were again sweeping various countries including Germany, France, Austria, Romania, and Hungary, as well as in Italy. Liberalism was the political catchword of the day, and the Romantic hero Garibaldi decided to return to his homeland to be a part of that movement. He offered his services to King Charles Albert of Sardinia, who had shown some liberal inclinations, but was distrustful and aloof towards the gritty sea captain. At this time, a Roman Republic had been proclaimed in the Papal States, but a French force sent by Napoleon III threatened to destroy it. Egged on by Mazzini, Garibaldi took to the defense of Rome, but the city fell despite their best efforts on June 30, 1849. Garibaldi was forced to flee north, hunted by Austrian troops while his beloved wife Anita died during the retreat.[7]

From his command of the Uruguayan navy to his later leadership in the smaller wars in the Italian provinces, Garibaldi proved time and again his ability to be a leader. But Garibaldi was not much interested in being a political leader. He was accustomed to the leadership of men and the romantic notions of leading those men into battle. Even with an army tracking him, he continued to organize men along the way and continue the fight. In April 1860, Garibaldi gathered about a thousand volunteers, known as i Mille , or the "Red Shirts." Uprisings in Messina and Palermo in the absolutist Kingdom of the Two Sicilies provided the natural-born leader to land with this force at Marsala in May. With local rebels swelling his ranks, Garibaldi defeated an opposing army at Calatafimi on May 13. The next day, he declared himself dictator in the name of the Italian king, Victor Emmanuel II. This act, along with the siege of Palermo later in the month, gained Garibaldi worldwide renown and the adulation of many Italians.[8]

Giuseppe Cesare Abba was one of Garibaldi's volunteers in 1860. A romantic, Abba had two ambitions: "To strike a blow for the new Italy and to write the epic poem of the Sicilian expedition." From his journal entries it can be ascertained that Abba and the other volunteers clearly saw Garibaldi as their leader, and shared his ideals of a liberal and united Italy. During a short lull in the fighting, Abba noted that there were, "Thirty thousand insurgents surrounding Palermo, only waiting for a leader! Garibaldi! But wherever is he?" A bit later, after contemplating what will become of Sicily, Abba wrote that, "Garibaldi is going and I am to be one of the fortunate few who will go with him."[9]

That Garibaldi was a reluctant political leader is shown by his turning over his dictatorial powers to the king, Victor Emmanuel II. Abba was a witness to this exchange of power between the victorious military leader and the king:

"Everything went black for an instant and I could hardly see Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel clasp hands or hear the immortal greeting: 'Hail, to the King of Italy!' Perhaps Garibaldi felt sad, for he looked sad as Victor Emmanuel spurred his horse and rode away with himself on the King's left."

Garibaldi was more efficient in his role as military commander than leader of a nation. He knew his limitations, and was eager to let the king or men like Mazzini rule once their dream of a unified Italy came to fruition.[10]

It was the men he led who felt differently. Because the man who had led them to victory, who was achieving the dream they all shared, was the one they wanted to follow forever. Abba quite intuitively states that "the romanticism that Garibaldi has introduced into the art of war has not caused me to forget the classical charm of Virgil…." Garibaldi was probably one of the last of the Romantic-era leaders, and Abba shows great insight by recognizing this. These notions of romanticism were some of the seeds that sprouted across all of Europe, growing into the roots of revolution that Garibaldi and others like him cultivated. Romanticism, quickly becoming a passé ideal, was bound up in nature, and rejected the Enlightenment thoughts that had been twisted by the revolutionaries and reactionaries in France. Garibaldi had the soul of a passionate Romantic warrior who was willing to fight for his beliefs to the very end. Romanticism touched every aspect of his life, from the way he led to the way he fought. Abba was just one of the thousands of ordinary men who fell under Garibaldi's spell. His "Red Shirts" undoubtedly followed him because he personified what a leader should be. And, like all good leaders, he was usually successful at his undertakings.[11]

After Garibaldi's many successes in his campaigns, thousands more volunteered, joining his steadily growing army. He then crossed the mainland to march on Naples, where crowds of excited Italians greeted him by singing the national anthem, now known as "Garibaldi's Hymn." It was here that he turned the city over to Victor Emmanuel II and retired to the island of Caprera, satisfied all had gone well. In a speech to his soldiers in 1860, Garibaldi rallies his men to complete the task they had fought so hard for:

"Providence has presented Italy with Victory Emmanuel. Every Italian should rally round him….If March 1861 does not find one million of Italians in arms, then alas for liberty, alas for the life of Italy….We shall meet again before long to march together to the redemption of our brothers who are still slaves of the stranger. We shall meet again before long to march to new triumphs."

Garibaldi was the leader the Italians needed to win the battles needed to bring the states and people together. Mazzini and Cavour were the politicians, the thinkers, the men who would help the king keep control once the provinces were united. Garibaldi could organize, equip, strategize, and suffer all the hardships alongside the men he led. All of these qualities make for a first class leader, and the revolutionaries counting on Garibaldi's military victories knew it.[12]

Italians were not the only ones who supported or wished Garibaldi good fortune in his quest for unification. An American woman named Margaret Fuller Ossoli, who was living in Europe at the time of the many revolutions there, had a chance to see Garibaldi in person:

"He himself was distinguished by the white tunic; his look was entirely that of a hero of the Middle Ages….Fall or stand, one sees in him a man engaged in the career for which he is adapted by nature….he turned his face for a moment back upon Rome, then led the way through the gate."[13]

