Daniel L. Breen: Revisiting a Political Firestorm

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Daniel L. Breen, an assistant professor of history at Newbury College, is writing a book about the Selfridge case.]

WHEN PRESIDENT Obama defended the right of Muslim-Americans to build a mosque near Ground Zero “in accordance with local laws,” he noted that in 1806, Thomas Jefferson had entertained the Tunisian ambassador at the White House. In fact, the Tunisian’s visit was rather more eventful than Obama let on. In the summer of that year, that same ambassador would, quite unintentionally, throw the town of Boston into turmoil. Then, as now, well-established local laws proved insufficient to quell what turned into a wider political furor.

The ambassador’s name was Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, and according to one part of his official instructions, he was coming to these shores to “ascertain what sort of country America was.” When he and his retinue arrived in Boston, the local Republican committee invited the garishly-attired Tunisians to attend its Fourth of July celebration on Copp’s Hill. Mellimelli was quite a draw, and gawkers at the feast were so numerous that Eben Eager, the beleaguered tavern-keeper who was supposed to feed everyone, had to come up with twice the amount of plum puddings and meat pies as originally planned. But the Republican committee would not pay him the cost of the extra provisions....

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