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“Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead”
John Hay’s ringing phrase helped nominate T. R., but it covered an embarrassing secret that remained concealed for thirty years
August 1959 | Volume 10, Issue 5
What blushes reddened official faces we can only imagine. Hay’s diary for June 1 records that the President sent for him and Secretary of the Navy Moody “for a few words about Perdicaris,” but, maddeningly discreet, Hay wrote no more. A pregnant silence of three days ensues between the Slocumb letter and the next document in the case. On June 4 the State Department queried our minister in Athens, John B. Jackson, asking him to investigate the charge—“important if true,” added the department, facing bravely into the wind. Although Slocumb had mentioned only 1863, the telegram to Jackson asked him to search the records for the two previous years as well; apparently the department had been making frenzied inquiries of its own during the interval. On June 7 Jackson telegraphed in reply that a person named Ion Perdicaris, described as an artist, unmarried, aged 22, had indeed been naturalized as a Greek on March 19, 1862.
Posterity will never know what Roosevelt or Hay thought or said at this moment, because the archives are empty of evidence. But neither the strenuous President nor the suave Secretary of State was a man easily rattled. The game must be played out. Already Admiral Jewell’s squadron of three cruisers had arrived to reinforce Chadwick, making a total of seven American warships at Tangier. America’s fleet, flag, and honor were committed. Wheels had been set turning in foreign capitals. Hay had requested the good offices of France. The French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, was himself bringing pressure. A British warship, the Prince of Wales, had also come to Tangier. Spain wanted to know if the United States was wedging into Morocco.
And just at this juncture the Sultan’s government, succumbing to French pressure, ordered Mohammed Torres to accede to all Raisuli’s demands. Four days later, on June 12, a French loan to the government of Morocco was signed at Fez in the amount of 62.5 million francs, secured by the customs of all Moroccan ports. It seemed hardly a tactful moment to reveal the fraudulent claim of Mr. Perdicaris.
He was not yet out of danger, for Raisuli refused to release him before all the demands were actually met, and the authorities were proving evasive. Washington was trapped. Impossible to reveal Perdicaris’ status now; equally impossible to withdraw the fleet and leave him, whom the world still supposed to be an American, at the brigand’s mercy.
During the next few days suspense was kept taut by a stream of telegrams from Gummere and Chadwick reporting one impasse after another in the negotiations with Raisuli. When the Sultan balked at meeting all the terms in advance of the release, Raisuli merely rasied his ante, demanding that four districts instead of two be ceded to him and returning to the idea of an Anglo-American guarantee. “You see there is no end to the insolence of this blackguard,” wrote Hay in a note to the President on June 15; Roosevelt, replying the same day, agreed that we had gone “as far as we possibly can go for Perdicaris” and could now only “demand the death of those that harm him if he is harmed.” He dashed off an alarming postscript: “I think it would be well to enter into negotiations with England and France looking to the possibility of an expedition to punish the brigands if Gummere’s statement as to the impotence of the Sultan is true.”
No further action was taken in pursuit of this proposal because Gummere’s telegrams now grew cautiously hopeful; on the nineteenth he wired that all arrangements had been settled for the release to take place on the twenty-first. But on the twentieth all was off. Raisuli suspected the good faith of the government, a sentiment which Gummere and Chadwick evidently shared, for they blamed the delay on “intrigue of authorities here.” Finally the exasperated Gummere telegraphed on the twenty-first that the United States position was “becoming humiliating.” He asked to be empowered to deliver an ultimatum to the Moroccan government claiming an indemnity for each day’s further delay, backed by a threat to land marines and seize the customs as security. Admiral Chadwick concurred in a separate telegram.
June 21 was the day the Republican National Convention met in Chicago. “There is a great deal of sullen grumbling,” Roosevelt wrote that day to his son Kermit, “but they don’t dare oppose me for the nomination.… How the election will turn out no one can tell.” If a poll of Republican party leaders had been taken at any time during the past year, one newspaper estimated, it would have shown a majority opposed to Roosevelt’s nomination. But the country agreed with Viscount Bryce, who said Roosevelt was the greatest President since Washington (prompting a Roosevelt friend to recall Whistler’s remark when told he was the greatest painter since Velázquez: “Why drag in Velázquez?”). The country wanted Teddy and, however distasteful that fact was, the politicians saw the handwriting on the bandwagon. On the death of Mark Hanna four months before, active opposition had collapsed, and the disgruntled leaders were now arriving in Chicago prepared to register the inevitable as ungraciously as possible.