The Tunisian Ambassador’s Visit

The Barbary conflicts did not just take place in North Africa—a Tunisian diplomat traveled around the United States for ten months!

Sidi Soliman Mellimelli and his servants arrived in November 1805 and stayed until September 1806.  They primarily resided in Washington D.C., but also visited prominent American cities such as Baltimore, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.  Mellimelli’s trip generated a political firestorm, with politicians of both parties (Democratic-Republicans and Federalists) claiming that President Thomas Jefferson’s decision to use federal funds to pay for the mission would cause Europeans to not take the United States seriously as an emerging world power.  Why did the Tunisian Ambassador come to America?

During the Tripolitan War, the U.S. Navy captured a Tunisian ship (and its two prizes) when it tried to sneak through the U.S. blockade of Tripoli.  The Bey of Tunis demanded the ships back, but Commodore John Rodgers refused.  The Bey then sent Mellimelli to the United States to resolve this issue and to make a new treaty with America.

A Portrait of a North African Man, circa 1797; by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur

A Portrait of a North African Man, circa 1797; by Jacques Grasset de Saint-Sauveur

The trip lasted much longer than anyone anticipated.   Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison refused to agree to a treaty that would require the United States to pay tribute.  Although negotiations became heated, Mellimelli enjoyed a vibrant social life.  Margaret Bayard Smith (a Washington D.C. socialite) recorded in her memoirs that “the Tunisian minister was the lion of the season and during the winter, he and his splendid suite were invited to all the fashionable parties.”  She also portrayed the diplomat as a generous guest who gave the “most sumptuous presents for the officers of government and likewise their wives.”[1]  Smith and various other elites felt a class-based kinship with Mellimelli and genuinely enjoyed his company.

However, other people reacted more negatively to Mellimelli.  For instance, fifteen senators walked out of Congress rather than stay for Mellimelli’s January 1806 visit.  Samuel Mitchell (a Democratic-Republican Senator from New York) expressed incredulity that Jefferson had “given this half-savage the dignified title of Ambassador in common with the Ministers from nations of the first rank—That we have thus established a new precedent in diplomacy” since European countries “never recognize them as Ministers or Ambassadors.”[2]  Mitchell and others saw Mellimelli as a racially inferior barbarian unworthy of first-class treatment.

Mellimelli left the United States in late September with no new treaty and no resolution about the captured ships.  Peace with Tunis only occurred when Jefferson and Madison instructed diplomat Tobias Lear to pay the Bey of Tunis $10,000.  Further, Jefferson and Madison kept the payment a secret—they never informed the public and no one found out!

If you’d like to learn more about Mellimelli’s visit to the United States, read my 2015 article published in Diplomatic History (the flagship academic journal of American foreign relations).  Prior to its publication in print, the article is temporarily available at http://dh.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/recent

 

[1] Gaillard Hunt, ed., The First Forty Years of Washington Society:  Portrayed by the Family Letters of Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard) from the Collection of Her Grandson J. Henley Smith (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 403-404.

[2] Everett Brown, ed., William Plumer’s Memorandum of Proceedings in the United States Senate, 1803-1807 (New York:  Macmillan Co., 1923), 2 January 1806, 364-365.

 

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