″This is the result of the devoted enthusiasm, the intelligence and the noblest sentiments which can inspire man. It is great in its conception, great in its execution, great in its proportions; let us hope that it will add, by its moral value, to the memories and sympathies that it is intended to perpetuate. We now transfer to you, Mr. Minister, this great statue and trust that it may forever stand the pledge of friendship between France and the Great Republic of the United States.″
The origins of de Lesseps' family are traceable back as far as the end of the 14th century. His ancestors, it is believed, came from Spain, and settled at Bayonne during the region's occupation by the English. One of his great-grandfathers, Pierre de Lesseps (Bayonne, 2 January 1690 – Bayonne, 20 August 1759), son of Bertrand Lesseps (1649–1708) and wife (m. 18 April 1675) Louise Fisson (1654–1690), was town clerk and at the same time secretary to Queen Anne of Neuberg, widow of Charles II of Spain, exiled to Bayonne after the accession of Philip V, and married on 7 January 1715 his great-grandmother Catherine Fourcade (2 June 1690 – 22 August 1760), by whom he had fourteen children, six of whom died in childhood: Dominique de Lesseps (1715–1794), Pierre de Lesseps (1716 – ?), Marie de Lesseps (1717–1722), Arnaud de Lesseps (1719–1726), Jean-Barthélémy de Lesseps (1720–1795), Marcel de Lesseps (1720–1730), Jean-Pierre de Lesseps (1721–1721), Catherine de Lesseps, Gracy de Lesseps (1725–1791), Plaisance de Lesseps (1727–1735), Michel de Lesseps (1729–1801), married in 1769 to Florence Verdier (1739–1822) (parents of Louise Thérèse de Lesseps (1770–1866), married in 1788 to Mathieu Belland (1764–1817), Martin de Lesseps (1730–1807), married to Anna Caysergues (1730–1823) and had issue, Jeanne de Lesseps (1733 – ?), married in 1759 to Alex Andre Dubrocq, and Etiennette de Lesseps (1735 – ?), married in 1761 to Pierre Simonin.
From the middle of the 18th century the ancestors of de Lesseps followed diplomatic careers, and he himself occupied several diplomatic posts from 1825 to 1849. His uncle was ennobled by King Louis XVI, and his father was made a count by Emperor Napoleon I. His father, Mathieu de Lesseps (Hamburg, 4 May 1774 – Tunis, 28 December 1832), was in the consular service; his mother, Catherine de Grévigné (Málaga, 11 June 1774 – Paris, 27 January 1853), was Spanish on her mother's side, and aunt of the Countess of Montijo, mother of the Empress Eugénie. She was a daughter of Henri de Grevigné (baptised Notre-Dame-aux-Fonts, Liège, 2 June 1744) and wife (m. Málaga, 1766) Francisca Antonia Gallegos (1751–1853).
Ferdinand de Lesseps was born November 19, 1805 in Versailles, Yvelines. He had a sister, Adélaïde de Lesseps (1803–1879), married to Jules Tallien de Cabarrus (19 April 1801 – 1870), and two brothers, Théodore de Lesseps (Cádiz, 25 September 1802 – Saint-Germain-en-Laye, 20 May 1874), married in 1828 to Antonia Denois (Paris, 27 September 1802 – Paris, 29 December 1878), and Jules de Lesseps (Pisa, 16 February 1809 – Paris, 10 October 1887), married on 11 March 1874 to Hyacinthe Delarue.
In 1833 de Lesseps was sent as consul to Cairo, and soon afterwards given the management of the consulate general at Alexandria, a post that he held until 1837. While he was there an epidemic of plague broke out and lasted for two years, resulting in the deaths of more than a third of the inhabitants of Cairo and Alexandria. During this time de Lesseps went from one city to the other and constantly displayed an admirable zeal and an imperturbable Energy. Towards the close of the year 1837 he returned to France, and on 21 December married Mlle Agathe Delamalle (Garches, Hauts-de-Seine, 15 October 1819 – Paris, 13 July 1853), daughter of the government prosecuting attorney at the court of Angers. By this mariage de Lesseps became the father of five sons: Charles Théodore de Lesseps (1838–1838), Charles Aimé de Lesseps (1840–1923), Ferdinand Marie de Lesseps (1842–1846), Ferdinand Victor de Lesseps (1847–1853) and Aimé Victor de Lesseps (1848–1896).
