First Works

First Works – 1996 and 1997

It was in England that I first spoke publicly about Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

In 1991, I was invited to present a paper on “The American Experience with Federalism” to a conference exploring the emerging formal discussions in Europe about the formation of the European Union. The conference was held at Wilton Park in West Sussex, England. The paper focused on two distinctive American values that tempered federalism: the idea of individual rights and the importance of judicial review to preserve them, especially against the encroachment of state government.


Justice Oliver
Wendell Holmes

After establishing those values, the paper described the moments in our history-often with serious consequences to federalism-when, confronted by the exercise of state or federal power, judicial review failed to fulfill its duty to protect individual rights. One such example was the five times that Supreme Court Justices (most notably, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes) denied requests for a stay of the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti.


Dr. Philip Piccigallo

In the early spring of 1996, I expressed an interest in writing about Sacco and Vanzetti for the Sons of Italy’s fledging magazine, Italian America. Dr. Philip Piccigallo, who is a thoughtful scholar, especially of the American experience, and who was the national executive director of the Sons of Italy in America, understood and embraced the effort fully. So, too, did the chair of the Sons of Italy Foundation, Paul Polo.

Within a few days after I began my research, Joe Paterno-the legendary Penn State coach-accepted an award from the Sons of Italy at its annual national education scholarship dinner in Washington, D.C. I listened with care when, to the surprise of many, Paterno seemed to divert from his written speech. His voice became softer, more reflective. He recalled when, as a child, he heard the disappointment and anger expressed by his parents at the kitchen table about the discrimination against Sacco and Vanzetti because they were Italians. The recollection had lingered with him for years. It found expression that night.