a gift for thomas jefferson -- 2/05/16

In today's excerpt -- from Corruption in America by Zephyr Teachout. In the era of the American Revolution, it was customary for countries to give lavish gifts to foreign ambassadors. It served the purpose of influencing treaties and negotiations, and the gifts were so prevalent and large that they were considered part of an ambassador's income. Americans were so horrified by the practice and its potential for corrupting influence that these gifts were specifically restricted in both the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution. Dignitaries such as Benjamin Franklin received extravagant gifts, but presented them to Congress and petitioned for permission to keep them which was often granted. Thomas Jefferson took a different approach:

"When Thomas Jefferson, after the Constitution was ratified, took his own turn as a diplomat to France, he thought at first that he could be free from the custom of receiving gifts, which he found distasteful. As one of his biographers put it, 'Jefferson thought it mercifully prohibited by the Constitution.' Nonetheless, the French court gave him a snuff box at the end of his tour, embedded with 'brilliants' surrounding a portrait of the king. It was valued slightly less -- but only slightly -- than the one given to Franklin. He wrote to his assistant William Short, asking him to let the appropriate parties know that the gifts clause meant that he could not accept the customary present from the king. 'Explain to them that clause in our new constitu­tion which [says] "no person holding any office of profit or trust under the U.S. shall accept any present, emolument, office, or title of any kind whatever from any king, prince or foreign state." ' Jefferson recognized that he could go through Congress for ap­proval but told Short he did not choose 'to be laid on the grid­iron of debate in Congress for any such paltry purpose,' so he should not even let the relevant parties know about it. 'Be so good as to explain it in such a manner as to avoid offence.' The difficul­ties attending the gift caused Jefferson 'considerable anguish,' but he eventually accepted it.

"Instead of going through Congress, he asked his secretary to take the gilded frame, remove the diamonds, catalogue and value them, sell the most valuable, put the money toward Jefferson's own private account, and not report it. Literary historian Mar­tha Rojas describes his response as 'both calculated and tor­tured,' and argues that it may have been driven by concerns about money. His letters to Short on the matter were written in cipher. He asked him to take out the diamonds and sell them, and then safely return the portrait, doing whatever was neces­sary to keep attention away. Upon Short's instructions, the banker extracted the diamonds. The money raised from the sale of the diamonds was put into his own account and used to pay for the diplomatic presents and embassy debts. When it was done, Short wrote: 'I send you ... the remains of what I received for you, agreeably to your desire. The secrecy you requested is fully observed.'

"Whether Jefferson did not want to offend the French or could not resist the temptation of a chance to pay off debts, we cannot know. But his simultaneous disdain for European gifts and his inability to resist them foreshadow a long American practice: our desire to reject and accept the old practices simultaneously; our inability, at a deep level, to wrestle with how to allow wealthy presents and politics to coexist. The fate of the 'dismembered' portrait of France is unknown."


Zephyr Teachout


Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United


Harvard University Press


Copyright 2014 by the President of Harvard College


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