Even after all the fighting, and Garibaldi's resignation, telegraphing the single word Obbedisco ("I obey") his fellow revolutionaries were not satisfied. The motto, "Free from the Alps to the Adriatic" had been taken up by the unification movement, and now these brave and weary soldiers found themselves without a strong leader. While Mazzini continued to want a republic, Garibaldi quickly became frustrated with what he saw as inaction on the king's part. He decided to come out of "retirement" to take on the Papal States. This however, was not a good idea at the time, for not only were French troops under Napoleon III stationed there, but Victor Emmanuel himself was against attacking the Papal States, weary of the international repercussions.[14]

Camillo di Cavour, the Piedmontese Prime Minister, had told the Italian parliament on March 25, 1861 that Rome would one day "become the capital of Italy," but this would require cooperation with both the Papacy and France. Cavour however died in June 1861, which brought any negotiations to a stalemate, as Napoleon III refused to withdraw French soldiers. This did not stop Garibaldi however, who with his Sicilian volunteers and a cry of "Roma o morte!" tried desperately to take the city by force. He was stopped by Italian forces at Aspromonte, and a convention signed with France saw the Italians move their capital from Turin to Florence. This was in exchange for the Italians promising not to invade the Papal States.[15]

Robert Gildea, in his book Barricades and Borders: Europe 1800-1914 , claims that:

"The unification of Italy or so far as it had got, was in many ways unsatisfactory. It had been made possible by a foreign power, but that foreign power was now defining its limits. The revolutionary movement of Garibaldi had exploited the masses rather than benefited them…."

Gildea goes on to say that, "Whether Italy could be controlled was in fact an open question." What was happening in the United States, with the secession of the southern states, was also being watched closely, while the differences between the industrialized sections of northern Italy, and the poor peasant south were seen as too extreme to govern over successfully. It seemed that Italy, like the United States, would also have civil war.[16]

Garibaldi, who had been wounded and captured in his ventures to take Rome, had been allowed to heal, was released, and later returned to fight yet again. Garibaldi's dream of unification finally came true in 1861 when Sicily and Naples voted to become a part of the Kingdom of Italy. His persistence had finally paid off, but consternation over not fulfilling his goals of including Rome is clearly seen in a letter he had sent to President Abraham Lincoln during the middle of the Civil War. Dated August 9, 1863, Garibaldi wrote:

"You [Pres. Lincoln] are a true heir of the teaching given us by Christ and John Brown…. It is America, the same country which taught liberty to our forefathers, which now opens another solemn epoch of human progress. And while your tremendous courage astonishes the world, we are sadly reminded, how this old Europe, which also can boast a great cause of liberty to fight for, has not found the mind or heart to equal you."[17]

In Benedetto Croce's A History of Italy: 1871-1915 , the author says that "Napoleon III, in 1860, consented to the occupation of the Marches….through fear that Garibaldi's expedition would develop into a republican movement." Most of Europe lauded Garibaldi's efforts in unifying Italy, which surely must also have motivated and spurred Garibaldi on, with Palmerston in Great Britain publicly expressing his "satisfaction and hope that the people of Italy would enjoy the benefits which the people of England had derived from constitutional monarchy." Russian chancellor Gortchakoff "pronounced the new Kingdom to be an element tending to the conservation of monarchies in the face of revolutions in 1862." Croce adds that "there was no one with both power to destroy Italian unity and interest in its destruction." Austria had acknowledged her losses of her former Italian provinces after 1866, and sought to come to peaceful terms with the new nation.[18]

It wasn't until 1870 that French troops finally left Rome, allowing Italy to truly be united completely. Garibaldi went on to help France's Third Republic in her war against Prussia. Already a popular hero he "served as a global exemplar of mid-19th century revolutionary nationalism and liberalism." His anti-clericalism was common among Latin liberals and did much in circumscribing the temporal power of the Papacy. Garibaldi also became an active Freemason in order to better unite progressive men as brothers who could then become members of a liberal global community. Garibaldi used his liberal beliefs, his powers and skills as an organizer and leader of men, and also his dream of a unified Italy to fight for and make that dream possible. Garibaldi died on June 2, 1882, on the island of Caprera, many years after unification of the Italian kingdom he helped to establish was made a reality. He was interred on Caprera, reportedly requesting that his bed be moved to a spot where he could gaze out at the sea he had so loved before he passed on. Often called "Italy's Star" at a time when Fate was a very real Romantic ideal, Garibaldi was the right leader at the right time to help secure the unification of the country he deeply loved. Because unification was his utmost motivation, Garibaldi, from a very early age, set out to use his liberal politics and leadership abilities to further his nationalistic, republican ideals. That he did it amongst the spirit of liberalism that swept Europe in the mid-nineteenth century isn't the surprising element to his successful story. His critics accused him of being dictatorial in style, but when it came to relinquishing power, Garibaldi did so without hesitation. He was a tenacious person, but knew his limitations. Never comfortable being in a position of absolute power, Garibaldi felt more at home being the power behind the people, and it was with this sense of destiny and determination that he struggled most of his life for the unification of Italy into one people and one nation.[19]

* * *

Show Footnotes and Bibliography

* * *

Copyright © 2006 Guy Nasuti.

Written by Guy Nasuti. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Guy Nasuti at:
jgnasuti123@cs.com.

About the author:
Guy Nasuti was raised outside of Detroit, Michigan, and is a veteran of the US Navy, having served in the Iraq War.  A gradute student seeking his Masters in Military History with a concentration in World War II, Guy currently attends American Military University and is also attempting to write his first book about his grandfather, Guy I. Wetherell, a veteran of the Second World War.  He currently resides in historic Martinsburg, West Virginia. 

Published online: 07/29/2006.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MHO.
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