His first years were spent in Italy, where his father was occupied with his consular duties. He was educated at the College of Henry IV in Paris. From the age of 18 years to 20 he was employed in the commissary department of the army. From 1825 to 1827 he acted as assistant vice-consul at Lisbon, where his uncle, Barthélemy de Lesseps, was the French chargé d'affaires. This uncle was an old companion of Jean-François de La Pérouse and the only survivor of the expedition in which La Pérouse perished. Barthélemy de Lesseps had left the expedition in Kamchatka to travel to St Petersburg overland.
In 1828 de Lesseps was sent as an assistant vice-consul to Tunis, where his father was consul-general. He aided the escape of Youssouff, pursued by the Soldiers of the Bey, of whom he was one of the officers, for violation of the seraglio law. Youssouff acknowledged this protection given by a Frenchman by distinguishing himself in the ranks of the French army at the time of the French conquest of Algeria. De Lesseps was also entrusted by his father with missions to Marshal Count Bertrand Clausel, general-in-chief of the army of occupation in Algeria. The marshal wrote to Mathieu de Lesseps on 18 December 1830: "I have had the pleasure of meeting your son, who gives promise of sustaining with great credit the name he bears".
In 1832 de Lesseps was appointed vice-consul at Alexandria. While the vessel, in which de Lesseps sailed to Egypt, was in quarantine at the Alexandrian lazaretto, M. Mimaut, consul-general of France at Alexandria, sent him several books, among which was the memoir written upon the previously filled and abandoned Ancient Suez Canal, according to Napoleon Bonaparte's instructions, by the civil Engineer Jacques-Marie Le Père, one of the scientific members of the French expedition.
In 1839 he was appointed consul at Rotterdam, and in the following year transferred to Málaga, the ancestral home of his mother's family. In 1842 he was sent to Barcelona, and soon afterwards promoted to the grade of consul general. In the course of a bloody insurrection in Catalonia, which ended in the bombardment of Barcelona, de Lesseps offered protection to a number of men threatened by the fighting regardless of their factional sympathies or nationalities. From 1848 to 1849 he was minister of France at Madrid.
In 1849 the government of the French Republic sent him to Rome to negotiate the return of Pope Pius IX to the Vatican. He tried to negotiate an agreement whereby Pope Pius could return peacefully to the Vatican but also ensuring the continued independence of Rome. But, during negotiations, the elections in France caused a change in the foreign policy of the government. His course was disapproved; he was recalled and brought before the council of state. He was the President at that time.
He was created on 30 August 1851 the 334th Commander and then the 200th Grand Cross of the Order of the Tower and Sword.
De Lesseps then retired from the diplomatic Service, and never again occupied any public office. In 1853 he lost his wife and his son Ferdinand Victor at a few days' interval. In 1854, the accession to the viceroyalty of Egypt of Said Pasha gave de Lesseps a new impulse to act upon the creation of a Suez Canal.
Said Pasha invited de Lesseps to pay him a visit, and on 7 November 1854 he landed at Alexandria; on the 30th of the same month Said Pasha signed the concession authorizing him to build the Suez Canal.
A first scheme, initiated by de Lesseps, was immediately drawn out by two French Engineers who were in the Egyptian Service, Louis Maurice Adolphe Linant de Bellefonds called "Linant Bey" and Mougel Bey. This project, differing from others that were previously presented or that were in opposition to it, provided for a direct link between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. After being slightly modified, the plan was adopted in 1856 by the civil Engineers constituting the International Commission for the piercing of the isthmus of Suez. Encouraged by the engineers' approval, de Lesseps no longer allowed anything to stop him. He listened to no adverse criticism and receded before no obstacle. Neither the opposition of Lord Palmerston, who considered the projected disturbance as too radical and a danger to the commercial position of Great Britain. De Lesseps was similarly not deterred by the opinions entertained, in France as well as in England, that the sea in front of Port Said was full of mud which would obstruct the entrance to the canal, and that the sands from the desert would fill the trenches — no adverse argument could dishearten Lesseps.
The Compagnie universelle du canal maritime de Suez was organized at the end of 1858. On 25 April 1859 the first blow of the pickaxe was given by de Lesseps at Port Said. During the following ten years, de Lesseps had to overcome the continuing opposition of the British government preventing the Sultan from approving the construction of the canal, and at one stage he even had to seek the support of his cousin, Empress Eugenie, to persuade the Emperor Napoleon III to act as arbitrator in the disputes. Finally, on 17 November 1869, the canal was officially opened by the Khedive, Ismail Pasha.
De Lesseps steadily endeavored to keep out of politics. If in 1869 he appeared to deviate from this principle by being a candidate at Marseille for the Corps Législatif, it was because he yielded to the entreaties of the Imperial government in order to strengthen its goodwill for the Suez Canal. Once this goodwill had been shown, he bore no malice towards those who rendered him his liberty by preferring Léon Gambetta. Afterward, de Lesseps declined the other candidatures that were offered to him: for the Senate in 1876, and for the Chamber in 1877. In 1873 he became interested in a project for uniting Europe and Asia by a railway to Bombay, with a branch to Peking. The same year, he became a member of the French Academy of Sciences. He subsequently encouraged Major Roudaire, who wished to transform a stretch of the Sahara into an inland sea to increase rainfall in Algeria.
In May 1879 a congress of 136 delegates (including de Lesseps) assembled in the rooms of the Société de géographie in Paris, under the presidency of Admiral de la Roncire le Noury, and voted in favor of the creation of a Panama Canal, which was to be without locks, like the Suez Canal. De Lesseps was appointed President of the Panama Canal Company, despite the fact that he had reached the age of 74. It was on this occasion that Gambetta bestowed upon him the title of "Le Grand Français". However, the decision to dig a Panama Canal at sea level to avoid the use of locks, and the inability of contemporary medical science to deal with epidemics of malaria and yellow fever, doomed the project.
De Lesseps went with his youngest child to Panama to see the planned pathway. He estimated in 1880 that the project would take 658 million francs and eight years to complete. After two years of surveys, work on the canal began in 1882. However, the technical difficulties of operating in the wet tropics dogged the project. Particularly disastrous were recurrent landslides into the excavations from the bordering water-saturated hills, and the death toll from malaria and yellow fever. In the end, insufficient financial capital and financial corruption ended the project. The Panama Canal Company declared itself bankrupt in December 1888 and entered liquidation in February 1889.
On 11 June 1884, Levi P. Morton, the Minister of the United States to France, gave a banquet in honor of the Franco-American Union and in celebration of the completion of the Statue of Liberty. Ferdinand de Lesseps, as head of the Franco-American Union, formally presented the statue to the United States, saying:
In October 1886, de Lesseps traveled to the United States to speak at the dedication ceremony of the Statue of Liberty, attended by President Grover Cleveland.
The failure of the project is sometimes referred to as the Panama Canal Scandal, after rumors circulated that French politicians and journalists had received bribes. By 1892 it emerged that 150 French deputies had been bribed into voting for the allocation of financial aid to the Panama Canal Company, and in February 1893 de Lesseps, his son Charles (born 1849), and a number of others faced trial and were found guilty. De Lesseps was ordered to pay a fine and serve a prison sentence, but the latter was overturned by the Court of Cassation on the grounds that it had been more than three years since the crime was committed. Ultimately, in 1904 the United States bought out the assets of the Company and resumed work under a revised plan.
De Lesseps died at Château de La Chesnaye in Guilly, Vatan, Indre, on 7 December 1894. He was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
From 17 November 1899 to 23 December 1956, a monumental statue of Ferdinand de Lesseps by Emmanuel Frémiet stood at the entrance of the Suez Canal.
In Paris on November 25, 1869 he married his second wife, Mlle Louise-Hélène Autard de Bragard. She was born on the island of Mauritius in 1848 at Plaines Wilhems and died on 29 January 1909 at Château de La Chesnay in Guilly, Vatan, Indre. She was the daughter of Gustave Adolphe Autard de Bragard, a former Magistrate of Mauritius, and wife Marie-Louise Carcenac (1817–1857), daughter of Pierre Carcenac (1771–1819) and wife Marie Françoise Dessachis. Eleven of her twelve children with de Lesseps survived their father:
De Lesseps was portrayed by Tyrone Power in the 1938 film Suez, with Loretta Young, a film which provoked complaints and legal action from de Lesseps' family and the Egyptian government.
In addition, Manuel Soto played the part in a 1944 Spanish feature film, Eugenia de Montijo. On television, Guy Marchand played de Lesseps in the 1983 French/German mini-series L'homme de Suez, and John Walters portrayed him in "The Panama Canal", an episode of the 2003 BBC docu-drama series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World.
In 1956 Egyptian President Gamal Nasser used his name in a radio speech, as the codeword to his army to raid the Suez Canal Company's offices on 26 July 1956. This was the first step to the Suez Canal's nationalization. In the course of the raid and seizure of the canal by Egypt, the statue of de Lesseps at the entrance of the Suez Canal was removed from its pedestal, to symbolize the end of European ownership of the waterway. The statue now stands in a small garden of the Port Fuad shipyard.